One of the main focuses in Shyam Selvadurai’s Funny Boy is the romance / love between the protagonist Arjie and his school friend Shehan. It is a relationship by which the novel is marked as being among the key works in Lankan English writing that locate homo-eroticism as a sexual norm. Selvadurai’s subsequent fame as a writer / activist, too, partially stems from this provocative portrayal. Arjie’s meeting with Shehan happens at Victoria Academy (Royal College?), to which the former is enrolled towards the tail end of the novel. Their relationship is of gradual growth and it gathers momentum through emotive sharing, moments of tenderness; and it carries us through unaffected interplay of homo-erotic carnality as well.
Arjie undergoes a sort of “epiphany” regarding his sexual being as a result of his association with Shehan. A pivotal juncture of their friendship is when the school principal – Black Tie – canes Arjie for not memorizing a poem as was requested. This poem, incidentally, is none other than “Vitae Lampada”: a poem by a “sportsman” which foregrounds a series of masculine and “manly” values. Following this caning incident, Shehan and Arjie grow closer as a “unit”: sentimentally and physically. Their relationship garners strength then on, until it is abruptly nulled by Arjie’s migration from the country. The final parting of the two boys / lovers constitutes one of the more memorable sequences of the novel. It is a section that is rich with unaffected exchange of two whose growing bond is at the verge of being dislocated.
This tone of intensity at the moment of parting is much resonant to what passes between Nimal and Sunil (Sudhu Appo) in T.B. Ilangaratne’s Amba Yahaluwo at the verge of the latter’s leaving Nelumdeniya to Kandy. More than textual confessions to love / desire it is the resonance of the moment that allows us a key to engage closer with the weave of the play. The text of Amba Yahaluwo, I feel, offers us much suggestion and prompters of a crucial erotic reading that we often ignore to see. The Nimal and Sudu Appo relationship is the most prominent of these. This relationship is one that moves parallel to the characters’ “coming of age” – much similar to the case of Shehan and Arjie. The latter combination, we are made to understand, are in their mid teens; whereas, Nimal and Sudhu Appo, as the novel opens, are in their early adolescence. But what begins in the “innocence” of childhood, where relationships and bonds are “unmarked” for sexual orientation or desire, builds up and leads the reader to the duo’s teens, which is defined by the socio-economic classifications that surround them; to which they are absorbed by the “adult” reality.
Nimal’s and Sudhu Appo’s initiation into the adult world gradually places them in polarized tiers. Nimal is internalized with the identities of being the social and economic “other” of the Walauva. Sudhu Appo, in turn, becomes marked as the privileged, elite Civil Servant’s son. But, there is something more primary – a desire that transcends class and creed, even as these social and cultural definitions begin to take shape – that insists Sudhu Appo the company of Nimal. It is the one bond that he hungers after – even amidst the deterrent reprimands of father and grand mother. Is this mere “friendship” which transcends creed, class and social definition? Or, is it a more irreducible desire of wanting the company of another person to whom you feel irreducibly affiliated? The text of Amba Yahaluwo – if we suspend the traditional prescriptive terms such as “friend”, “relative” or “neighbour” in mapping our responses to people; and if we are descriptive of what we see in these bonds – has much to offer in seeing the “desire” and the “longing” between individuals such as Nimal and Sudhu Appo.
The Ilangaratne novel was popularized in the early 1990s when it was made into a tele series starring Ashoka Peiris, Ruby De Mel et al. The tele director gives way to a powerful visual along the lines of our query in one of the more famous sequences of the drama: where the song “Mal Pipei Deneth Arei” is played. This scene is located at Sudhu Appo’s new Kandy school, Wasantha Vidyalaya. There is a school hall where the music teacher plays on the piano and the choir is seen singing along. As they sing, Nimal – now the household help at Sudhu Appo’s place – arrives at the hall with the latter’s neatly wrapped lunch. At a given cue Sudhu Appo sings solo and his lines are to do with a Prince who admits to his inability in wedding a farmer’s daughter (“badhinne kohoma govi duwak, kumaarayek ne man[g]). At this point the camera focuses on Sudhu Appo who is strategically made aware of Nimal’s presence and they acknowledge each other with a smile.
The tenderness in each other’s smiles and eyes are well captured by the tele maker (Sudath Rohana). At this point Nimal, semiotically, carries a wrapped lunch which he has brought for the Appo. This paves a very strong reading of sexual roles and the labour that is traditionally assigned to these roles in Sri Lankan society. What we often stare through as “tenderness” or “compassion” are complex and irreducible responses to stimuli which are not necessarily exclusive of desire and physical longing. Whether there are any relationships or commitments that operate along a “zero desire” grid, in that sense, is questionable – and a textual discourse is often more intriguing where the multiple nuances and possibilities of its weave can be elicited. Desire is timeless. In the case of Nimal and Sudhu Appo, one may argue, it is the one thread that holds their relationship together.
Yet another intriguing complementation is the bond between Loku Appo (Sunil’s father) and the grandmother. At a surface glance, keeping in line with cultural-domestic stereotypes, one may see it as a casual replaying of the mother who is affectionate of the elder son of the house. But embedded in this stereotype itself we see the very seeds of our current discourse to do with “desire”. Why is Maithri – Sunil’s sister (nicknamed “Napuru Maithri”) – “wicked” / “napuru”? In addition to her general disposition which is seen as haughty and proud, she is decidedly aggressive towards Nimal. At the same time, she is more than hinted at as being the father’s favourite in the household. It is also noted that Maithri, in temperament, is closest to her class-conscious paternal grandmother. Is Maithri’s vehemence towards Nimal, then, merely a class-centric response? I feel that the writer consciously strives to extend grandmother’s genes into a younger generation through Maithri’s portrayal. Such a reading opens out a more intricate pattern in grandmother’s fondness of Loku Appo; and Loku Appo’s allowances given to his daughter who, in manner, resonates his mother.
Selvadurai’s critics often point out a certain “crudeness” in his portrayal of homo-erotic sexual relations. As debatable as the point may be, his resonance of the sensitivity that brings Shehan and Arjie together is both delicate and smooth. This portrayal, in turn, has a close resonance to the symmetry with which the Nimal-Sudhu Appo tie has been woven. In degree, the former occupies a lesser space of the total narrative, whereas the Amba Yahaluwo bond forms a lengthier spread over a more gradual build up. But, Nimal and Sudhu Appo – naturalized as their bond may appear along the lines of “undying friendship” – invites us to a closer, more optimistic reading: an experience that could be more fuller and less duller.
[This was carried in the The Nation]