The Problems of Arjie’s Childhood: Shyam Selvadurai’s “Funny Boy” and the Voice of Arjun Chelvaratnam

indexShyam Selvadurai’s Funny Boy takes into account the 12th, 13th and 14th years of young Arjun “Arjie” Chelvaratnam’s adolescence, whom we meet at the outset of the novel as a twelve or so year old. These opening chapters closely correspond with 1981, as evinced by the attack on the Yal Devi at Anuradhapura station, in which Arjie’s youngest aunt, Radha, coincidentally travels. Between the opening and the novel’s climactic close with the “Riot Journal” (based in July 1983) two or so years are hinted to have passed; at the end of which we see the Chelvaratnam family about to migrate to Canada. This is after the intervining sections see Arjie and us through a debilitating 1982: the year of the infamous Referendum, which is referred to in the chapter titled “See No Evil, Hear No Evil”.

Young Arjie, we often cede, is on a “path to maturity”, where he earns an exposure to social and sexual awareness, dislocating him from a comfortable and enclosed childhood which is seen drawing to a close even as the novel opens. Yet, a question that begs our attention is as to how credible Selvadurai’s portrayal of Arjie is, in each of the crucial moments / chapters as an adolescent growing up. Does the Arjie we meet in each of the chapters cut a believable representation of a young boy of that age? At times, the narrative implies at incongruities and inconsistencies in the portrayal of Arjie, where in certain instances he comes across as being too “childlike” in action, thought and sentiment than what you would generally expect from an adolescent of that age; while, in other instances – like in the last chapter,the “Riot Journal”, – he comes across as mature and adult-like, specially in a context where his “childlike” moments are already shared and established.

Does the “Riot Journal”, a very carefully measured and sufficiently detached narrative, reflect the mind of a fourteen year old writing at a time being subjected to uncertainty and terror, over a period of three weeks? The evenness of delivery, the careful filtering in of moments and incidents – not to mention the mastery with which he factors in information gathered from elders and the surrounding – echo a more adult-like hand, and a methodically thought out structuring of detail, than a spontaneous documentation in a time of turmoil. In its display of the narrator’s “maturity”, the “Riot Journal” is different in tone and depth to all preceding chapters.

black-july-bbcIt is in the chapter dealing with Radha Aunty that Arjie, at twelve, asks the father as to what the word “racist” means. While this comes across as not quite credible in the case of a twelve year old boy of a bilingual upper middle class home, the same boy is quick to tell us about the Tamil Tigers and how they are fighting for a separate geo-political unit in the North. Ammacchi, we are further told, vows to be the first to settle in this new Eelam country, while the father staunchly opposes the LTTE. This, too, is quite an incongruous statement for 1981/82, where the LTTE would still be one of several organiztions who had taken up arms against the Sri Lankan government. Alongside the LTTE, and with equal fervour, there are organizations such as TELO, PLOTE, EPRLF, EROS etc, who work independently and in tandem to energize a struggle defined by the 1976 Resolution at Vaddukodai. For one to single out the LTTE as the aggressor against the government in 1981/82, I feel, is somewhat anomalous; though, for 1995, when Selvadurai writes the novel, the same assessment makes much sense.

Playing “bride-bride” with his female cousins of varying ages in the back yard at Ammacchi’s house: this is the state in which we first meet the twelve year old Arjie. The fascination and the absorption the game provides for him makes it a realm and a refuge over which he holds sway. Arjie is equally fascinated by his mother’s dressing table, its various silvery and bejewelled contents, as well as the rites of make up. He finds himself in the mother’s room, watching the mother dress up, watching the frills and laces of her sarees, while being absorbed with the “miracles” that unfold in the face of the mirror – these, at the age of twelve. Twelve, perhaps, is a somewhat abnormal a stage for a young boy’s “looking on” over the mother dressing up, so as it to be tolerated; specially since Selvadurai paints the Chelvaratnam household as a straitjacketing mainstream, gendered, heteronormative outlet.

In our rash dismissal of characters and traits they are fed with, we are quick to disregard the idyosincracy and peculiarity of context and situation. Of course, it could be that Arjie, at twelve, is who he is, while it could be that his voyeuristic occupation at the mother’s dressing room may not have registered with Amma as abnormal, in spite of the family’s mainstream middle class outlook. But, then, that would read as an inconsistency with all other instances where the Chelvaratnams are seen as being quite concerned with Arjie being “strange”, which they try to rectify through myriad experiments: from forcing Arjie to play Cricket, to enrolling him at the Queen Victoria Academy.

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Selvadurai

The “struggle for power” over the backyard domain in which Arjie conflicts with Tanuja – “Her Fatness” – again fails to register as a tussle between twelve year olds. The overall ambiance of that episode is one of a clash among pre-adolescents, more like a group of children between ages 8-10. The insults they hurl at each other echo a pre-adolescent, childlike feature, while their occupation over dolls and playhouses resonate a nursery scene. Arjie, in one of the sequences, is assigned to play the groom, who is sent to work in “office” where he thumps imaginary documents with a small rock for a rubber stamp. To be fair by Selvadurai, it is given to understand that this play group includes children of different ages. But, still, the spirit and sentiment with which Arjie plays his roles in these situations are too childlike, so as to define a twelve year old, at the doorstep of his teens.

At thirteen, Arjie is sufficiently quick-witted to understand the relationship between Amma and Daryl Uncle. He is receptive to the hints the Police Inspector drops and, more so, quite mature and patient in empathizing with Amma’s situation. In fact, there is no reaction whatsoever on Arjie’s part, upon his realization of Amma’s closeness to Daryl Uncle. He is also equally perceptive to Jegan’s (probable) homosexual status – to the one hesitant pause Jegan makes in an entire chapter, where he refers to a friend tortured by the state militia, to whom he was “close”. In none of these instances is Arjie found to be sentimental or judgmental, and thus demonstrates a curious and abnormal state of mind for a young adolescent. This, in spite of Arjie, in general, being an emotional and receptive young person.

The most powerful moment of Selvadurai’s novel is the relationship between Shehan Soyza and Arjie: a relationship which is often reduced by readers’ glossing over the sexual dimension it represents (which, to be fair, is a rudimentary mention of a deeper portrayal). There is a very strong and memorable life-like halo to the origin, the development and the abrupt falling apart of that relationship, which makes it one of the high points of Selvadurai’s achievement.

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