The category of sex is often invoked as an issue of cultural and material difference. As Foucault states it a ‘regulatory ideal’ or a regulatory practice because of the simple fact that bodies are governed by the power to produce, differentiate and construct. Sexuality has become a major consideration in political life. Communities and nations have debated and struggled to address the issues of sexual expression and behaviour. The article talks about the issues of being different and the feeling of being considered a social Pariah as a homosexual in a political and cultural set- up. The article also highlights the risks that the characters of Shyam Selvadurai take and live as they come to terms with their homosexuality in the most traditional and repressive circle. It also brings to light the author’s own issues of being gay as a Sri-Lankan and the pain he had to take to negotiate his sexuality in terms of projecting, defending and weaving it into his identity and into the identity that his country represented.
Queer theory, Homosexuality, Hijras, Transgressive, Cross-dressing, Ponnaya, Effeminate Homosexuals, Deviant, Tendencies, Gay, Inverts.
Shyam Selvadurai: Homosexual Tendencies, Twilight Moments and a Liberated Acceptance
Queer theory is the academic discourse that has largely replaced what used to be called gay/lesbian studies. The term was first coined by Teresa De Lauretis for a working conference on theorising gay and lesbian sexualities that was held at the University of California, Santa Cruz, in February 1990. The theory, as such encompasses a whole range of understanding issues relating to sexual orientation and gender identity. Queer theory is largely based on the works of Michel Foucault, the French Philosopher. Besides Foucault, the works of Derrida, Lacan and Freud have contributed as important theoretical references. Beginning in the nineteenth century, sexuality gradually assumed a new status as an object of scientific and popular knowledge. The last two hundred years or so have seen what the critic and historian Michel Foucault once described as a ‘discursive explosion’ (Foucault 1998: 38) around the question of sex, by which he did not simply mean that it came to be talked about more widely or more often or more explicitly, relaxing the grip of repressive conventions or taboos but also calling for a genealogical analysis of sexuality as it has been lived and understood in Western culture over the last couple of centuries.
The breadth of output in literary and cultural criticism which has investigated the specificities and constructions of human sexualities is vast and it is a corpus which continues to grow and explore some aspect or representation of sex, sexuality or sexual desire. As such, ‘sexuality is much more than a facet of human nature, the seat of pleasure and desire. It has become a principle of explanation, whose effects can be discerned, in different ways, in virtually any stage and predicament of human life, shaping our capacity to act and setting the limits to what we can think and do’ (Glover & Kaplan 2007: 12). Thus, the growing willingness to put sex into question, even to search for the truth about sexual behaviour, gradually opened up new ways in which the entire field of sexual possibilities and sexual identities could be imagined, permanently transforming people’s most intimate sense of their sexual selves. This article thus aims in studying anomalies of sexual instincts with special emphasis on queering homosexuality in the novels of Shyam Selvadurai.
The novels of Selvadurai give a brilliant portrait of the anxieties aroused by gender non-conformity, especially in patriarchal societies. Apart from the issue of being different, the protagonists in Selvadurai’s novels experiences the discomforts and the risks associated with being a non-conformist in a country with persistently traditional and conformist norms about sexuality. The article elaborately studies the gradual and the ultimate passage that the protagonist takes to come out and to accept their sexual identity with corresponding references to the author’s own passage to becoming gay openly and the discomforts he felt of being gay in a country he considered home ‘Sri Lanka’. In the author’s own words, he explains his decision to be openly gay, ‘I remembered how it was for me feeling there was no one out there who was a role model of any sort. When I decided to be out in public, I was really thinking of that version of me in Sri Lanka who would read my book and feel relieved to not be alone. If I decided not to be out, I would be sending a message to that young person that I was still afraid and ashamed’ (Hunn 2005: 2). Selvadurai’s novels have the background of the struggle of the spirit against oppression – of class, gender and sexual orientation capturing the nuances of the Sri Lankan society steeped in ethnic riots, political tensions and cultural and social and sexual rigidity. He clearly has a deep engagement with his country of birth and its troubled history, but he is also aware of how impossible it would be for him to live there due to the country’s anti- homophobic attitude towards homosexual relationships. All the three novels chafe through the themes of traditional restrictions, rigidity and the disturbing blend of the Tamil-Sinhalese-British conflicts with that of heterosexuality and homosexuality against the strictures of family, marriage and patriarchy. As the Sri Lankan critic Prakrti has noted, Selvadurai’s particular gift is to understand how such factors as ethnic tensions and the legacy of British colonial rule are interweaved with the dominant ideologies of sexuality and gender. Selvadurai’s novels are a constant reminder of the price that a non-conformist has to pay rebelling against conformity – emotionally and socially.
Tendencies: The Unnamed Third Place
The polarisation of sex and gender into what theorists’ term a ‘binary system’ has largely eradicated legitimate third or fourth gender roles. Those who do not behave in ways considered appropriate for their biological sex are regarded as transgendered, for they have crossed over the socially constructed boundaries of gender – appropriate behaviour. In India, a gender variant category, hijra, remains intact despite the efforts of British colonials to eradicate what they called ‘a breach of public decency’ (Penrose 2001: 4). Influenced by western discourse hijras were viewed as inverts and deviants or gender variants or variant gendered. The concept of a third gender can be identified as a neuter bereft of either a masculine or a feminine nature. Arjie, the protagonist in Funny Boy is ‘funny’. He likes to wear saris and play with girls – and he hates sports. For Arjie, the sari being wrapped around his body and the veil pinned on his head, the rouge put on his cheeks, lipsticks on his lips, kohl around his eyes was a transfiguration of his self, ‘an ascent into another more brilliant, more beautiful self’ (Selvadurai1994: 5).When Arjie is caught dressed in a sari, his grandmother decides manual labour will teach him to be more masculine. This is the first time Arjie is embarrassed about his ‘funniness’, though he does not understand why. This resistance comes not only from the grandmother but also from the father because Arjie’s third nature stands out against the notion of societal tolerance. His unwillingness to associate himself with a gender in his ‘more beautiful self’ shows his recognition that he is ‘caught between the boys’ and the girls’ worlds, not belonging or wanted in either’ (ibid.: 39). As a child and young adult, Arjie displays ‘certain tendencies’ (ibid.: 162), as his father calls them, that defy accepted norms of the ways men and women are expected to behave earning him the adjective of ‘funny’ a word whose significance he does not fully understand but that he can sense nonetheless has a shameful connotation. Arjie negotiates his sexuality amidst family and political tensions becoming gradually aware of the repercussions of his ‘tendencies’ yet, struggling to occupy a space outside of normal gender and sexual categorisations.
Third gender roles and cross dressing in traditional societies entails a system of multiple genders that can exists only outside dichotomous gender systems, which polarise sex, gender and sexuality into categories of male and female. Thus, in a binary gender system, androgyny becomes the only available alternative. ‘Third and fourth genders, on the other hand, help us to perceive all that is left over when the world has been divided into male and female’ (Roscoe 1998: 210). Gender stereotypes imposed by his family explicitly demarcate the separate worlds of boy and girl, leaving Arjie caught between the boys’ and girls’ worlds, not belonging and wanted in either. Within these early episodes Arjie’s sexuality is negotiated solely within the confines of gender, male and female. His exclusion from both the boys and girls suggests that Arjie himself inhabits some third space in between these two, but that third space is merely described as funny and never named. Just as the space Arjie occupies between male and female is not clearly defined, so too are the words employed to describe this space vague and shifting.
Privacy and secrecy are stressed as important factors in certain sexual relations. If sexuality is to be categorised by acts, there exists certain socially accepted institutions that often harbour the hidden third natured sexual behaviour. Marriage is seen as one such institution which acts as a safe transitory alternative that helps to generate a facade of heterosexuality. Cinnamon Gardens is a tragedy of manners that centres around the life of a gay man living in a dead marriage in a repressed, conformist, colonial society Cinnamon Gardens talks about Balendran and his homosexuality both in Sri Lanka and in England, and the importance of his father ‘The Mudaliyar’ who represents the power that is organised and deployed throughout the choices that Balendran makes in life. In his days as a student in London Bala had carried on a relationship with a man called Richard Howland but had to abandon his lover and return to Colombo to marry his cousin under pressure from his domineering father. The return of Richard Howland to Ceylon as a member of the Donoughmore Commission sets Balendran at odds with the very social and familial strictures that have confined repressed and sustained him in his place as a normal man. Balendran had actually never been able to forget Richard. In his own words he says, ‘As for the type of love Richard and he had had, he accepted that it was part of his nature’ (Selvadurai1998: 38). His marriage to Sonia was to break the pressure from his father and society and in the words of Selvadurai; Balendran can be seen as a person with enormous courage to live the life he lives. In conforming to social expectations by entering into a sexually unfulfilling marriage, Balendran reveals himself as a decent but a weak individual, racked by the guilt he feels for neglecting his wife and for having betrayed his feelings for Richard.
‘As one by one we give up, we get freer and freer of pain’, he said, citing to himself that verse from theTirukkural on renunciation. How often he had repeated it during that first year of his marriage, to comfort himself for the anguish he had felt, the suffocation, lying next to his wife, Sonia, at night, unable to sleep. His suffering had been intensified by knowing that she despaired along with him, felt his alienation, almost hatred towards her, without knowing its cause (Selvadurai 1998: 38-39).
A number of factors and agencies are involved in curbing any tendency that stand outside the male/female category. In highly patriarchal societies with sharp gender differentiation, the development of a gender variant category is totally unacceptable. For Balendran his father’s hands on his shoulders were like clasps on the mantle of societal approbation that drew around him and controlled him. He sees himself as the gentle, humane, dutiful, ministering son and the gallant spouse to his wife, yet he feels that he is a failure because at the end of the day he has not been true to himself. Of even graver, consequences, however, is the fact that for the past twenty years Balendran has submerged his own homosexual desires underneath a façade of respectable familial propriety. Selvadurai explores in Cinnamon Gardens the attendant clashes between sexuality, colonialism and classicism inherent in the caste system, religious divisions, racial and sexual prejudice of Ceylonese society, when the homosexuality of a man of polite society was considered a regrettably irreversible disposition. The novel exposes the stifling conformity that is the price of acceptance in the wealthy precincts of Cinnamon Gardens.
As the narrative unfolds and deepens the liberal sympathetic Balendran’s world much repressed by his father reveals secrets that are an outcome of conflict The novel unveils Balendran’s secret sexual escapades with Ranjan, a private in the army even after his marriage to Sonia confirming the truth that Bala is a repressed homosexual, confined and steered to becoming a heterosexual by his father. The unnamed third place in Balendran case is treated as a deviance or eccentricity or a sexual variance which is anti-social or psychopathological, requiring cure or correction. A deviance which can be sanctified by tradition and formalised by recognised rituals like marriage. The Ceylonese society that rejects a third gender forces Bala to adopt a gender that is normal by repressing all tendencies that is innate and natural to him. The fact that the personal is political and any transgressive act can mess up the identity politics of an individual is a truth to which Bala sticks to maintain the tenet of his sexual identity. The epigraph of the novel, a passage from George Eliot’s Middlemarch – ‘… for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest is unvisited tombs’ stages the world of Cinnamon Gardens that have stories of unhistoric acts and unvisited tombs.
Selvadurai’s third novel Swimming in the Monsoon Sea has Amrith a gay teenager in the early 1980’s who portrays the same tendencies that Arjie experiences in Funny Boy but with a more intense, complicated and moving passage to an assertion of that identity.
But people can’t, unhappily, invent their mooring posts, their lovers and their friends, anymore than they can invent their parents. Life gives these and also takes them away and the great difficulty is to say Yes to live.
From Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin
The epigraph of the novel from James Baldwin’s novel Giovanni’s Room is an acute representation of the world of Amrith, in and out of family, friends, relatives and loved ones. The word ‘invent’ in the epigraph is an assertion of what one is given in a natural state, a transcend to insist that life comes in divisions and that it is an unavoidable fact with which everyone must in some way come to terms (1985: 101-05). Amrith in the novel visibly experiences an identifiable third nature in and out of his social worlds that is structured by his school, family and friends. The third unnamed creation allows Amrith to tie a cohesive thread with his own past and his future. Amrith looks forward for rehearsing and participating in the school play. He desperately wants to be in the school production of Othello – and manages to win the part of Desdemona (a part he covets, after winning an award for his acting as Juliet in Romeo and Juliet). He had won the cup for the Best Female Portrayal from a Boys School. Female roles are roles which other boys in the school limit themselves from performing but for Amrith it is role that gives him satisfaction of an unknown inner tendency. The role of Desdemona is a cross -dressing that allows Amrith to comfortably fit into a gender variance in his mind which would have otherwise caused unnecessary stir. It is a role that reveals Amrith’s hidden sexuality.
The character of Lucien Lindamulage in the novel is relational to the third gender that is posited against the character of Amrith who still is new to this variance. ‘He was a little grey-haired gnome of a man, with large ears and nose and thick glasses. He always applied white powder to his face, and this gave his dark complexion a greyish sheen’ (Selvadurai 2005: 59). Lucien was the talk of the town and Amrith had often heard his uncle tell his aunt that he should leave his secretaries at home when they went on business outstation. As he says; ‘There was something scandalous about Lucien Lindamulage that Amrith did not understand. It had to do with his constant round of young male secretaries’ (ibid.: 59). Despite Lucien’s odd manner and scandal surrounding him, Amrith really liked the old architect. ‘Unlike most men, Amrith felt that he could simply be himself around Lucien Lindamulage’ (ibid.: 59). This is the first tendency of inversion that we see in the novel as Amrith progresses further to explain ‘how he had once heard boys in school mention about Lucien Lindamulage’s secretaries and refer to the old man as ‘ponnaya’ – a word whose precise meaning Amrith did not understand, though he knew it disparaged the masculinity of another man, reducing him to the level of a woman’ (ibid.: 60).
The third nature in this sense is an opposition of the norm as the male takes on the appearance of a female or turns more passive. Amrith later shows such tendencies as his cousin Niresh arrives from Canada. Niresh is handsome, worldly and cool and the two boys hit it off immediately. Amrith’s ordered life undergoes an unexpected turn. Amrith begins to see that Niresh was keen to impress him and win his affection and that from the beginning Niresh was trying to build a relationship between them. ‘Amrith had never been courted in this way by anybody, and it was especially flattering because Niresh was two years older than him’ (Selvadurai 2005: 83).
Selvadurai in the novel chronicles the growth, development, rejection, repression and exploration of a fourteen year old’s homosexual tendencies. The unnamed third place that Amrith, Niresh and Lucien belong to and the tendency that alienates them from the rest is treated as transitory and dangerous in nature. The characters of Selvadurai keeps this place unnamed and unspoken many times. They are described as beings of an alternative gender, the ‘effeminate homosexuals’. A nature which is immediately preceded by vivid appearance of virile sexual behaviour abhorred and shunned. Selvadurai blends Amrith’s knowledge of this awareness with a beautiful animal imagery that enhances the affirmation that in being different he is not alone and that there is nothing wrong in it.
When they were in the aviary, Amrith watched Kuveni busily pecking away at the mango he had brought. ..It struck Amrith that Kuveni had never resorted to feather-plucking or any other signs of anxiety and depression. She seemed perfectly content to be alone. Perfectly content to remain silent. And he realised that he had grown to like her silence. He was not sure, at all, that he wanted another mynah (Selvadurai 2005: 206).
Twilight Moments: Embarrassed Funniness
Discourses in the past with regards to sexual identities were less defined and almost absent. Oblique gestures, sexual desires, relationships and practices were half understood and half expressed or veiled in silence as unconventional sexual behaviour since it did not produce any identity. Looking at the period before modern sexual identities, any deviant sexual act or behaviour was uneasily tolerated and though hidden was subject to discipline. ‘The term twilight can be used as a metaphor to explore those sexual practices and desires that is prohibited by law or custom but that which people pursue either in secret or as an open secret. Twilight can be those silent moments when a boy looks at another boy and longs for desires that are queer, when a man has secret sexual escapades with another man in secret and when a boy creeps into the bed of another boy and caresses his friend. These people’s desires did not create a fixed identity: they indulged in these forbidden moments and then returned to their ordinary lives, just as twilight fades into darkest night and night is succeeded by the dawn. Just as one can see only vague shapes in the dim light of dusk, twilight words, sexual desires and practices were only half –understood and half expressed hidden in the respectable darkness of the night. The metaphor of twilight offers a way of thinking the forms of moral and social discipline that limit deviant and queer acts by punishing, expelling or by obscuring or even subjecting to medical treatment but that which still exists in veiled and hidden forms’ (Clark 2005: 140).
Arjie in Funny Boy is bewildered by his incipient sexual awakening when he sees Jegan. Jegan is introduced in the novel as a twenty-five year old qualified accountant who has worked as a relief worker for the Gandhiyam movement, a movement helping displaced Tamils who were affected by the communal riots. Jegan is an honest and straight forward person who has come to Arjie’s family looking for a job and begins to work with Appa (Arjie’s father) at his hotel. Arjie strikes up a friendship with Jegan and becomes aware of his pull towards him. His funniness that was always hidden, unspoken or veiled and one that caused embarrassment begins to show first as twilight gestures, nascent and young but becomes persistent and strong later.
I had got a closer look at him. What had struck me was the strength of his body. The muscles of his arms and neck, which would have been visible on a fairer person, were hidden by the darkness of his skin. It was only when I was close to him that I noticed them. Now I admired how well built he was, the way his thighs pressed against his trousers (Selvadurai 1994: 156-157).
The hidden darkness of Jegan’s skin is a metaphor of Arjie’s sexual tendencies that are hidden. It begins to show signs as spurts of light as he views it closely. Jegan notices that Arjie is looking at him and as an assurance Jegan glances back at him and smiles, as if to say that it was alright. His smile makes Arjie feel shy but also happy. Selvadurai slowly highlights the moments of Arjie’s life when he had felt and experienced sexual desires much beyond the norm. How he had looked at men; the way they were built, the grace with which they carried themselves, the strength of their gestures and movements. Sometimes Arjie even dreamed about them and longed to become physically attractive and graceful like them. When Arjie’s father tells Jegan ‘That boy worries me’ … From the time he was small he has shown certain tendencies … he used to play with dolls, always reading … Anyway, the main point is that I’m glad you’re taking an interest in him. Maybe you’ll help him outgrow this phase … I don’t think there’s anything wrong with him’ (Selvadurai 1994: 162). Jegan was the first one to ever defend him and for this Arjie grows even more devoted to him. Eventually, Arjie understands his father and uncle’s conception of ‘funny’ when his friendship with Jegan escalates. He finally realises that his attraction for Jegan filled him with unaccountable joy. ‘The twilight metaphor can help to fill a conceptual gap; a gap that makes it difficult to describe sexual relationships, desires and practices that were neither celebrated – like marriage – nor utterly forbidden, deviant, or abject- like incest or sodomy’ (Clark 2005: 141). Arjie later strikes up an intense friendship with a fellow renegade student, Shehan who is rumoured to be gay. In this instance, Arjie defines ‘funny’ as a deviation from the norm that both he and Shehan experience. The romance between Arjie and Shehan blooms each progressively more violent in their repercussions. As their intimacy for each other grows, Arjie begins to explore his sexual self even deeper. He is bewildered when Shehan kisses him on his lips and finds himself thinking that there was a wanting in him to carry something through. He does not know what, but the fact that the kiss was somehow connected to what they had in common which Shehan had known all along. Later, Arjie and Shehan have their first sexual encounter together in his parents’ garage during a game of hide and seek. Afterwards, Arjie feels ashamed of himself and believes he has failed his family and their trust. Though Arjie is disgusted at his own desire, Shehan is upset and says ‘At least I know what I want and I’m not ashamed of it’ (ibid.: 258). This awakens Arjie’s sense of himself as Shehan points out. Arjie goes through a stage of tossing and turning, torn between his desire for Shehan and disgust for that desire. He is confused of which world he belongs to, the twilight world where he is in love with Shehan and where he is Arjie the homosexual or to his father’s world where his love is an embarrassed funny feeling and where he has to be Arjie the heterosexual. ‘The concept of twilight moments can help us refine the distinction between acts and identities that has been influential in the history of sexuality. Foucault’s distinction between acts and identities remain crucial to the history of sexuality because he exposed the modern invention of the notion that sexual identities, desires, and acts were consistent, he enabled us to unpack sexual acts from sexual identities’ (Clark 2005: 142).
Balendran in Cinnamon Gardens lives such twilight moments confused between sexual acts and sexual identities with Richard before marriage and with Ranjan after marriage. His relationship with Richard is an aborted twilight escapade that ended because of the Mudaliyar. Moreover it happened in London as a student and Bala was brought to Ceylon to seal that moment as a past that would never see the dawn. But when Bala meets Richard for the first time after twenty years Balendran felt a sudden pang of sadness, for there in Richard’s face, like the physical distance between them across the foyer, were the missing years of their lives …Their gaze met and, in that instant, Richard saw that Balendran’s eyes were unguarded. His own defensiveness fell away. As they held each other’s hands, there passed between them the understanding of their history together, of the life that had been theirs. It settled on them like fine dust (Selvadurai 1998: 106).
The moment returns again and this time it is even stronger and Bala struggles not as a young student, but more so as the son of the Mudaliyar and as a husband and a father. The twilight now comes back more defined, an act that refuses to fade with the setting of the night. This uneasy reunion with Richard throws Balendran into turmoil and re-ignites tension within himself. The awkward yet intimate meeting between Bala and Richard takes place as Richard invites Bala to have tea with him in his room. Bala ponders about himself and the difficulties he had struggled to navigate in his life as a homosexual and as a husband. The twilight metaphor helps us to get beyond the assumption that sexual desires and behaviours that did not follow prescriptive ideals inevitably destabilised the conventional order. At times the opposite was true; twilight moments could be complicit in maintaining dominant power structures. The concept of twilight moments also takes into account the gender dynamics or sexual regulation. While such incidents may be concealed because of the fear of public notice, the incidents usually considered twilight moments did not permanently stigmatise the perpetrators. Bala comes to know about his fathers’ own twilight weakness with a servant and feels a deep abhorrence for his father for having seduced a servant. Yet is unable to actually and totally hate his father for this hypocrisy as this was a fleeting, momentary transient state just like his ones with Richard and Ranjan, which remains a twilight secret As the narrative unfolds and deepens the liberal sympathetic Balendran’s world, reveals secrets that are an outcome of conflicted passions and splintered feelings The novel unveils Balendran’s secret sexual escapades with Ranjan, a private in the army even after his marriage to Sonia.
Balendran liked to take his time with Ranjan, to prolong his bliss as long as possible. For, once it was over, he knew he would be visited by a terrible anguish. Then, walking quickly away from the station, he would curse himself for his imprudence, for putting everything at risk, his marriage, his family name (Selvadurai 1998: 82).
These secret twilight escapades with Ranjan are a constant reminder of the fact that his sexual desires are limited by moral panics designed by his father. ‘Gayle Rubin has argued for the existence of “sexual minorities” who create their own rules and discourses and take refuge from the dominant culture. Rubin has also used the metaphor of walls to illustrate how societies distinguish between “sexual order and chaos”. This is a helpful metaphor, but it does not account for those who reside in the acceptable category but perform acts in the between zone and those who refuse a sub-cultural identity’ (Clark 2005: 148). The feelings of alienation experienced by Balendran are painful, as he twilights back and forth in and out of his self.
Swimming in the Monsoon Sea is a novel where twilight moments in Amrith’s life comes more as a luminal state between childhood and adulthood. A stage where Amrith initiates transgressive desires by having queer feelings for his cousin and by expressing it in his own sexual language. Twilight moments in Amrith’s case can be described as a stepping out of his conventional identity to perform an occasional act, such as, seeping into the role of a female character with ease or being comfortable and simply himself with a gay man like Lucien Lindamulage when otherwise he is uncomfortable with men. In Amrith’s all boys’ school, Amrith had never had a male friend. So when his uncle asks Amrith ‘isn’t there any boy from your drama society you’d like to have come and spend the day?’ (Selvadurai 2005: 22). Amrith fells very nervous and comes to realise that though he was respected for his acting talent, none of the boys had ever made overtures of friendship towards him. The seniors in the school always treated him with respect and often asked his opinion on matters relating to art and literature. Amrith also realises that they never made fun of his silence and shyness and instead greeted him warmly. It was as if, they already knew about him, his shyness and silence and even his dramatic skills were the twilight zones that they could see but was unseen to him. His growing friendship with Niresh is one such transitory moment that is shaded and camouflaged. Amrith’s twilight moments are made fun of by his school friends and his classmates who gossip and use shaming as a form of twilight discipline to make fun of Amrith’s queerness. While returning home after the rehearsal, Amrith for the first time feels strangely uncomfortable at the thought of his teacher’s and friends’ amusement over his growing friendship with Niresh.
Amrith’s twilight moments and his queer identity are merged with his feelings of jealously for Niresh. Sexual desire which is often an emotional and uncontrollable force is facilitated through the order of society bringing to light the blurs created in the dark. Amrith’s desires for Niresh that blurred the borders of gender are moments that were formed in the twilight boundaries of his sexual self. Amrith does not realise the developments of this moments until his sisters point it out. During a quarrel with Selvi Amrith tells her to stay away from Niresh as Niresh is his cousin who has come only for three weeks. Selvi points out ‘Don’t be so jealous, looking him up and down with disdain. You don’t own Niresh’ (ibid.: 123). Amrith gradually becomes aware of his own homosexuality and his jealously for Niresh. Suddenly like an unexpected monsoon, his whole life suddenly becomes storm-tossed.
Shakespeare’s Othello, with its powerful theme of disastrous jealousy, plays in the backdrop of the drama in which Amrith finds himself immersed.
The gossip surrounding the life of Lucien Lindamulage in the novel is one twilight episode that foreshadows Amrith’s own awakening of his sexual self. The grey haired man who frequented Amrith’s house on matters related to architecture and construction. Amrith was fond of the architect and in an odd way he felt could simply be himself with him. Lucien was the talk of the town and Amrith had often heard his uncle telling his aunt that he must leave his male secretaries when he went outstation. Amrith does not understand the seriousness of the issue but felt that it was an embarrassing open secret of his friend. Selvadurai paints Lucien’s sexual escapades as the twilight truths that are hidden from social light. The term ponnaya is the closest that Amrith can relate to when he sees Lucien’s secretary waiting for him in the courtyard – a young man in his mid-twenties with olive skin, glossy black hair and full lips. ‘Martha Hodes argues and posits a distinction between toleration – “a measure of forbearance for that which is not approved” – and “tolerance” – “a liberal spirit toward those of a different mind”. But toleration is still too ambiguous and positive a word; “forbearance” does not convey the sense of shame and secrecy that goes with “twilight” or the necessity of veiling and concealing the disapproved behaviour’ (cited in Clark 2005: 145). Lucien lives a life sheltered by the fact that his secrets will be treated as bizarre sexual acts one that enjoys tolerance and acceptance as twilight anomalies, yet for Amrith the sense of shame and secrecy behind this anomalies still exists as a form of disapproved behaviour.
The concept of twilight moments seems most useful in exposing secret desires, fantasies and practices to the harsh glare of daylight. The concept of twilight moments can thus help us reconcile rigid prescriptions about sexual morality, gender roles and class and racial boundaries with the frequency with which people engage in sexual relations that transgress these boundaries. The twilight experience was a moment for people who wished to explore unusual desires, veiled by a lack of understanding or words; after all the twilight is a zone where moralities and words and transgressive ruptures are not constant.
To Thine Own Self Be True: A Liberated Acceptance
‘To thine own self be true’ is perhaps one of the most frequently-quoted lines from Hamlet. Selvadurai’s characters consist of gay individuals finding a queer identity or a gay identity in an ever challenging heterosexual world. Characters paving their way through challenges to place themselves in a more positive, liberated accepted state of mind and body. Under Selvadurai’s skilful hand, we discover just how clichéd the line can be ‘to thine own self be true’ or in other words, to which self be true?’ Shyam Selvadurai explores the effects of ethnic naming, which has its roots in de-colonialization. As cultures were becoming freed from colonialism, they established independent nations, and these nations developed discourses that legitimized themselves. Nationalistic, or us, identities are often legitimized by being constructed as normal. But, in order to have a normal - us, there must be an abnormal - them. According to Anne McClintock, the discourse of nationalism is also masculine, and within this discourse, a kind of normalcy is developed in conjunction with and in opposition to discourses of deviance. The national identity is legitimized because it is the normal identity and it opposes degenerate identities (McClintock 1995: 46). In contrast, Selvadurai‘s characters do not fit easily within either sexual or ethnic boundaries; as such, Selvadurai highlights the possibility of a new - in between space of national identity, which provides hope for the end of constricting boundaries. Weaving together the ethnic and sexual identities of his characters, Selvadurai provides hope that a new politics of reciprocal recognition through touch can liberate those who are oppressed. Exploding the myth of heteronormative colonial power, Selvadurai creates a new kind of identity for his characters. Arjie in Funny Boy is bewildered by his incipient sexual awakening, mortified by the bloody Tamil-Sinhalese conflicts that threaten to tear apart his homeland, Arjie painfully grows toward manhood and an understanding of his own ‘different’ identity. Arjie begins exploring his sexual awakening and his ‘tendencies’ amidst political turmoil and growing violence of the late 1970s and early 1980s Colombo. Arjie’s father is a conservative Tamil business man who thinks highly of tradition. He believes that Arjie’s ‘funniness’ is a nurtured trait and a phase that will outgrow. His father decides to change Arjie’s school and send him to the Victoria Academy which ‘will force [him] to become a man’ (Selvadurai 1994:205). It makes Arjie wonder and he asks his brother ‘what for?’ and he answers ‘He doesn’t want you turning out funny or anything like that’ (ibid.: 205). Instead to his father’s disappointment, Arjie rebels against the sadistic principal and the social and political constraints the school tries to place upon him, and strikes up an intense friendship with a fellow renegade student. During his stay in the school and in the days that followed Arjie finds himself coming to terms with being a homosexual and realises that he does not hold the same disgust that his own father has for individuals who are ‘funny’. Arjie as a rebel and as a lover comes to assert his true self which liberates him and gives him a sense of pride in being gay.
A saying from the Tirukkural, verse 68 ‘A wise son gives joy not only to his father, But to all the world’ serves to project the relationship between the Mudaliyar and his sons. The Mudaliyar Navaratnam, a patriarch of an old and important family represents the law that Bala and his brother Arulanandan follow. The eldest son Arulanandan had stabbed his father in the arm because of the Mudaliyar’s resistance to his affair with a low-caste woman who worked as a servant at Brighton. Arulanandan was forced to leave with the woman to India twenty-eight years ago. Balendran is the obedient son, a gay man who has nonetheless dutifully married the wife chosen by his father and fathered a son. He feels that he is a failure since he had not been true to himself and thinks of his brother who had the courage to pursue his love for a servant girl, though at the cost of his father’s displeasure and disinheritance, a more honest individual. Selvadurai explores in Cinnamon Gardens the attendant clashes between sexuality, colonialism and classicism inherent in the caste system, religious divisions, racial and sexual prejudice of Ceylonese society. The real question is ‘To which self be true’. This is one question that Bala struggles with being in love with his wife and at the same time struggling with his sexual nature. The return of Richard Howland to Ceylon as a member of the Donoughmore Commission, a high level delegation from London sets Balendran at odds with the very social and familial strictures that have repressed and sustained him in his place as a normal man. The struggle of the spirit against oppression – gender and sexual orientation is at the heart of a person’s liberated acceptance. An uneasy reunion with Richard throws Balendran into turmoil and re-ignites tension within himself. Liberation of the mind is more important than the liberation of any other kind and Bala realises this slowly at first and more fervently later. As he decides to reignite his relationship with Richard Bala thinks of the risks he has to take to liberate himself and Richard. He takes a bold step to go and meet Richard and surprises him by inviting him to explore Colombo at night. Selvadurai sets up the Donoughmore Commission not just to introduce the freedom of adult franchise but also to symbolically introduce freedom in between Balendran and Richard as a price of rebelling against conformity. In his own words he speaks about the invisible bond he shares with Balendran, a married gay man in his 40s battling to live in a repressed, conformist colonial society. Cinnamon Gardens is thus, about personal courage and liberation. Sexual freedom requires an oppositional practice that is, transgressing socially respectable categories of sexuality and refusing to draw a line on what counts as politically or culturally correct sexuality. The feelings of alienation experienced by Balendran, is painful and his challenge oriented ethic of sexual liberalism ultimately leads him to the next stage in his life. Balendran’s sexual freedom becomes an ideology and a form of identity to assert an ever growing need for reshaping sexuality.
Perhaps it is enough to have one person to whom nothing is a secret, to whom one can lay open the inner workings of one’s heart …To ask for your friendship is, then, for me, an immense gesture of bravery. I make it now (Selvadurai 1998: 385).
Amrith’s awakening and his search for a liberated identity is more of an adolescent seeking to express his difference amidst a traditional high class family and a homophobic society. Selvadurai explores and projects the feelings of a young adult growing into homosexuality and the constant tension that Amrith experiences in the sea of his life. With passions he is shy about, but passions that completely captivate his heart and soul, Amrith feels he is drowning in the monsoon sea with Niresh. Selvadurai beautifully projects the growth of Amrith, a teenager revolting against the feelings of love, family and his own self. The novel chronicles the growth, development, rejection, repression and exploration of a fourteen year old’s homosexual tendencies. Amrith’s progress in a world where he is still answering doubts about his parents, family and his background, the entrance of Niresh and the subsequent feelings of love and infatuation gets bundled up with his feelings as a growing adult.
Focussing on the liberation of sexual pleasure, as the organising principle of identity formation, Selvadurai moves towards a more pluralistic sexual ethics – an ethics of sex positivity and sexual diversity through the characters of Amrith and Lucien Lindamulage. He brings in the politics of social liberation and merges it with that of personal liberation by positing disparaged sexual identities and styles. The chapter titled ‘Cassio’ in the novel is a total assimilation of Amrith’s life as a character in the play ‘Othello’ and in his own life. As the other boys make fun of the role and the impending homosexual scene in the play between Iago and Cassio, Amrith becomes furious and livid. Yet, the assignment of the role is symbolic in the novel as it serves to project Amrith’s tendencies and the sexual self that was hidden without an identity. From this point on, Selvadurai sets the acceptance of secrets, tendencies and family feuds positively. Amrith decides to set the barrier straight. The revelation of secrets, bonding and intimacies shared between Amrith and Niresh strengthens and constructs sexual styles that transgress the matrix of cultural and political constructions. Amrith’s identity as a deviant sexual being before, outside and beyond power is a cultural impossibility and a politically impracticable task of rethinking subversive possibilities for sexuality and identity within the terms of culture and norms of the society.
The last chapter ‘Roses and Silence’ is a chapter of acceptance. The chapter deals with the departure of Niresh to Canada and Amrith’s acknowledgement of his self. He quietly misses the absence of Niresh in the house and in the room. He does not know what to do and how to start his days without Niresh. Selvadurai gradually allows Amrith to come to terms with his sexual self. The visit of Lucien Lindamulage shutters Amrith totally, as all the pieces of the puzzle of his life fits into place. Amrith’s knowledge of his own self and his search for acceptance leads him to his mother’s grave. He sits on his haunches and looks at his mother’s name on the tombstone for a long time. He then looks around if anyone is looking and finally speaks out.
‘I am …,’ but he could not continue, for he did not know a decent word to describe himself. And he refused to use ‘ponnaya’. Finally, he leaned closer and whispered, ‘I am … different.’ (Selvadurai 2005: 205).
Selvadurai unobtrusively points out that one needn’t be gay, or extra-ordinarily different in any way to feel this same sense of alienation, and that in fact is a common aspect of the human condition. Selvadurai expertly paints characters as whole human beings, with all of the nobility as well as the faults that are inherently human. He reminds us of just how alike we all are, once we get past religion, or skin colour, or sexual preference. Thus, Selvadurai addresses the difficulty of being different in a funny way which does not conform to accepted gender and sexual norms. He brilliantly portrays the anxieties aroused by gender non-conformity especially in the Sri Lankan patriarchal society. Selvadurai elaborately presents the gradual and the ultimate passage that the protagonists in the novels - Arjie, Balendran and Amrith – take to come out and accept their homosexual identity. Thus, under Selvadurai’s skilful hand, we discover just how clichéd the line can be ‘to thine own self be true.’
- Baldwin, James The Price of the Ticket: Collected Non-fiction 1948 – 1985 New York: St Martin’s Press 1985.
- Clark, Anna “Twilight Moments” Journal of the History of Sexuality Vol 14, No 1/2, January/April, pp 139-160 The University of Texas Press 2005.
- De Lauretis, Teresa “Queer Theory: Lesbian and Gay Sexualities”, Differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 3(2), pp iii-xviii, 1991.
- Foucault, Mitchell The Will to Knowledge: The History of Sexuality: 1 New Delhi: Penguin Books 1998
- Glover, David & Cora Kaplan Genders: The New Critical Idiom London: Routledge Taylor & Francis Group 2007.
- Hunn, Deborah “Selvadurai, Shyam (1965-)” glbtq: An Encyclopaedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender & Queer Culture pp 1-3, 2005, http://www.glbtq.com/literature/Selvadurai_S,2.html retrieved on 11/03/2011.
- Penrose, Walter “Hidden in History: Female Homoeroticism and Women of a ‘Third Nature’ in the South Asian Past” Journal of the History of Sexuality Vol 10, No1, January, pp 3-39 University of Texas Press 2001.
- Roscoe, Will Changing Ones: Third and Fourth Genders in Native North America New York: St Martin’s Griffin.
- Selvadurai, Shyam Funny Boy New
York: Harcourt Brace & Company 1994 --Cinnamon Gardens: A Novel New Delhi: Penguin Books 1998.
--Swimming in the Monsoon Sea New Delhi: Penguin Books 2005.
Narola Dangti is Assistant Professor, Sazolie College, Kohima & Research Scholar, Department of English, Nagaland University.
Prof. (Dr.) N.D.R. Chandra is Vice Chancellor, Bastar University, Jagdalpur, Chhattisgarh.
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