Arjie’s Journey in Shyam Selvadurai’s Funny Boy
Growing up during a time of violent political upheaval in Sri Lanka, Arjie travels an especially bittersweet journey into maturation in Shyam Selvadurai’s Funny Boy. The adults in Arjie’s extended family mostly belong to an older, more conservative generation that attempts to fit Arjie into society’s norms. The adults that Arjie meets in the community through his family are individuals who prompt him to see past the confines of his childhood, and it is Arjie’s peers who give him the extra push to understanding himself. With guidance from his extended family, his adult friends, and his peers, Arjie is able to discover his identity through understanding the impact of race and gender on his life.
Although spend-the-day occurs but once a month, Ammachi has a commanding presence in Arjie’s life. While Appachi hides behind his newspapers, Ammachi is “enthroned in big reclining chairs” (Selvadurai, 2), her canes inspiring awe in her grandchildren. When Arjie is caught dressed in a sari while playing bride-bride, Ammachi decides that manual labour will teach him to be more masculine. This is the first time Arjie is embarrassed about his “funniness”, though he does not understand why. It is also at his grandparents’ house that Arjie first learns about the tension between the Tamils and the Sinhalese. Afraid that people will talk, Ammachi forbids Radha Aunty to receive rides from Anil Jayasinghe, a Sinhalese. Arjie does not comprehend why Ammachi is upset, for he is in a Sinhala class at school and his friends are Sinhalese. His parents’ best friends and servant are Sinhalese too. Nevertheless, Ammachi sends Radha Aunty to Jaffna for a month, hoping that her “illicit relations” (76) with Anil will end. When confronted by a daughter, Ammachi is unsure of herself and says, “I did what was correct” (77). She believes that as long as she upholds traditions, she is a good mother.
Like Ammachi, Amma is at times uncertain of herself when she tries to help Arjie in his maturation journey. Before Arjie is caught wearing a sari, Amma used to let him play with her jewellery and watch her put on her sari. However, after Arjie’s humiliation, Amma orders Diggy to let Arjie play with the boys during spend-the-day – and forbids Arjie from playing bride-bride with his girl cousins. When Arjie questions this, Amma says simply, “You’re a big boy now. And big boys must play with other boys” (20). This does not appear to satisfy Arjie because he is still unmarred by society’s expectations. Not knowing how to deal with the problem of gender issues, Amma allows that “life is full of stupid things and sometimes we just have to do them” (20). Amma is equally uncomfortable with explaining racism to Arjie. When Arjie is disappointed that the English governess does not marry the King in The King and I, Amma tells Arjie that people do not marry outside their own race (54). It is...