Leading Questions for Shyam Selvadurai' Funny Boy

Amy Small, Leena Palamkunnel, Alexis Goldberg, English 365, Northwestern University

1. In Funny Boy, the Western world often merges with the Sri Lankan culture, sometimes to a disastrous effect. The influences of the West bring additional tension to pre-existing problems. For example, the conceit displayed by "Her Fatness" about having spent time abroad adds another facet to the conflict between she and Arjie. "Her Fatness" uses Western objects and words to try to gain power over the other cousins, only to end up as their enemy. Why does this attempt to gain power backfire? Is the appeal of the West as strong for the children as it is for the adults? Do the Western words she learned abroad, such as "faggot," hold any power inside of Sri Lanka? Later in the novel, the construction of a Western-style hotel provides a center for the escalation of civil conflict. Why does this instance of Sri Lankan social strife take place in a Westernized setting? What aspects of the conflict are heightened by the juxtaposition of the Western world with Sri Lanka? Does the presence of a Western object, such as a hotel, compel Sri Lankans to strengthen their ethnic identity?

2. The account of Arjie's youth contains a number of relationships in which at least one person is a woman. Of these relationships, the most nurturing ones tend not to occur between mothers and their children. Mothers take the role of enforcer and disciplinarian, coming down strictly on their children when they think that they have erred. For example, Ammachi interferes with Radha Aunty's relationship with Anil because of her need to make her child follow her politics. How does the strength of the maternal figures in the book compare or contrast with the larger societal structure of Sri Lanka? What messages could the mother's role as a strict disciplinarian convey about the role of family in Sri Lankan life? Is respect for tradition the main driving force behind maternal discipline? Additionally, women outside of the immediate family structure are shown as being nurturing and loving. Radha indulges Arjie's love of dress-up, just as Janaki allows him to read her love-comics. Do their nurturing tendencies display their maternal tendencies that are yet untapped, or do they express their opposition to the harsh role of mother? Why is it that Arjie consistently turns to women when he is in need of emotional support?


Now I was beginning to understand why Ammachi had been so angry. Part of her anger was because Anil was Sinhalese, but another part, I now saw, had to do with her fear that Anil and Radha Aunty were in love. [65]

In what forms do the different ethnic identities (Tamil, Sinhalese, Burgher) dictate the power structures of relationships among characters? Examine specifically the relationships between Radha Aunty and Anil, Amma and Daryl Uncle, and Arjie and Shehan. Do these relationships manage to subvert their ethnicities, or do they simply reinforce already existing conflicts?


What had happened between us in the garage was not wrong. For how could loving Shehan be bad? Yet if my parents or anybody else discovered this love, I would be in terrible trouble. I thought of how unfair this was and I was reminded of things I had seen happen to other people, like Jegan, or even Radha Aunty, who, in their own way, had experienced injustice. [267)]

Examine the way in which Arjie's understanding of his identity as sexual "other" develops alongside his understanding of himself as ethnic "other" or outsider. Look specifically at his conception of "justice" and how it is informed by the incidents in the text. Is this parallel between sexuality and ethnicity visible in any other characters in the novel?

5. As Kanthi Aunty reveals Arjie's "funniness" to the adults, his role in the familial structure suddenly changes. No longer is he just a child playing an innocent game of dress-up. Although he does not fully understand why, he becomes the frequent familial accomplice. Kanthi Aunty's action creates a new role for Arjie to play in his close-knit family.

Arjie's "secret" (which he does not even understand) builds a bond between his family members, particularly women, who also conceal something. Both Radha Aunty and Amma take him into their confidence to keep their individual secrets from the rest of the family. Radha Aunty uses Arjie as a pretext when meeting with Anil. She claims to Mala Aunty " 'Our friend' - meaning [Arjie] - 'has to use the toilet.' She pressed my hand hard, warning me not to seem surprised" (80). Although no one else can know of her relationship with Anil, Arjie is entrusted with the great secret. Arjie's own mother expects him to keep her own affair with Daryl Uncle private. Amma trusts Arjie not to reveal that "Daryl Uncle was with us all the time" while on their vacation in the hill country (113). Both women exploit Arjie's trust, innocence, and "funniness" for their own benefit. A definite commonality between all three's secrets bind them together.

Why do two adults put so much trust in a young boy? How is the kinship created? Is there a connection between the two women's secrets and Arjie's, as dealing with sexuality? Can Arjie truly understand the familial ridicule Radha Aunty and Amma will experience if their secrets are revealed? Do they share their secrets with him because he may understand their desire to commit an act that directly contradicts the norm?

6. Initially, Arjie does not even understand what Cyril Uncle is inferring when he claims "looks like you have a funny one here" after Arjie's Bride-Bride costume is revealed (14). Arjie takes the word funny to me an "humorous or strange," not "homosexual reference," as his uncle intends (17). Arjie's father sees "funny" as a negative state of being, something Arjie can become that will result in ridicule and contempt from everyone else. Eventually, Arjie understands his father and uncle's conception of "funny" when his friendship with Shehan escalates physically. He finally realizes that "the difference within me that I sometimes felt...it was shared by Shehan" (250). In this instance, Arjie defines "funny" as a deviation from the norm that both he and Shehan experience. However, Arjie does not hold the same disgust that his own father has for individuals who are "funny." Yet, he is riddled with guilt after he commits another revealing and defining act, like his Bride-Bride game.

How else is "funny" used throughout Selvadurai's novel? What role does "funny" play in other people's lives? How does Selvadurai's manipulation of the word "funny" affect the meaning as each character holds a different understanding of the word?

Postcolonial Web Canada India OV Sri Lankan History

Last Modified: 1 December 2003