The Idea of Exile in Shyam Selvadurai’s Funny Boy
In Funny Boy, we find characters who do not conform, and at the same time have to live their lives with a sense of the impending danger of them transgressing the societal norms. Therefore a brief period of liberation followed by an acute sense of alienation is what brings the individual experiences in the novel under the same umbrella, and it also casts a light on individual characters as fellow sufferers. This leads us to explore the nature of the bond that different characters share with each other and how this solidarity challenges the demarcated lines of differences and the nature of marginalization based on class, race, ethnicity, gender, or sexuality. Furthermore, we notice an overlap of ethnicity, gender, and sexuality in the novel in such a way that leads us to understand how the different experiences of exile in the novel are inter-connected The political exile of Arjie’s family, in the end, is not the only instance of exile in the novel. This essay, therefore, is focused towards discussing how a sense of solidarity that these outcasts forge for each other often blurs the line between one minority group and the other, and how this interconnectedness between the above-mentioned categories illuminates and reinforces the experience of exile for the outcasts in the novel.
In the first section of the novel, Pigs Can’t Fly, Arjie thinks of himself as belonging to the world of the back garden to which he “seemed to have gravitated naturally. (p 3)” It is the girls’ territory and he is the only boy there, but at this stage, he does not feel any shame or guilt in playing with his female cousins and dressing up as the bride in their favourite game, bride-bride. This rather allows him to give a free play to his imagination in a way which he feels he cannot do if he plays the drab game of cricket with his male cousins instead, as the child narrator tells us: “The pleasure the boys had standing for hours on a cricket field…was incomprehensible to me. (p.3)” The process of dressing up is important to him because it is only when he is dressed up in a sari that he is no longer weighed down by any stereotypical gender roles. This is illustrated by the following line in which Arjie is describing the dressing up ritual in bride-bride: “I was able to leave the constraints of myself and ascend into another, more brilliant, more beautiful self, a self to whom this day was dedicated, and around whom the world, represented by my cousins putting flowers in my hair, draping the palm, seemed to revolve. (4-5)” Thus we notice how Arjie traverses the inhibitions of his gendered body by this beautiful transformation, but this freedom is only short lived. After he is forbidden by his mother to play with the girls he often sits alone on the veranda steps of his grandparents’ house. Geographically it is a space which falls neither in the boys’ territory nor in the girls’ which is symbolic of his expulsion from both these worlds. This isolation now leads him to a completely opposite experience of his body. When he is dragged to the drawing room by his aunt the same draping of the sari which was earlier an act of liberation becomes the source of embarrassment for him and his parents. Thus we see that how the same action of draping himself in a sari goes from being liberating to humiliating. He no longer embraces his body like he did earlier. This crisis in is captured through the following line: “The sari suddenly felt suffocating around my body, and the hairpins, which held the veil in place, pricked at my scalp. (13)” This expulsion leads Arjie to experience the familiar ‘boy-girl’ world, neatly divided between the back garden and the front garden, through a completely different lens. This process of estrangement or relocation of his position as a gendered subject haunts him throughout the novel.
To discuss this process of defamiliarization of geographical spaces we can look at different instances in the novel. The first example is the beach near his grandparents’ house. He writes: “Now both the beach and the sea, once so familiar, were like an unknown country into which I had journeyed by chance…I would be caught between the boys’ and the girls’ worlds, not belonging or wanted in either. (39)” Just like the veranda steps, the beach is an appropriate setting here being the meeting point between the land and the sea, another marginal space. Next, we have his school as an example of this defamiliarization. Right before Arjie is about to mix up his poems at the annual function, which is a significant event in this novel as a bildungsroman, he finds himself staring at the school building and wondering how different it looked in the evening: “The light was changing over the Victoria Academy…how peaceful and stately it looked. (273)” This capacity to be able to look at his school, where he is brutally beaten up for the most trivial mistakes, in such a positive way is one of the most powerful instances in the novel. This is the only time when Arjie thinks of his future in a hopeful way as he mentions that this is how he would remember his school. The decision to not identify with the proud schoolboys in the poem ‘The Best School of All’ takes Arjie a step closer to self realization. It is through rejection of such imposed identities that Arjie experiences freedom in the novel. The negation of imposed identities also means that he has to start finding new identities for himself, and hence the effort to look at the familiar geographical spaces in a different light, and to make peace with this new unfamiliarity.
And at last, we have his own house as an example. When Arjie realizes that a difficult road lay ahead for him in Canada he goes back to his house burnt down by the mob and all he experiences is a strangeness at the debris:
As I examined the charred things on the floor, I was suddenly aware that records were not music but plastic, which had now melted into black puddles, that my books were mere paper that had browned and now came apart between my fingers. Legs, posts, and arms of well-known furniture, once polished smooth and rich brown in hue, now that they had cracked open revealed the whiteness of common wood (298).
Thus through these instances we see how when Arjie moves from one phase in his life to another there is this defamiliarization of the familiar, after his expulsion from the world of both boys and girls, before his decision to stick up for Shehan whom he loves, or his anticipation for a new life in a different country. Arjie’s sense of “who am I” is always in a flux, and the defamiliarization of geographical spaces acts as a mirror to a similar process happening psychologically in Arjie’s mind. The idea here is to show how Arjie has to build up his own definitions and see the world afresh after realizing that he is a marginal subject. It captures the nature of exile Arjie experiences on a psychological level. Furthermore, this psychological experience is a result of an intersection between two different kinds of marginalization faced by Arjie as being a part of the Tamil minority and a homosexual boy. This pushes us to explore how different identities in the novel experience subjugation and consequently how individuals with those identities face exiles.
As mentioned in the beginning, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality overlap in the novel in such a way that the experience of marginalization works on multiple levels.Arjie’s understanding of his otherness rests upon both his sexuality and his ethnicity. Having experienced being a part of an ethnic and sexual minority, and hence this dual exile, helps him to connect to the other set of characters in the novel who are discriminated based upon their gender, i.e., the women in the novel. Amma and Radha Aunty both trust Arjie with their secrets because he is also contradicting and challenging social norms being a “girly-boy”, as pointed out by Åsa Svensson. Similarly, Amma is more sensitive to his sexuality than his father. She cannot come up with any convincing argument when Arjie asks her why he isn’t allowed to play with girls anymore. She simply says, “Because the sky is so high and pigs can’t fly(…) Life is full of stupid things and sometimes we just have to do them. (20)”Part of the reason why she at least acknowledges that these notions of boyhood are stupid is that she herself is caught between what she believes in and how she is expected to behave and conduct herself in a conservative postcolonial state struggling to build up a hyper-masculine national identity. She also trusts Arjie with her affair with Daryl which is another instance of her challenging the stereotypical image of a wife, and Arjie becomes her confidante. Radha Aunty too confides in him when she goes out with Anil against the wish of her family. She also let him put on her make-up and jewellery, promises to make him a bridesmaid and indulges in his fantasies of an actual, real wedding in the house, and consequently Arjie understands her better than her own parents because she has given Arjie the free space to be himself and he knows how it feels to be an outcast. Radha is the happiest in the novel during her rendezvouses with Anil when she does not conform to what her family expects of her. Arjie shares this happiness with her by becoming an agent in their love story. This semblance of liberation is the closest that these characters go towards true self-expression, and one non-conformist seems to be uplifting another non-conformist.
Daryl uncle is a good example of this. Daryl as a Burgher is another outsider in the predominantly Tamil/Sinhalese Sri Lankan society and he helps Amma find her identity as a woman, as argued by Jayawickrama that “it is not until we hear Daryl say her name, ‘Nalini’ that we learn her name. Before that she had simply been reduced to the name Amma, mother. Amma, Radha, and Arjie are the characters who do not really exercise much power in the novel, but we see that it not only the powerless but also the powerful who have to suffer the ramifications of this hostile and suffocating environment where people aren’t allowed to choose for themselves. Arjie’s father is an example of that. He is a victim of the mainstream ideas of manhood as is suggested by his relationship with Jegan’s father:
My father held out a yellowing piece of paper to Amma. We crowded around her so that we could read it as well. The paper was torn from an exercise book, and the writing on it was badly formed with spelling errors. “We, Robert Chelvaratnam and Buddy Parameshwaram make the following declarashon: We will always protect each other each others’ familys until death does us part. Signed with our mingled blood…”At the bottom of the page were two rust-coloured thumbprints (155).
There is certainly a suggestion of homoeroticism in this note. The words read like a wedding vow, and the blood gives the image of an intercourse. Åsa Svensson stresses that Arjie is able to find an “alternative masculinity” together with his alliances with Uncle Daryl, Jegan, and Shehan. These male characters in the novel are the countertypes of the typical dominating, powerful male, who become a source of comfort for Arjie. Arjie’s father, unlike Uncle Daryl, thinks that Little Women is a book suitable only for girls, “a book that boys should not be reading” cuts a “poor figure next to him”. (116) Uncle Daryl not only approves of his reading choices but also gifts him the sequels to Little Women. Jegan also defends Arjie by saying to his father that he does not find anything wrong with Arjie.
Arjie’s father was also once in love with a White British girl, but her race and her class prevented their marriage. Minoli Salgado argues that these relationships “cover a wide range of ethnic and cultural pairings (Tamil- Sinhala, Burgher- Tamil, Tamil- English)” which are brought up to show how they have “failed as a result of the collective investment in maintaining ethnic differences.” There is a very strong attempt to maintain ethnical purity, and these men and women in Sri Lanka who cannot love and marry someone just because they are of a different religion, class, ethnicity, same gender, etc, appear to have been forced to live in exiled worlds of their own. There is a very strict policing of desires in the novel which doesn’t let anyone breathe freely. The boys in Victoria academy are another example of that. It is the school he is sent to be toughened up and to suppress his perverted sexuality. The boys in this school are victims of a postcolonial obsession with disciplining the subjects, and a hyper-masculine identity to align with a larger national identity. People are unhappy, frustrated, and resentful of the suffocating social environment, and are constantly struggling for a free zone.
People are not allowed to cross borders, whether it is Arjie wanting to play with girls, or Radha wanting to marry a Sinhalese, Amma loving a Burgher, Arjie’s father’s love for Jegan’s father, Dorris marrying a Tamil, or Shehan having sex with other boys. All the acts of transgression push one into an exile both symbolic and literal. In the beginning, the narrator talks about leaving his home forever and being exiled to another country. But we cannot overlook the fact that the home that they are exiled from is no longer there. It has been burnt down by the Sinhalese mobs, and all that remains is rubble. Thus they are not simply exiled from one place of settlement to another but completely uprooted which makes their condition look less like being exiled, and more like floating in an uncharted land with no place to call ‘home’. Home for them exists only in their imagination now.
Svensson, Åsa. “The Free Play of Fantasy” : The Interrelations between Ethnicity and sexuality in Shyam Selvadurai’s Funny Boy. Växjö University, June 2008
Jayawickrama, Sharanya. ”At Home in the Nation? Negotiating Identity in Shyam Selvadurai’s Funny Boy”. The Journal of Commonwealth Literature 40:2 (2005): 123-139
Salgado, Minoli.“Writing Sri Lanka, Reading Resistance: Shyam Selvadurai’s Funny Boy and A. Sivanandan’s When Memory Dies”.The Journal of Commonwealth Literature 39:1 (2004): 5-18.
Selvadurai, Shyam. Funny Boy. Penguin Books India, 1994.
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