Funny Boy by Shyam Selvadurai

Shyam Selvadurai’s second novel Funny Boy details the ethnic tensions and conflicts between the Sinhalese and the minority, Tamils. It is through young Arjie’s eyes that we discover the cause of the national tension, the effects on his family, and the community. We are first introduced to the ethnic divide by way of, “Radha Aunty”, the second chapter of the book. As the story continues, events unfold highlighting the aggressions both large and small against Arjie’s family.
It is not until the epilogue that the minority status becomes too much to bare that the family decides to emigrate. One can surmise that up until this moment the familial policy of being unobtrusive is no longer a valid option.
The doomed love affair between his Aunt and Anil, a Sinhalese man is used as a way familiarize the reader with the conflicting viewpoints of his family and serves as a way to show the division of ethnic lines among the Sri Lankan populace. By way of Arjie’s father, the reader is given insight into how and why his grandmother views a Sinhalese-Tamil marriage with open distaste (58). However, the idea of a mixed ethnic marriage being a betrayal of one’s family is seen through the eyes of a family friend, Aunty Doris (78-79. This chapter allows for Arjie to be introduced to the national conflict in a familiar setting.

It is with his father’s explanation of how the conflict came about, the adoption of a national Sinhalese language. That Arjie’s eyes are opened to the daily microaggressions his family and community are subjected to (60). What interesting is how Arjie himself is a child of a mixed ethnic marriage, one does not see how this affects the relationship between his mother a Sinhalese, and his father’s immediate family. Given his grandmother’s approval of the Tamil Tigers and treatment of Anil’s family, the reader has a strong suspicion it was not met with delight. (60).
Within in the chapter “Small Choices” Arjie witnesses the effect of his father’s ethnicity on his business and personal relationship with Jegan. It is through this lens that Arjie realizes that even though his father is a successful businessman he is still very much a Tamil minority. This is shown in a statement made by Arjie’s father to Jegan in response to correcting staff, “As a Tamil you have to learn how to play the game… the trick is not to make yourself conspicuous.” (169).
This event along with the hate note, gives insight into how Arjie’s father deals with being a Tamil in the corporate sphere, that an attitude of being cautious is needed to succeed. These events directly show the careful line his father has to walk. Which is further illustrated by the departure of Jegan due to the slur written on his hotel door (192). It is apparent to the reader that Arjie gains a deeper understanding of how ingrained the divide is within the minds of the populace and those around him.
He realizes that in order for his father and indirectly his family to succeed in the dominant Sinhalese populace, the tactic of looking the other way and biting one’s tongue is not always going to coincide with what one personally wants. This is shown in how his father suggests to Jegan to move to his Middle Eastern division (198). This consequence of being Tamil forces his father to make a decision he does not want to make, Arjie realizes that his father has no choice in the matter and feels sorry for him (199). The making of decisions based on one’s ethnicity is seen time and time again throughout the novel.
Not only with love and marriage but also in personal and professional spheres. For example, the speaking of Tamil to the local butcher by Amma and how grateful the butcher is when she stops (185). The practice of being inconspicuous in everyday dealings shows the reader that being a minority is to make decisions one does not want but instead must make based on the need to move in a Sinhalese majority.

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