“I would be caught between the boys’ and the girls’ worlds, not belonging or wanted in either.”
-Arjie Chelvaratnam (Chapter 1)
Shyam Selvadurai’s remarkable debut novel Funny Boy serves as a bildungsroman (a novel dealing with one person’s psychological and moral growth) about a boy named Arjie (the protagonist), who discovers his sexuality in the midst of the political turmoil in Sri Lanka. It is a bittersweet journey of attaining maturity and of the sexual awakening of a child.
This novel consists of six chapters, each chapter dealing with the commotion in the life of the adults and what impact it leaves on Arjie’s life. It is through his eyes the story unfolds and we meet the delightful yet sometimes whimsical demeanour of the characters. These six chapters reveal aspects of adult life to Arjie and largely contribute to the story of the novel. This ‘coming to age’ novel shows the inner confusion and self-doubt of a child over his identity and the realisation of his true self. The author emphasises on the reaction of people i.e., calling something ‘funny’ that seems unusual to them.
It is a bittersweet journey of attaining maturity and of the sexual awakening of a child.
This novel focuses on a lot more than just sexuality. It takes us on a journey from the luminous simplicity of childhood to the obscure shaded world of adults. It rings in Arjie’s reactions to this enigmatic yet unintelligible world of grown-ups. The forlorn breaking of expectations, 7-year-old Arjie losing his innocence and reality striking his love-comic world – would leave an everlasting impact on him. Selvadurai very subtly puts forth the issues of gender dynamics, marriage, politics and minority communities through a child’s perspective. We get a look into how issues like meeting a person from another community, being and acting ‘like a man’ and not being allowed to play bride-bride start making sense to him.
Selvadurai’s choice of narrating the story through a child’s perspective makes the readers question the ingrained hypocrisy in the very foundation of knowledge and cultural learning. It is through Arjie’s clean-slate mind that the author shows the ridiculousness of these pre-assigned norms. As well as the suffocation he feels when these norms are imposed on him. Every chapter of the novel unfolds a different societal issue, making one realise the triviality of these issues and the importance that one should provide them. It gives the readers a sense of acceptance for one’s own sexual identity and promotes body positivity simultaneously. Arjie’s personal situation and the inner fight for identity shows the depravity of knowledge about such important issues in society.
It takes us on a journey from the luminous simplicity of childhood days to the obscure shaded world of the adults.
The novel also focuses on the conditioning by society during the formation of a person. How falling in love or marrying a person from a different community does not affect someone personally but it is still forbidden because it could tarnish the family’s reputation in society. Selvadurai puts societal norms under the stand of objection, which has, over time, combined with political powers and is used to propagate social divisions. Throughout the novel, he tries to show how every religious and cultural institution is politically driven and is used to create a division of ‘us and them’ in society. The political turmoil and the fight for survival in Sri Lanka between the Sinhalese and the Tamils is a mere example of such division – which affects people individually as well, and in the worst cases leaves them personally, emotionally and economically shattered.
Selvadurai has come up with sensitive topics and woven them in such a way that one tends to outshine the other. He paints a picture with perfect balance and showcases the inter-relatability of the political and personal part of the plot. This novel is one of the best LGBTQ+ literature reads, and given that it’s through a child’s perspective – this makes it even more phenomenal.