Discussion of the Sinhala/Tamil Conflict throughout Funny Boy

Alexis Goldberg, English 365, Northwestern University

Shyam Selvadurai's Funny Boy leads the reader through a narrative of the Sinhala/Tamil conflict in Sri Lanka, which first erupted in the early '80s. Even though the novel is very much about the personal growth of the protagonist, Arjie, each individual episode in some way highlights the growing unrest occurring in the nation. Arjie's own journey, then, can be read as the journey of the nation, moving towards the social upheaval and violence that the book eventually culminates in. Over the course of the book a through-line emerges which tells the story of the escalating conflict, first foreshadowing it lightly, but ultimately bringing it to the forefront of the narrative when the riots begin. All significant relationships in the text are dictated by this conflict, and almost every pivotal event that can be linked to the impending riots. When the conflict finally comes to a head and becomes the primary subject of the narrative rather than a link between the events, the linear form breaks down. Since the Sinhala/Tamil tension is the cohesive glue of the novel, the lens through which the reader can view all events, when it is highlighted the narrative no longer has a point to refer back to. As such, the final chapter is a choppy and disjointed journal entry, often omitting events and calling the reader's attention to the absences.

In order to elucidate the conflict's growth in the narrative, culminating in the disjointed final chapter, let us examine the book event by event to better understand the arc. In "Pigs Can't Fly" the reader is barely made aware that any such tension exists. The first reference to the two ethnicities occurs when Arjie describes how he feels when he is dressed up for the game "bride-bride". Arjie explains that he feels, "like the goddesses of the Sinhalese and Tamil cinema," (5). From this reference the reader cannot surmise that these two kinds of "goddesses" are in any opposition to each other. However, in the next paragraph Selvadurai foreshadows the riots when he describes the picture as one made "even more sentimental by the loss of all that was associated with them," and refers to the eventual move to Canada (5). Other than these events, the first chapter remains blissfully free of the conflict. Arjie is young, and not yet aware of the problems facing his country. However, as he grows, so too does his awareness of the conflict itself.

In "Radha Auntie" the tension begins to enter more significantly into the narrative. Anil and Radha Auntie's relationship cannot exist, given their ethnic differences. However the couple attempts to give it a chance until violence intervenes. After Radha Auntie's direct experience of the violence, she no longer has an open mind with regard to her love for a Sinhalese man. She reflects the view of her extended family, in transferring the feelings of hatred towards her attackers onto Anil. Ammachi and Kanthi Auntie's feelings when they say, "'Haven't you people done enough?' 'Please go... You are not wanted here,'" (89) are indicative of Radha Auntie's transformation as she does not stop them or intervene in time. Arjie's opinion is altered as well. Whereas once he romanticized weddings and hoped fervently for Radha Auntie's, when the time finally arises he is not pleased, as he has been altered by the tension and violence around him.

From this point on the conflict pushes further towards the surface of the novel. In "See No Evil, Hear No Evil" we are introduced to Daryl Uncle, and with him the government's role in the conflict and "The Prevention of Terrorism Act." We have moved from the personal (Radha Auntie's failed relationship with Anil) to the political (Daryl Uncle's tension with the government). The reader is also aware of the growing stakes surrounding the characters interactions with the tension. In "Radha Auntie" there was violence and tragedy, but in "See No Evil, Hear No Evil" there is death. This is also the first time that violence directly affects Arjie, shocking him into accusing Amma and destroying his idolatry of her (144). By the end of the vignette Arjie's perception of his life has been forever altered. In a stunning passage he describes "little clay lamps" Amma has lit around their garden: "They provided the only light, and in their flickering illumination, the guests, the waiters, the tables of food, and indeed the whole garden, seamed insubstantial" (150).

In "Small Choices" the violent events come at an even more rapid pace. Arjie is again directly affected by them, and at no point is there any more than a moment where the reader is not cognizant of the tension at hand. By "The Best School of All" Arjie is able to formulate his own opinions about the conflict, and even as he is beginning a relationship with Shehan, a Sinhalese boy, he is made more aware of the hostility around him. He opts not to "choose sides" but asks instead, of the distinction between Black Tie and Mr. Lokubandara (the Principal and Vice Principal of the school, who the reader is made to understand represent a microcosm of the larger tensions), "Was one better than the other? I didn't think so. Although I did not like what Mr. Lokubandara stood for, at the same time I felt that Black Tie was no better" (242).

Finally, in "Riot Journal: An Epilogue" the conflict culminates, both in the narrative structure and Arjie's own life. Since the tension can no longer be the thread that holds the story together, the linearity of the text breaks down. The journal is disjointed and entries, which begin in rapid succession soon begin to come farther apart, representing Arjie's relationship to the riots. He is not able to write for days, and as time lapses, events that have occurred are told in brief passing synopses, rather than given the attention to detail that has thus far been characteristic of the novel. Because the conflict has come to fruition it can no longer hold these details together, and can no longer function as the adhesive for the events in Arjie's life.

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Last Modified: 1 December 2003