Marriage as a Predominant Theme in Shyam Selvadurai's Funny Boy

Amy Small, English 365, Northwestern University

In the initial stories of Shyam Selvadurai's Funny Boy, the narrating character, Arjie, is obsessed by ideas of romance, love, and marriage. This interest, which governs most of his childhood, leads him to discover and understand more serious aspects of his life, such as his homosexuality and the political tension in his homeland.

At the spend-the-days at his grandparents' house, Arjie conducts the game of "bride-bride," where he and all the girl cousins create an elaborate pretend wedding in which Arjie stars as bride. In the world they construct, gender does not play a part until Her Fatness, a cousin who has recently returned from time overseas, intervenes. Her insistence that "A boy cannot be the bride ... a girl must be the bride" imposes gender roles onto the idealized world of "bride-bride" (11). In this way, the world of the adults intrudes into the pretend world of the children and requires them to even play in ways that are socially proper. In doing so, they become aware of conventions of the world outside of their game. A similar insistence from Amma that "boys must play with other boys" shows the opposition between reality and the idealism of "bride-bride" (20).

The role of bride is given to the person who plays it best, namely Arjie, instead of a girl cousin. The bride is not even seen as particularly female, as is evident in the scene where Arjie is dressing up as bride. In that passage, he considers the activity not dressing up as a woman, but rather as inhabiting the highly symbolic role of bride as "icon." Arjie as bride is free to acknowledge himself as transcending the "constraints of [him]self, and transcend into another, more brilliant, more beautiful self" (4). There is no language of gender or sexuality, only of idealized, neutral forms. Arjie's awareness that he perhaps does not belong with either the girl cousins or the boy cousins can be seen in this genderless language. His unwillingness to associate himself with a gender in his "more beautiful self" shows his recognition that he is "caught between the boys' and the girls' worlds, not belonging or wanted in either" (39). This concept is a precursor of his later recognition of his homosexuality, but in the innocent, simplified terms of a child.

Radha Aunty's appearance marks another rift between the innocence of childhood and the realities of life. When Arjie first hears of her return to Sri Lanka and her engagement, his imagination works to produce a mental image of his aunt as someone "separated from everyday people, because she inhabited the realm of romance and marriage" (45). Although his idealization of her is shattered when he meets her, they become close friends because she is willing to indulge his excitement for weddings. Through their friendship, Arjie is exposed to the social problems that the Tamil/Sinhalese conflict creates. Radha and Anil's tense relationship and the secrecy it requires contradict Arjie's conceptions of love and romance, which have been lifted mostly from movies and love comics. His investigation into the cause of their strange and secretive relationship leads him to discover the racial tensions in Sri Lanka plaguing society. As his awareness of the political problems in Sri Lanka grows, so does the severity of the conflict until it finally culminates in violence.

As Arjie grows older, his eyes open to things that would have previously gone over his head, such as civil strife and culturally appropriate gender roles. His love for romance only serves to make these things more clear, as they disrupt the idealizations that he holds dear. These broken ideals usher out the era of his childhood and prepare him for the tumultuous events of his later life.

Postcolonial Web Canada India OV Sri Lankan History

Last Modified: 1 December 2003