I knew that this book was a gay coming-of-age story but didn’t know that a big part of the story would be about the riots in Sri Lanka.
“But we are a minority, and that’s a fact of life,” my father said placatingly. “As a Tamil you have to learn how to play the game. Play it right and you can do very well for yourself. The trick is not to make yourself conspicuous. Go around quietly, make your money, and don’t step on anyone’s toes.”
Funny Boy is also a story about Sri Lanka and the ethnic violence that erupted in the 1980s – which is what drove the author and his family to flee Sri Lanka for Canada. Selvadurai’s mother is Sinhalese (the majority group) and his father is Tamil. The 1983 “Black July” riots resulted in the deaths of an estimated 400 to 3,000, thousands of shops and homes destroyed, and some 150,000 people were made homeless.
What seemed disturbing, now that I thought about those 1981 riots, was that there had been no warning, no hint that they were going to happen. I looked all around me at the deserted beach, so calm in the hot sun. What was to prevent a riot from happening right now?
Arjie and his cousins spend one Sunday a month at their grandparents’ house, free of their parents. The boys play cricket for hours in the front and the field, the girls play in the back garden and porch. Arjie plays with the girls, mostly “bride-bride”, where he, being the leader of the group, plays the bride.
“I was able to leave the constraints of my self and ascent into another, more brilliant, more beautiful self, a self to whom this day was dedicated, and around whom the world, represented by my cousins putting flowers in my hair, draping the palu, seemed to revolve.”
But his “funny” ways are soon discovered and the adults insist that he stick to the boys’ games.
“I would be caught between the boys’ and the girls’ worlds, not belonging or wanted in either.”
Arjie starts to attend a new school, as his father explains, it will force him to “become a man”. It is at this academy that Arjie meets Shehan, who is rumored to be gay. They become friendly and then, more than friends, but even that is something of a risk, as Arjie is Tamil while Shehan is Sinhalese.
Throughout the book, ethnic identity is brought to the fore. Arjie’s aunt falls for a Sinhalese man. But the community’s prejudice tears them apart. His mother meets an old friend, a reporter investigating police abuses of power, who disappears in Jaffna, where violence erupted.
Funny Boy is a moving, engaging read about a young boy’s journey into adulthood in Sri Lanka.