Book Review: Funny Boy by Shyam Selvadurai


Title and Author: Funny Boy by Shyam Selvadurai

Series: No, its a standalone

Shelves: Young Adult, LGBT, Coming of Age, South Asian Literature

Publisher: Harvest Books

Published: 19th June 1997

Ratings: 4 stars

Summary: In the world of his large family, affluent Tamils living in Colombo, Arjie is an oddity, a ‘funny boy’ who prefers dressing as a girl to playing cricket with his brother. In FUNNY BOY we follow the life of the family through Arjie’s eyes, as he comes to terms both with his own homo-sexuality and with the racism of the society in which he lives. In the north of Sri Lanka there is a war going on between the army and the Tamil Tigers, and gradually it begins to encroach on the family’s comfortable life. Sporadic acts of violence flare into full scale riots and lead, ultimately, to tragedy. Written in clear, simple prose, Shyam Selvadurai’s first novel is masterly in its mingling of the personal and political.

Review: I have a confession to make. I’m not very familiar with South Asian Literature which is very, very odd considering the fact that I’m from South Asia. And therefore, keeping in mind my ignorance, I was even more surprised when i found out that this is LGBT literature. I wouldn’t have known about this novel if it wasn’t part of my uni syllabus, but I’m really glad I discovered it because it happens to be one of the best books I’ve read as of late.

Set against the backdrop of the rising ethnic tension between the Sinhalese and Tamils in Sri Lanka back in the 80’s, Funny Boy is told from the perspective of a young boy, Arjie. The novel explores the struggles of a Tamil boy growing up in a society divided by ethnic conflict while also attempting to come to terms with a growing awareness of his homosexuality.

“And then there would be the loneliness. I would be caught between the boy’s and the girl’s worlds, not belonging or wanted in either.”

As a seven year old, Arjie naturally gravitates towards the female territory. He would rather spend his time playing ‘cooking-cooking’ and ‘bride-bride’ with his cousin sisters instead of playing cricket, a symbol of masculinity, with his male cousins under the scorching heat of the sun. He also enjoys going into his mother room to watching her get dressed in a sari and put on her make-up. Hence, although Arjie is biologically male, he exhibits traits that are considered feminine.

The fact that Arjie naturally gravitates towards the female space is unnatural or undesirable. And therefore, when he is caught dressed as a bride by his relatives, they all gaze at him in amusement. His mother is horrified at seeing her son draped in a sari while his father is too ashamed to look at him and keeps is eyes fixed on the paper.

“looks like you have a funny one here.”

Growing up with ‘funny tendencies’ in the 80’s must have been tough and moreover, by being a Tamil minority in a Sinhalese dominated Sri-Lanka along with his queerness, Arjie faces a double marginalization. Although his home offers him temporary refuge from racial discrimination, his same-sex desires remain problematic within the space of home. Arjie is an outcast in every sense of the word. 

I don’t want to say more because otherwise, i’d end up writing the entire plot of the novel and I would really like some of you to give this a read. This book is really heart-wrenching especially because it deals with identity and belonging not only because of his homosexuality but also because of the racial discrimination.

Final thoughts: I would recommend this to anyone who enjoys reading LGBT literature. And if you do decide to read this, I would urge you to first read into the background of Sri-Lanka and the ethnic riots between the Tamils and the Sinhalese in order to get a better understanding of the novel.