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Arunita Baul
Rajiv Gandhi Junior Research Fellow
M.Phil, 2nd year
School of Womens Studies
Jadavpur University
March 22, 2016.

Topic:

Articulating Post-Colonial Queer experience in Shyam

Selvadurais Funny Boy.


Abstract: Funny Boy is a well acclaimed 1994 novel by a South Asian gay writer,
Shyam Selvadurai that records a seven year old boy, Arjie Chelvaratnams bittersweet
experience of his queer inclination in the backdrop of the political upheaval of Sri
Lanka during the 1983 riots. He was too little to understand the literal meaning of
homosexuality. The novel is the journey through Arjies eyes about how he senses a
difference in his sexual preference and gradually learns through a series of incidents
in his life about his homosexual orientation, which greatly affected his life in the long
run and also made him alienated from his family too. The word funny is actually a
metaphor for the word queer. I will also measure the character of the central
protagonist, Arjie through the lens of Freuds Oedipus Complex and show how
appropriately he fits into this Freudian concept.

Key Words: Post-Colonial, Queer, Funny, Homosexuality.

Articulating

Post-Colonial

Queer

experience

in

Shyam

Selvadurais Funny Boy.

The dividing up of all sexual acts-indeed all persons-under the


opposite categories of homo and hetero is not a natural
given but a historical process, still incomplete today and
ultimately impossible but characterized by potent contradictions
and explosive effects.
Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick

Like feminism, queer approaches are a broad church that comes in two sects with
lesbian or gay studies coming first and queer theory with the 1990s. In relation to the
relative stability of identity politics, queer is a set of practices that can be dipped in or
out. It simply does not bother about ones sexuality. Queer is what one does, rather
than what one is. Therefore, one can be straight in term of sexual identity and be
queer i.e. indulge in gender practices at the very same time. As David Halperin puts
it:
Queer by definition whatever is at odds with the normal,
the legitimate, the dominant. There is nothing in particular
to which it necessarily refers. It is an identity without an
essence.

Heterosexual or Homosexual is itself an umbrella term that was first coined by an


Austro Hungarian author Karl Kartbeny in the year 1848. The long 19 th century period
of high colonialism also saw the emergence of a number of disciplines. Theorists
started categorizing humans as cases and as a result, women were also regarded as a
case. During that era, there were certain principles regarding the terms normal and
abnormal. Certain terms were used to differentiate abnormal from normals. Man,
White skinned people and Christians are randomly termed as normal while Women,
black skinned people and pagans are categorized under abnormal. Unlike women,
homosexuality was also seen as an abnormal binary until the term was officially
coined and the biggest irony of queer branch is, the term homosexuality was given
its proper existence after thirty years of its origin. These categories such as normal
and abnormal were not counted under the political category until 20 th century.
Foucault says in this context: Homosexuals were identified as quasi-sexual
biological categories or species who were diseased after the term homosexuality
came into existence.
According to Foucault, Sexuality: the co-relative of that slowly developed
discursive practice which constitutes the scientia sexualis. The essential features of
this sexuality are not the expression of a representation that is more or less distorted
by ideology, or of a misunderstanding caused by taboos; they correspond to the
functional requirements of a discourse that must produce its truth. Situated at the point
of intersection of a technique of confession and a scientific discursivity, where certain
major mechanisms had to be found for adapting them to one another. The sexuality
was defined as being by nature; a domain susceptible to pathological processes and
hence one calling for therapeutic or normalizing interventions; a field of meanings to
decipher; the site of processes concealed by specific mechanisms.
Queer subculture actually came into existence during the Renaissance period when
the process of rapid urbanization was going on. Western bourgeoisie values started to
be incarnated while the power was gradually transferred to the middle class people
and this power transfer happened largely post 1857 after the Sepoy Mutiny. While the
queer movement started gaining momentum and acquired the political status, family,
marriage, state also started gaining immense importance all around the world. All
these became intertwined and the perpetuation of the idea of hetero-normative family

came into existence. Military barracks became the hot houses of homosexual
engagements. In this context, Barry Goldwater says:
You dont have to be straight to be in the military;
You just have to be able to shoot straight.
The LGBTIQ movement in South Asian countries has gained considerable momentum
in the past one or two decades and the idea of sexuality identity politics was a sudden
awareness twenty years back in Sri Lanka. The political situation in Sri Lanka has
been largely immobile for the past three decades as we can visualize a brutal civil war
between the Tamil and Sinhala rebel forces. The 1983 Colombo Riots is said to be the
most violent war organized by the Sinhala Government of Sri Lanka against the
expelling of the minority group of the Tamils. Among the South Asian countries, Sri
Lanka have a special case regarding this matter of gender politics: the colonial law
(Section 365A of the Penal Code of 1883 No. 2, Cap.19) that criminalizes
homosexuality was amended to include lesbianism under the Penal Code
(Amendment) Act No. 22 of 1995; on the other hand, the hijras or the persons under
the term transgender have no laws that will protect them. Much of the work on LGBT
issues happened in and around Southern Sri Lanka and mostly in Colombo where the
majority i.e. Sinhala people lived. Thus, there were hardly any activists in the
northern and eastern region of Sri Lanka where Tamil minorities lived. And moreover
being a Tamil was more of an offence that led to live a dangerous life. So,queer
people were left alone only. However, the bourgeoisie class of people, which Frantz
Fanon refers to as the neo-classical class came out of their cocoon and stepped into
the shoes of the former colonizer, monogamous and heterosexual marriage came to be
institutioned as the only acceptable form of sexual coupling (Vanita and Kidwai
223). In South Asian Countries the idea of a family has been hereditary since ages. It
is believed to be a social platform that enhances and preserves the bondage between
the mother, father, child and other family members and also family acts as a primary
medium of the legitimate transmission and inheritance of wealth from one generation
to another. Thus, family is an indispensible part even to homosexually inclined people
and it is very difficult to think beyond the family. Though very recently, the
Government of Nepal have legitimized same-sex marriage but it is not at all possible

for a Sri Lankan queer citizen to think about it as they are still non-registered under
the national population register.
Under all such circumstances, Shyam Selvadurai comes up with his novel Funny
Boy where he engages in explaining the discourses of ethnic and sexual identity
politics along with his view on the recent history of this homeland. Though the novel
deals with the vision of identifying homosexual relationships and gender identities he
have never used any direct word that refer to this idea of homosexuality. Thus, it
remains invisible throughout the narrative. Selvadurai have nicely put the gender
crisis of the protagonists in the novels in the forefront, keeping the situation of the
political crisis in the backdrop of the novels. Shyam Selvadurai is a celebrated gay
and expatriate Sri Lankan author who was born to Sinhala-Tamil parents in the year
1965. He secures a prestigious position in the South Asian literary canon. His debut
novel Funny Boy is the first gay novel that brought much fame in the Sri Lankan
main stream English literature and it was first published in 1994. The word funny
actually etymolizes the word queer. Arjie Chelvaratnam, the protagonist, who is a
Tamil boy, of the novel Funny Boy goes through various turmoil and come to
realizes about his queer inclination. As a boy of seven it was not even possible for him
to understand what homosexuality is and what does it make up to. But through
various incidents he comes to realize about his inclination towards homosexuality and
how it forced him in alienating from his family, his own home. Thus, the novel is
about a boys bittersweet passage to maturity and sexual awakening is set against
escalating political tensions in Sri Lanka during the seven years leading up to the
1983 riots. It is through the eyes of Arjie that the story unfolds and we met a
delightful, sometimes eccentric, cast and characters. Arjies journey from the
luminous simplicity of childhood days tnto the more intricately shaded world of
adults-with its secrets, injustices and its capacity for violence is a memorable one.
Renowned author Amitav Ghosh has stated Funny Boy as: An extraordinarily
powerful, deeply moving novel.

In this novel by Selvadurai, the queer protagonists relation to his family is


ridden with anxieties. They fall in a dilemma where they just cant completely

abandon their families and find it difficult to belong. Such as Arjie, the funny boy is
only seven years old when the novel begins and he is too small to understand the
sexual norms. As he belongs to the Tamil minority, his sexuality and ethnicity also
falls under the minor sect. Arjies boy friend, Shehan is a Sinhalese boy who belongs
from the Sinhala majority group of people in Sri Lanka. His relationship with his
family members such as his grandparents, father, mother, cousins, uncle and aunts is
noticeably contested. He finds immense happiness and pleasure while playing BrideBride along with his other female cousins at his grandparents house during the spendthe-days where he is cross-dressed as a bride. Arjie thus states:
The dressing of the bride would now begin, and then, by the transfiguration I
saw taking place in Janakis cracked full-length mirror-by the sari being wrapped
around my body, the veil being pinned to my head, the rouge put on my cheeks,
lipstick on my lips, kohl around my eyes-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 palu, seemed top revolve..(F.B.4-5)
By cross dressing himself as a bride he could compare himself with the actresses of
Sinhalese and Tamil cinema whom he deeply adored. He seemed to have got
transformed to a different individual by applying make ups. Arjies cross dressing
replicates Homi Bhabas notion of mimicry as menace and in Judith Butlers words:
Implicity reveals the imitative structure of gender itself-as well as its contingency.
Arjie being a boy was more interested in the girls territory rather than the boys.
And the game Bride-Bride also happened in the backyard of the house, in the kitchen
porch which is an area that symbolizes powerlessness. And all the other male cousins
of Arjie played cricket in the frontal part of the house. Meena, a cousin of him being
female was included within the boys territory. Both of them complimented each
other in this context. For Arjie, the primary attraction of the girls territory was the
potential for the free play of fantasy. Though one day out of the blue, Arjie got
caught while playing Bride-Bride by one of his aunt who visited his grandparents
house from abroad and led him by hand to the drawing room to make every single
member of the house aware of the abnormal act being performed by the poor little boy
and made him transformed into a laughing stock. His parents were deeply annoyed

and embarrassed by his act and his father announced that he should be strictly
prohibited from the domain of the girls territory and that he will only play along with
his male cousins. It is significant that Arjies physical mobility is linked to his
youthful desire to indulge in these fantasies. I mention in this context that, the
structure of the houses in Sri Lanka is metaphoric with the structure of the nation.
Owing to war and civil tensions many families have left Sri Lanka and entered in
various foreign and distant shores and more strikingly, Selvadurai himself migrated to
Canada with his family in 1997. Now, the frontal section of the houses generally
belonged to the male members which are a highly hyper masculine area and thus the
male children had chosen that part as their play space while females belonged to the
backyard of the houses in their respective bedrooms and kitchens. Both these places
are hyper feminine in structure. Bride-Bride also happens in the back garden of the
house that gets transformed into a space of strong female bonding and thus liberating
to the female sexuality. Due to the presence of Arjie in the girls area and Meena in the
boys area both the spaces gets intertwined and Space itself is extremely important in
reading the novel. Arjie always loved the presence of his mother, female cousins
more. One of his most fascinating job was to see her mother got dressed in her
bedroom and among the three siblings he was only allowed to his mothers bedroom
while his mother dressed her up.
Of the three of us, I alone was allowed to enter Ammas bedroom and
watch her get dressed for special occasions. It was an experience I considered almost
religious, for, even though I adored the goddesses of the local cinema, Amma was the
final statement in female beauty for me. (F.B.15)
For Arjie entering her Ammas bedroom was next to getting a boon than granted by
any God to a mortal. He acquired extreme pleasure while watching her mom draping
the saree. Arjie also enjoyed the exotic sight of his moms jewellery box and smelt the
faint essence of perfume that came out of the jewellery box each time his mom picked
up a single piece of jewellery. But he lost all these permissions of entering her moms
room, watching her draping the sari, play with her jewellery all of a sudden when he
was discovered cross dressed as a bride. And his father blamed his mother because of
his abnormal attitude which was very normal and enjoyable to Arjie. From this it can
be clearly understood that Freuds explanation of how childrens too internalize

gender conventions. Oedipus complex plays a very important role for Arjie. We know
that children, whether a boy or a girl is attracted to their opposite parents sex until
they understand their gendered position within the cultural order, i.e. till they are in
pre-Oedipal state. He always hated his father as he being the same sex to Arjie was a
competitor in his mind. As Gayle Rubin, a cultural Anthropologist have said in her
essay, The Traffic in Women: Notes On the Political Economy of Sex: The boy
loved his mother, but gave her up out of the fear of the fathers threat of castration.1
It was assumed that children were subject to a biological imperative toward
heterosexuality and not only that but they were little men and women before the
oedipal phase. For Arjie, his Ammas bedroom is another example of the spatial
aspect of the novel. But the most important space happened to be the garage as the
story unfolded in its due course. Arjie had his first sexual encounter with his boy
friend Shehan in the garage of his house. And after that very moment Arjie for the
very first time in the novel felt the sense of alienation from his own family. He
couldnt identify himself with the other members of his family. This incident is very
much metaphoric to that of the expatriation or moving away of Arjie from his own
homeland to Canada. Somehow, I feel, Selvadurai have voiced his own feeling of
foreignness to his new home nation through Arjie. Gayatri Gopinath writes parallel to
this:
Significantly, the initial sexual encounter between the two boys takes
place in the house itself but in the garage at the edges of the family compound. The
literal and figurative remove of queer sexuality from the family scene is forcefully
brought home to Arjie as he and Shehan rejoin his parents for lunch after their
encounter in the garage. As he look around the table at the faces of his parents, he
realizes with horror that the act in the garage has opened up an unbridgeable
distance between him and the rest of his family
Arjies queer identity is presented as a positive, natural force. His sexuality is
dependent on structured and restricted gender and ethnic identities. Salgado argues
that it is through the crossing of traditionally gendered landscapes such as the female
dominated area i.e. bedroom, kitchen, back garden, Arjie got enabled to become a
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discursive figure driven by fantasy. The construction of Arjies identity as a bride


seen in terms of fantasy and role-play in the novel is therefore attributed to the fact of
his queer identity having an artificial and social origin. When his father abandoned
him from playing such girly game he was denied of his passion for using make up,
draping sari and putting on jewellery that brought heavenly bliss to him. His father
thought that the root of his funniness was all these accessories so he ordered him to
dismiss them because his father thought that Arjies emerging queer identity might be
overshadowed by nothing more than a childhood phase in that way. Yet, Arjies queer
identity remains an inherent aspect of his own self. When Arjie had the first
sensational dream about his boy friend Shehan Soyza he found wetness on his sarong
the next morning. He had a very blissful feeling while he thought about Shehan and
he kept on fantasizing about him. The day Shehan came to visit their house for a
lunch, Arjie was hyper enthusiastic and excited about what is going to happen when
the two will meet. And as he thought Arjie and Shehan while playing hide-and-seek
meet with their first sexual encounter in the garage.
In the silence of the garage, all I could hear was the sound of our breathing.
Then the breathing of Shehans breath changed slightly. I glanced at the back Of his
head. He was staring at the door, but I knew that he was no longer looking at it. I felt
a dread begin to build inside me as I realized what was happening.(F.B.258)
Both of them indulged in a physical union just like two lovers embraces a pure
bonding in between them. To them it was nothing illegal or shameful at all at that
moment and both of them cherished it later. When Shehan started kissing Arjie hardly
he felt:
As in a dream, I felt myself slipping into a blackness where all my thoughts
disintegrated. The entire world became the sensation in my mouth and Shehans
tongue probing, retreating, and intertwining with mine. (F.B.259)
My hands, of their own will, began to circle his stomach and chest. I could feel
the contours of his ribs and the indentation of his navel. He took one of my hands and
moved it down to his trousers; the elastic of my underwear. I began to fumble with his
buttons, unable to open them. He had to undo them himself. Then he kissed me again

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and I was aware of the heat of his body against mine as he pressed me against the
wall.(F.B.259)
Funny Boy is a bildungsroman story with a subverted ending. Here the
bildungsroman happens more mentally. For Salgado, the bildungsroman fails to
address the deep, historical influences of colonialism important to understanding the
political turmoil of Sri Lanka. However, this claim by Salgado ignores the colonial
indication of the Victorian Academy, the school where Arjie was put on a Sinhalese
class as well as the exploitation of youth by foreign tourists. The irony itself lies in the
name Victoria Academy. It is believed that colonialism has been tickled into the
nation of Sri Lanka through the corruption present in the school system and tourist
trade. One such prominent example of lasting colonialism in Victoria Academy is the
figure of the Black Tie, who is eventually the principal and students named him as he
always wear one. The name and his appearance is very emblematic of his European
connection and also suggests that he is devoid of humanity and his cruel and inhuman
punishments upon the school students are the most eminent example of that. It is
known that when Black Tie was a child he also got beaten by a British principle and
most probably he is maintaining the tradition of abusing young students. But Arjie
have broken the cocoon of colonial violence upon the students when he came to know
of Black Ties past from Mr. Sunderalingam. By reciting a poem The Best School of
All deliberately which is entirely about colonial connotations and Eurocentric
significance he epitomized the rejection of Black Tie and the colonial heritage that he
practices. Eventually, Arjie, Shehan and Black Tie too are all victims of the
imperialistic structure of the schools. Selvadurai exactly brings out the point of
Homoeroticism practiced in the British schools of 19th century. Arjie is never called
gay or homosexual in the entire text rather highlighted by the word funny that
indicates the instability of his subjectivity of his central character. The novel does
present us with the powerful portrayal of victimization and expulsion; it does so at the
expense of reinforcing the prevailing tendency to read Sri Lankan political violence
through a historically transcendent, binary logic of Sinhalese-Tamil record. And the
novel also mediates homosexual identity against the normative inscription of
heterosexual relations, exploring the liminal space between gendered identities. After

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all, at a fundamental level, Arjie is a child who is too little to demarcate his normal
feelings as homosexual that is very abnormal to the society.
Thus, this challenging text definitely adds to the post-colonial examinations of the
dynamics of difference within the national frame. Funny Boy clearly engages
through the struggle of Arjie as the queer protagonist, who constantly struggle to
suppress their own queer identities in a strict Nation state of Sri Lanka where
relationship or marriage between same sex is considered illegal and so is totally
prohibited and a person with such inclination is regarded as a criminal in the eye of
Sri Lankan Government or simply a ponnaya, a local indecent term used by the
native Sri Lankans to categorize the queer oriented individuals.

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Citations and References:


Selvadurai, S.(1994). Funny Boy. India: Penguin Books.
Boswell, J. Christianity Social Tolerance and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western
Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to The Fourteenth Century. (Chicago:
The University of Chicago Press) London.
Rubin, G. (1975). The Traffic in Women: Notes on the Political Economy of Sex.
Besik, F. (March 9, 2012). Strategic Construction of Ethnicity and Queer Identity
within Shyam Selvadurais Funny Boy.
Thorpe, M. (1996).Funny Boy by Shyam Selvadurai. World Literature Today Review.
Vol.70, No. 4.
Butler, J.(2006). Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York:
Routledge.

Gopinath, G.(2006). Impossible Desires: Queer Diasporas and South Asian Public
Cultures. Seagull Books.
Salgado.M. (n.d.). Writing Sri Lanka, Reading Resistance: Shyam Selvadurais Funny
Boy and A. Sivanandans When Memory Dies. Journal of Commonwealth Literature,
15-18. Retrieved 2004.