The Portrayal of Clashing Cultural Values in the Novel Funny Boy by Syam Selvadurai
Length: 1416 words (4 double-spaced pages)
Shyam Selvadurai, the author of Funny Boy, felt the necessity to write about this issue because it is kept in the dark, especially in Sri Lanka. In addition, Sri Lanka is faced with many cultural problems. The Tamils and Singhalese are in constant conflict because of their different moral values. Selvadurai grew up in this type of atmosphere, he was homosexual and was raised in an environment where fighting took place regularly. Selvadurai decided to write this book not only as therapy for himself but also to lend a voice to those who still have trouble expressing themselves about both of these issues especially children. "Selvadurai writes as sensitively about the emotional intensity of adolescence as he does about the wonder of childhood" (Hower, 22). Arjie Chelvaratnam, the protagonist in Selvadurai's novel, finds himself going through similar problems. He feels lost because his attitudes towards life differ greatly from those around him. In his novel, Funny Boy, Shyam Selvadurai uses character and plot to show how conflicting cultural beliefs can lead to confusion and alienation.
The theme of clashing cultural values is brought out through the character of Arjie's father, Appa. As Arjie was growing up, he often enjoyed spending his days playing games like dress-up and wedding' with his younger girl cousins. To him, it came naturally. He felt that playing with the boys would be too boring and dull. Arjie's problems start from the day that he is caught wearing a sari by his Kanathi Aunty. At this point, his Cyril Uncle cries out: "Looks like you have a funny one here" (Selvadurai 14).
From this moment on, Appa refuses to let his son play with the girls. Appa is a man who is completely caught up in the idea of having a good reputation within the community. If the village ever finds out that Arjie is "funny," the Chelvaratnam family will be rejected and left out by others. Appa decides to treat this matter very seriously, He sends Arjie to a school where he will be forced to become a real man'- The Victoria Academy School (Selvadurai 210). Although Arjie completely disagrees with this idea, he feels he has no choice but to obey his father's commands.
Appa's different values towards life create a lot of confusion for Arjie.
The theme of conflicting cultural values is further explored through the character of Shehan, Arjie's boyfriend who is rejected from society because of his uncommon value system. Shehan's physical appearance differs quite a bit from other boys his age, "His upper lip was thin, lower lip full; his forehead was fine and well shaped, his eyebrows thick and unruly, unlike any of the other boys, he wore his hair long" (Selvadurai 217). Many of the boys tease Shehan for his appearance. Shehan is completely alienated from the school environment because of this; yet, he still shows assurance in himself and his beliefs. He has a certain power that gives him immunity; there is a confidence about him, an understanding of his own power (Selvadurai 217). Shehan also has a bad reputation at school because he is always called down to the principal's office. Although Shehan has these terrible problems at school, he is still friendly whenever the chance comes up. When Arjie enters the school at first, he is welcomed most by Shehan. He feels comfortable in his presence and they soon develop a very special relationship. Diggy, Arjie's brother who also attends Victoria Academy realizes that Shehan and Arjie have become very close. He warns his brother about Shehan: "You better watch out for him, you don't want to become associated with Soyza" (Selvadurai 231). Diggy explains that rumors are going around that Shehan has sexual relations with the head prefect. If Arjie is seen associating with such a boy, he too will be made fun of. However, this does not bother Arjie. He likes Shehan because he is different. Shehan is rejected and isolated by society because of his different views on life.
The Plot also contributes to the theme of alienation through the story of Radha and Anil who cannot marry because of their different backgrounds. Radha had lived in America for four years and was recognized as becoming somewhat "Americanized."
When it comes to marriage, culture and tradition are not very important to her. She believes solely in the theory of true love. Radha meets Anil, a Sinhalese man, at practices for the production of "The King and I." They both show interest in each other, but have to keep their undying love for each other a secret because of their different cultural backgrounds. Eventually, Radha's family finds out about her undercover love and becomes very upset with her. Radha and Anil's love is forbidden because of all of the horrible riots that are happening within Sri Lanka. Her family is a strong believer in stereotypes, especially when it comes to the Sinhalese. Ammachi exclaims: "Only a Singhalese would be impertinent enough to offer an unmarried girl a lift" (Selvadurai 58). In order to please her family, Radha tries breaking ties with Anil, but finds it impossible. Radha's family is left with no choice but to send her away in isolation for a few months so that she can forget about Anil. When Radha finally comes back she is forced into marrying somebody who she has no interest in. Doris, one of Radha's older friends, tries comforting her, by explaining: "Whether you married the person you loved or not seems to be less important as time passes" (Selvadurai 81). Radha does not fully understand Doris, but she sacrifices her happiness with Anil in order to keep good relations with her family. Radha and Anil's forbidden love story demonstrates how cultural clashes can lead to loneliness and segregation between two loved ones.
Similarly, the plot adds to the theme of isolation through Arjie and Shehan who have to keep their love a secret in order to avoid problems within their community. Arjie explains that being moved to Victoria Academy is the best thing that could ever happen to him. He feels this way, because he has finally found someone who sees the world through his eyes. Shehan, Arjie's boyfriend, teaches Arjie that it is okay to be different. Arjie and Shehan like each other because their relationship has such powerful and hidden possibilities (Selvadurai 256). Once Shehan and Arjie declare that they are boyfriends, Arjie becomes very confused. He finally understands why his father thinks that he is "funny". Arjie tries stopping his relations with Shehan, but realizes that he cannot.
Shehan plays a very important role in Arjie's life. He has helped Arjie discover who he truly is. This is the trouble that a person goes through when he cannot deny what he is, even if that means opprobrium from one's family and society (Smallbridge 55). Arjie realizes that in a sense he has vanished from his family, he explains: "I was no longer a part of my family in the same way. I now inhabited a world they didn't understand and into which they couldn't follow me" (Selvadurai 284). Arjie and Shehan's secret relationship has brought a lot of confusion into Arjie's life; their friendship has caused Arjie to detach himself from his family.
In the novel Funny Boy, character and plot are used to show how differing cultural beliefs can head to confusion and isolation. Before truly finding himself, Arjie goes through a lot. He is confused, scared and lonely. Arjie is saved from these horrible feelings through somebody who understands life like him, Shehan. Shehan leads Arjie to his epiphany. He helps Arjie to come to terms with his inner self and realize that he has to make himself happy before thinking of anyone else. Society should learn from Arjie's story and have an open mind towards homosexuality. There always will be some sort of discrimination by someone, somewhere. However, if the majority of people can learn to accept this issue, the world will be a better place to live in. After all, true beauty is found in our indifferences.