Unravelling Identity: Funny Boy by Shyam Selvadurai
Shyam Selvadurai in his debut book ‘Funny Boy’ published in 1994, introduces to us the concept of queer identity along with subtle but poignant narration of his relationship with Shehan Soyza. I was just four years old when the book was published, but can we imagine anyone to speak about topics such as this during that time? Even today one is reluctant to speak about one’s orientation because of the problem that one can face.
Shyam Selvadurai brings to us through this book an honest and simple tale of Arjie, someone that could be our brother, neighbour or friend. Arjie is honest and loving. He is just discovering his identity. And amidst this, he is cursed, boxed, and told what to do and what not to. Arjie feels the pain of always being told that this is what a male should do and should not. He feels trapped but finds that hope and release only in his friend Shehan. “Then the meaning of what Diggy had said hit me, and a realization began to take shape in my mind. A fact so startling that it made my head spin just to think about it. The difference within me that sometimes felt I had, that had brought me so much confusion, whatever this difference, it was shared by Shehan. I felt amazed that a normal thing – like my friendship with Shehan – could have such powerful and hidden possibilities. I found myself thinking about that moment Shehan had kissed me and also of how he had lain on his bed, waiting for me to carry something through. I now knew that the kiss was somehow connected to what we had in common, and Shehan had known this all along” (Selvadurai 201 / 202). But is it to last?
His school becomes a nightmare to him. His relationships are either disturbed due to untoward situations or affected due to the rigid mindset of his parents and family.
He is expected to keep quiet when things go wrong displaying his masculinity. He is expected to be who he is not when he wants to express what he feels authentic.
What makes this book stand out is the way Shyam Selvadurai has written it interspersed with the history of the civil war of the time, from 1983 to 2009. The war between the Tamil minority and the Sinhalese majority. It was during this time that Shyam Selvadurai had immigrated to Canada in 1984 when forced due to the racial riots in 1983.
The mention of Radha Aunty and a whole chapter dedicated to her makes it evident that Shyam wants us to know that there is a room for people who belong to the other kind. So one cannot distinguish the other or box the other into categories that are accepted in the society. Rather we should be open to adding more categories if need be to the existing ones.
Arjie falters in his life choices especially when he gives in to the attraction to Shehan and surrenders into the sexual act. He regrets it but later accepts that it was the best thing that happened to him and that is how he was loved by Shehan and he could love Shehan back.
Society, Religion, and orthodox mindsets are ready to categorize us into a certain kind of people or gender. But ultimately if one wants to live a healthy, contented life, what one needs to do is realize oneself and accept one’s identity and face what comes ahead. But is it easy? The LGBTQ community finds it difficult despite the changing times and despite the wrong in Section 377 was made right on 6th September 2018. We still linger on in our old unresisting mentalities.
The ‘Funny’ in ‘Funny Boy’ is said intentionally to avoid the usage of homosexuality as a term. But this meaning of the word ‘Funny’ didn’t make it too far because the process to accept one’s identity as a homosexual or otherwise is not funny. It is normal and we should consider it to be. Through this book, Shyam Selvadurai hinted upon the correlation of dresses, games, school, even books with gender. And gender as only divided between two possibilities and not more. “How was it that some people got to decide what was correct or not, just or unjust? It had to do with who was incharge; everything had to do with who held power and who didn’t” (Selvadurai 215).
It may not shatter your sensibilities but it does leave an indelible impression on our rigid mentalities.