In Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children and Shyam Selvadurai’s Funny Boy, personal identity fluidly mixes with national identity. Both novels are set against a backdrop of communal division, clearly crafted by the aftermath of modern South Asia’s defining moment, 1947’s partition of the Indian subcontinent. While Midnight’s Children spins through landscapes such as Kashmir, Pakistan and India, Funny Boy is firmly situated in war-torn Sri Lanka. Because these works could be said to provide a literary lesson in the “official” history of modern South Asia -- sometimes to the point of overly-pronounced didacticism -- they also give us something else: a lesson in what constitutes, if there is such a thing, a “Modern South Asian Identity”(from an “exile” perspective, of course: both authors wrote from abroad, England and Canada). In doing so, the works offer a potent glimpse into the construction of personal identity in the context of communal warfare. While many such constructs abound through these works, like religious, political, or racial identities, perhaps the most intriguing of all -- since it is usually the least discussed -- is the construction of sexual identity in this setting of communal strife.
Rarely are sexual identity and desire fully realized in the “partition novel genre” unless they are adequately attached to violence and rape, usually toward female victims. The idea of a constructed sexualized identity – and especially the psychology behind it -- simply has not been given much credence in addressing the seemingly more “important” partition issues at hand. In Midnight’s Children, and especially in Funny Boy, this is not exactly the case. For in these novels, it is precisely because of the narrators’ construction of the sexual identities around him, that we begin to understand the full formation of his character.
In this article I will analyze the nature of sexualized identity as presented in these two “partition” books, which use constructed sexuality as devices representing the unspeakable character of forbidden desire during communal division. In Midnight’s Children (hereafter MC) this is revealed by any of the sexual relationships the female characters wish to pursue, and in Funny Boy (hereafter FB), by the inter-racial/communal heterosexual romances, and of course, narrator Arjie’s gay male love affair. As the books employ the concept of sexual identity to help represent the unmentionable nature of unauthorized sexual desire – in other words, the secret of the secret – I will analyze these works through the lens of the Unconscious, exploring what exactly are the hidden processes by which the sexual identities are conceived. In order to do so, I will draw from the works of contemporary South Asian psychoanalytic critics such as Sudhir Kakar and Gananath Obeyeskere, as well as modern feminist and queer theorists, such as Ian Iqbal Rashid. However, because the two novels so blatantly intertwine personal identity and national identity, my analysis will be less about the manner in which Rushdie and Selvadurai manifest their own unconscious desires, but more about how they appeal to the repressed fantasies and fears of the modern, postpartition Diaspora itself.
MC is a novel of epic proportions, telling the tale of Saleem Sinai, who born at the exact moment when India achieves independence – Midnight, August 15, 1947 – narrates his life story in the mirror of his nation’s own evolution. Dealing with weighty issues such as colonialism, racial identity, and familial ties in an ever-shifting framework, Children interweaves politics, religion, historical reality, and mysticism in a fantasy world every inch as real and unreal as ours. Yet, through the many layers, there is one static factor: the narrator’s almost-obsessive drive to discover other women’s libidinous pursuits – thus creating their sexual identities (for himself, that is) – and then seeking, with a tireless vengeance, to destroy them.
Throughout the novel, it becomes rather obvious that our narrator Saleem has troublesome relationships with women; he even states at one point: “Women have made me; and also unmade…I have been at the mercy of the so-called (erroneously, in my opinion!) gentler sex.” (Rushdie 483) Indeed, from the virginal nurse Mary Pereira, to his sister The Brass Monkey (later Jamila Singer), to his wife Parvati, Saleem’s situations with women are far from functional. However, as we continue to read the novel, we realize that the troubles stem primarily from once cause: Saleem’s vision of female sexuality -- possessed entirely of fear and loathing. Apparently for him, there is no good woman but a desexed woman, and this is seen through many episodes, ending with the actual castrating of him via Indira Gandhi.
Here, briefly, are the most pivotal instances that emblematize his curiosity and fear of female sexuality. First and foremost, during his childhood, after sensing that his mother is having an affair, he vigorously follows her to a café, where he witnesses her –gasp!-- kissing a glass which is then kissed by her amour:
What I saw at the very end: my mother’s hands raising a half-empty glass of Lovely Lassi; my mother’s lips pressing gently, nostalgically against the mottled glass; my mother’s hands handling the glass to her Nadir-Qasim; who also applied, to the opposite side of the glass, his own, poetic mouth. (260)
This incident drives young Saleem mad, and it is here, he sheepishly admits, “at the age of ten I wasn’t disposed to be sympathetic; and in my own way, I began to dream dreams of revenge.” (261) What is most funny, however, is that his age really didn’t matter…as we shall see, this revenge against women who want sexual fulfillment doesn’t end at the age of ten. For Saleem finally successfully avenges his trauma some time later, when he fines an “unfaithful” woman by having her shot in the stomach, and her lover killed. This incident – “The Sabarmati affair” is as follows: Saleem is unhappy that Lila Sabarmati, the wife of a mister Commander Sabarmati, is having an affair with a mister Homi Catrack. Saleem sends an anonymous revelatory note to the Commander, who ends up killing Catrack and severely wounding Lila. What happens next is a court scandal, in which the public begins cheering for the Commander, and demonizing Lila. Eventually the Commander is put in jail, but not until we hear Saleem joyously proclaim to his mother, “an unfaithful wife is a terrible thing, Amma.” (315)
After the incident his mother stops seeing her lover, and “fell victim to the fate of all women in our family, namely the curse of growing old before her time; she began to shrink, and her hobble became more unpronounced, and there was the emptiness of age in her eyes.” (317) This leaves the reader to ask: Is it really just “fate,” or just the natural effect of having impotent “frozen” husbands and then getting shot if you try to find gratification elsewhere? Among many other similar incidences in the book, one more important situation remains: Saleem’s visit to a female prostitute. This is perhaps the only time we read of a woman fully connected to her sexuality ,and what is she? A whore. And even now, dignity is still a forgotten word: she claims to be five-hundred-and twelve years old, and is in the words of Saleem, “the oldest whore in the world.” In other words, female sexuality finally arrives, but only out of “a cracked wrinkled leather-ancient body.” Women are radically desexualized to such an extent that even the whore – the only acceptable sexualized woman -- is in reality, a monstrous, skeletal witch.
What kind of woman, then, can possibly be accepted by Saleem? Well, it is obvious that hookers and unfaithful women are no-no’s, and that the mothers in his family are too…after all, they had to have had sex in order to have children, no? That must leave the spinsters – no… that won’t do either! Remember unhappy, unmarried Aunt Alia? She was the one who wreaked havoc upon Saleem’s house with the bitterness of her cooking. That only leaves wholesome, pure, virginal Mary Pereira, who chose to remain unmarried by Choice, and who chose to remain sexless by Choice. Mary alone, among all the women, winds up independently successful and, more importantly, Alive, in MC, managing a pickle factory at the book’s conclusion. (Yes, faithful Padma survives. Who else would “look after” our man Saleem?)
Before I conclude this section, let me not forget the quasi-successful “Emergency chapter,” felt by many critics to be the book’s weakest point. While I agree with this position to a certain extent (the supposed satire left much to be desired), it is necessary to analyze this chapter in relation to the book’s desexualization of women. Here, Saleem recounts his experience in India during the Emergency. (Our narrator states that, with the advent of Lady Gandhi, he “inhaled once again the sharp aroma of despotism. It smelled like burned oily rags.”) Residing in a magician’s ghetto in Delhi, he is forcibly removed (the other inhabitants either manage to escape or are killed by government civil servants) and taken to the Widow’s Hostel, a “home for bereaved women,” where he is imprisoned and forcibly sterilized. A “testectomy,” to be exact.
Though this sequence in the novel most obviously provides a political commentary on the Emergency, it is highly fascinating to read this chapter in the context of MC’s treatment of women. Specifically, his desexing of women. What can be read merely as an indictment on Indira politics takes on a heightened level after witnessing the previous representations of female sexuality. In other words, Indira Gandhi is not to be loathed for her laws, but for being a woman in power: “An Avenging Goddess” who wreaks pain because she is a Widow, a Widow who has nevertheless subverted her sexuality into political tyranny. This woman, then, is not fully desexed, and proves this by doing the exact thing that Saleem has probably been fearing – and possibly desiring: she takes away his manhood.
Looking back at these incidences, the obvious question is, “what was Rushdie thinking?” Though there is nothing truly odd about his, shall we say, problematic rendering of female characters (his biggest ideological calamity in nearly all of his novels), there is something strange at work here in MC. Given Rushdie’s penchant for detached, ironic humor -- chilling and virulently passionless -- it is curious to find such a serious, hyper-passionate presentation of female sexuality via Saleem’s zealous create-and-destroy-tactic against the women in the book. Indeed, though many critics have added that Rushdie is always winking at the reader – wishful thinking, and an escape route if there ever was one – when Saleem makes comments such as “what mother has any business to … in full view of her son, how could she how could she how could she” (261), that wink transforms into a serious gaze.
The “humor/irony defense” thus can not entirely support the curiously malicious treatment of female sexuality in MC. Then what? Can we merely say that Rushdie in MC, for all his praised “originality,” is just one of the legions of contemporary English-writing hetero-male authors of South Asian descent with little regard, or respect, to the full character development of his Sisters? Perhaps, but this is overly simplistic. For even if this is the case, there is something more. In MC, the troublesome vision of female sexuality is glaringly consistent, and therefore explicitly important in understanding not just the narrator’s – or even the author’s – mind, but also that of the communally-divided subcontinent from where it occurs. It is my contention that Rushdie -- in addition to possibly manifesting his own neuroses through the creation/ destruction of the sexualized female in the novel – is doing something else: he is appealing to the unconscious of a specific Postcolonial, Postpartition South Asian mindscape by tapping into the subcontinent’s own repressed fantasies -- and fears – of women.
Psychoanalyst Sudhir Kakar states that the Indian infant – specifically the male infant – from the moment of birth, is greeted with extreme amounts of affection, care, and devotion from the mother. “An Indian mother is inclined towards a total indulgence of her infant’s wishes and demands, whether these be related to feeding, cleaning, sleeping or being kept company.” (Kakar 81) Thus, early infancy proves wonderfully rewarding for the male infant. During the weaning years, they are never separated from their mothers for long; “an infant’s mother is his willing slave, and he becomes something of a tyrant. (Carstairs 157) In MC, it is perfectly clear that Saleem’s infancy represents this “total indulgence.” In fact, the situation is quite severe in the novel, in which we find that Saleem’s mother Amina not only dotes intensively, but must fight for the child’s affections with Mary:
Baby Saleem became…the battleground of their loves; they strove to undo one another in demonstrations of affection; while he, blinking by now, gurgling aloud, fed on their emotions, using it to accelerate his growth, expanding and swallowing in infinite hugs kisses chucks-under-the-chin…(Rushdie 148)
Yet, when this period ends, and the mother no longer maintains her unquestioning devotion, the male infant feels an intense fear of betrayal, a fear dramatically different from the Western infant’s dilemma. Carstairs argues that, unlike the Western male child, whose familiarity with delayed satisfaction from his mother has enabled him to indulge his aggressive phantasies in moderation, desertion on the part of the Indian mother seems a final one:
In [the Indian male infant’s] phantasy, she becomes someone terrible, revengeful, bloodthirsty and demanding in the same limitless way as the imperious child. As the Goddess, she is seen as a horrific figure, decapitating men and drinking their blood…She becomes kind and rewarding, a mother again and no longer a demon, only when one has surrendered one’s manhood and become a helpless infant once again. (Carstairs 159)
So here now, the “Good Mother” has become the “Bad Mother.” However, Kakar -- as well as Obeyeskere – find flaw in localizing the “Bad Mother” phenom to South Asia specifically, stating that in ALL societies, this image combines both “the aggressively destroying and the sexually demanding themes.” And indeed, in much of Western literature, contemporary or classic, we find this exact theme. Janet Adelman, in her innovative feminist-psychoanalytic reading of Hamlet, tells that the Danish Prince’s ultimate fears are caused by “the legacy specifically of the sexualized maternal body.” (Adelman 271)
Yet, there is a dramatic difference between the concepts of the Western child/bad mother and the Indian child/bad mother, a difference well-documented in MC. The difference, simply stated, is specific cultural institutions, such as the joint family. The newly-married female enters the joint family under the pretext that “the reinforcers of the marital bond are religious and ideological sentiments rather than those generated from sexual interests.” (Obeyesekere 435) The female, realizing that the mother-in-law still remains the primary nurturer for her husband, finds that her need for love cannot be fully satisfied in the joint family. The result? The wife remains sentimentally attached to her own family of orientation, so it is only through the birth of a child – a son – that her starved affective needs are realized, often in unconsciously sexual ways. As Kakar summates, “In Indian society as a whole…the aggressive dimension of maternal feelings toward the male child is comparatively weak. Rather, it is in the sphere of unsatisfied erotic needs, a seductive restlessness, that the possibility of disturbance lies.” (Kakar 90) And indeed, “this seductive restlessness” of the South Asian “Bad Mother-Complex” is irrepressibly invoked in MC through the psychosexually-frustrated character of Saleem’s mother, Amina Sinai.
Saleem leaves no doubt as to his Amma’s unresolved desires for Nadir Khan, the man whom she loved while in her family of orientation. Says our narrator with all the subtlety of an idli-grinder, in reference to his days of infancy:
And while I made unavailing efforts to get to my feet, Amina, too, was in the grip of a useless resolve – she was trying to expel from her mind the dream of her unnameable husband…a dream of such overwhelming reality that it stayed with her throughout her waking hours.” (149)
Amina’s frustrations represents those of the young wife’s entry into the joint family. Her unfulfilled erotic desires have now been projected onto Baby Saleem, who, in fear of her betrayal – witnessed concretely in the form of Mary’s revelation of the boy’s “true” biological roots – and in anger at her “seductive restlessness” and her “bloodthirstiness,” wages a vendetta against all the sexualized adult women in the novel.
Kakar states that the male child has four principal unconscious defenses against the sexual mother. The first three are as follows: one; the “fantasied clitoridectomy,” or the complete desexing; two, matricide followed by resurrection and deification; and third, the fantasy of having been born of a man alone, without a woman’s involvement. (Kakar 99) Among these options in MC, the first defense – complete desexing -- is, obviously, the most visible and common throughout. In the novel, therefore, the Bad Mother has attained an even worse title: the Damned Mother. Her fate lies in the hands of her son, who will spare no expense in his fantasied removal of her sexuality in total. As mentioned before, Saleem ferociously seeks revenge against his mother’s sexuality by literally having Lila Sabarmati shot and her lover killed. The result, of course: the mother stops seeing her lover, and falls victim to the fate of his family’s women, “growing old before her time.” This deliberate aging – a symbolic radical desexing – certainly succeeds in ending not only the cause but also the emblem of his mother’s lust. Similarly, his “prostitute” (who, if we recall, claimed to be “five-hundred-and-twelve years”) faced such a desexing before he even met her, leaving the reader to exclaim, Lucky Saleem! Less work for him!
However, perhaps the fourth unconscious defense, considered by Kakar as one of the principal defenses, is most graphically painted in MC: the fantasied renunciation of masculinity, the self-castration. Exemplifying this defense is the ancient Hindu myth of Lord Shiva and Devi:
Devi and her army of goddesses, after killing the Demon Ruru, were hungry for food. Devi summoned Shiva and said, “you have the form of a goat and you smell like a goat. These ladies will eat your flesh or else they will eat everything, even me.” Shiva agreed, but Devi refused to touch the vile food. Finally Shiva said, “I will give you something never tasted by anyone else: the two balls resembling fruits below my navel. Eat the testicles that hang there and be satisfied.” Delighted by this gift, the goddess praised Shiva. (Kakar 98)
Indeed, for all of his passionate attempts at desexualizing the women around him, Saleem himself ends up desexed by Indira the Widow. This castration, then, presents the ultimate manifestation of his dual-pronged anxiety: on one side, his fear of castration by the “bloodthirsty,” sexualized Maternal figure; on the other side, his fantasied defense through castration. As he says, “that was how I learned my meaning in the crumbling palace of the bruised-breasted women.”(Rushdie 522) The “Avenging Goddess” has ultimately castrated him, and he has allowed it.
The insertion of the decidedly non-fictional Avenging Goddess, a.k.a. Indira Gandhi, leads us to the issue of the psychology behind the actual political context of Saleem’s development. We have already discussed the unconscious processes as ordained by the general cultural makeup of the subcontinent (the familial structures, particularly the joint-family and mother/son roles) – but how does the actual postcolonial, postpartition context inform the representation of female sexual identity in MC?
“Is not Mother India, Bharat-Mata, commonly thought of as female?” asks Saleem. (Rushdie 483) Yes, indeed, and his extreme desexing of women, culminating with the renunciation of his masculinity to Indira-Mata is powerfully tied to the notion of the Female India. More specifically, the Female India who was raped by the Male British Colonial forces, as well as viciously butchered by the Male Partitioner’s knife, and now constantly threatened by the Male nation-bodies carved upon her dissected flesh. In discussing postpartition India, McKean describes it thusly:
The nation is figured as a loving Mother surrounded by her devoted children…Muslims (as heirs of Muslim invaders) figure as the tyrannical Father. Whether celibate or supported by their devoted wives, Bharat Mata’s sons are valiant protagonists whose struggle is a righteous patricide, a conquest that simultaneously liberates the nation - the Mother and her children – and enables her sons to enjoy the power and riches they have successfully wrested from the malevolent Father. (McKean 252)
From this perspective, Saleem’s imagined creation and willful destruction of female sexuality presents the postcolonial, postpartition India identity: Bharat-mata as a loving yet helpless mother, who must be (still) saved from the sexual aggression of the brutal masculine forces that have historically raped her. As a result, she is thus to be “protected” from her own sexuality, for that was the implicit cause of her rapes in the first place. In an effort to deal with his incestuous desire for Jamila Singer, Saleem says: “Had I already understood how I had simply transferred on to her shoulders the adoration which I now perceived to be a vaulting, all-encompassing love of country? When was it that I realized that my truly-incestuous feelings were for my true birth-sister, India herself…?”(461) Indeed, if Saleem is attaching an erotic desire upon his country, then the only natural recourse is castration. For how can he, after shielding the country’s sexuality so vehemently through his actions against women, now cope with the fact that he himself wishes to seduce her?
Allowing Indira-mata to take his manhood seems to be the appropriate answer. In a way, this “self-castration” to the nation presents another layer to the previously-mentioned castration defense of the son against maternal sexuality: for this time, not only does it save him from the sexualized mother – it protects her from him.
Ultimately, by appealing to the male-centered subcontinent’s collective desires and fears of its women – through both cultural and political contexts – Rushdie’s MC, in the end, serves as an unlikely manual of the national psyche’s male construction – and destruction -- of female sexual identity.
While MC can be seen as the “textbook case” of male-created female sexuality in the modern South Asian Unconscious, FB provides the perfect opposite, appealing not simply to the Diaspora’s current traditional hidden existence, but, instead, its possible future. For this book’s narrator himself is not the “textbook” South Asian male protagonist: unlike the gratuitously heterosexual Saleem (who consistently must remind us/himself of his sexual orientation – often to the point of aggravation -- “Oof, mister,” Padma exclaims, “that’s too much women!”), Arjie loves men.
FB -- an intimate, delicately written novel – tells the story of Arjie Chelvaratnam, a Hindu Tamil boy coming-of-age in war-torn Sri-Lanka. Divided into six chapters which easily could be considered independent stories of their own, the book begins with innocent children at play, and ends with a stunning account of the 1983 Colombo riots. All of the six mini-stories evoke the central themes of forbidden love, racial conflict, class division, as well as issues of territory and allegiance. In “Radha Aunty,” Arjie’s beloved Radha Aunty attempts to forge a romance with Anil, the Sinhalese man in love with her, only to eventually marry a Tamil. “See No Evil, Hear No Evil,” encounters this theme of cross-boundary love again, but here we discover that the affair between Arjie’s mother and Daryl Uncle – a white man – is affected as much by class as it as by race. Similarly, “Small Choices” attacks the very nature of communal allegiance as Arjie’s father must choose between his community and his actual territory. The finale, “Riot Journal: An epilogue,” vividly documents, in present-tense diary-form, the exploding summer riots of 1983, inevitably resulting in the Chelvaratnam’s family’s final exile to Canada upon the complete burning of their home.
Before we look at the two other stories in the novel -- “Pigs Can’t Fly” and “The Best School of All” – in which notions of constructed sexual identity within the cultural/political context assume its fullest expression, let us first take a look at the first obviously marked contrast between MC and FB. Arjie has a far different construction of adult women’s sexuality than Saleem does. Rather than desex the women around him, he seeks, instead, to aid and liberate them. In her feminist critique of FB, “The Corporeality of Desire,” Smaro Kamboureli writes, “…Selvadurai casts Arjie in the role of the best and most trustworthy ally adults in distress can find…acting at once as their strong alibi and a silent witness.” Indeed, from being with Radha Aunty during her secret liaisons with Anil, to literally residing in the “hill cottage” bungalow in which his mother “vacations” with Daryl Uncle, our young Arjie is always in the picture, continually encouraging the complete expression of these women’s forbidden desires.
Although he, at first, is perturbed by Daryl Uncle’s presence (“My bliss was to be disturbed, for I knew… I would no longer have Amma’s entire attention”), he later finds pleasure in his mother’s fulfilled romantic desires: “Amma was happier than I ever remember being, and this made her even more kind and loving towards me.” (113) Why such a stark difference between Arjie’s and Saleem’s outlook? Does not Arjie have the same fears of the sexualized, “bloodthirsty” mother? The answer lies, once again, beneath the surface: FB, just like MC, has tapped into the hidden fantasies of Modern South Asia. But unlike the “textbook” Saga of Saleem, these fantasies emerge from a far lesser-realized – and hence much-newer -- psychic base of the Diaspora. Like the subcontinental fracture from which it emerges, the Tale of Arjie is less about the limitations of the South Asian Unconscious, but rather about its liberating possibilities.
To understand this, let us first look at “Pigs Can’t Fly.” This opening story gives us a window into young Arjie’s childhood by detailing his special bride-bride game played at his grandparents’ house during “spend-the-day.” Playing with the girls, Arjie luxuriantly transforms himself in his bridal wear, as he tells us:
I was able to leave the constraints of my self and ascend into another, more brilliant, more brilliant 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. (Selvadurai 5)
Arjie does not realize that anything is wrong with his play until his envious cousin, “Her Fatness,” calls him a pansy, a faggot, a sissy. He and the other girls retaliate with “go away fatty-boom boom!,” an insult that succeeded, he says, because they all understood. However, the fact remains. Regarding his cousin’s words, he states, “it was clear by this time the names were insults.” From here on, when the adults find the sari-draped Arjie, problems ensue, and he understands that his play is wrong. Upon asking his amma for the reason, he find out, “because the sky is so high and pigs can’t fly.” To further prove his point, she forces him to play cricket and join the boys. The day he must do so, he somehow manages to flee, join the girls, and fight Her Fatness, the result being complete exclusion altogether. As he concludes, “I would be caught between the boys and girls worlds, not belonging or wanted in either.”(39)
Kakar claims that in the South Asian male psyche, the intense mother/son relationship and the sexualized nature of the maternal threat does more than merely promote the heightened fear and anger of the Damned Mother (as evidenced in MC) – it also leads to a ‘maternal-feminine’ stance toward the world:
The expression of the maternal-feminine in a man’s positive identity is… that which makes a man more human. Its presence precludes that strenuous phallicism which condemns a man to live out his life as half a person, and it enhances the possibility of mutuality and empathetic understanding between the sexes. (Kakar 109, emphasis added)
He then addresses the powerful extent to which the feminine-element carves itself through the cultural psychosexual landscape: the hyper-feminine Hindu cosmology, with its multiple goddesses; the bhakti cult, which aims to worship godhead as a “wife to husband”; reverence to gay saints, such as Sri Ramakrishna, who adorned women’s clothes in his worship. Yet, Kakar does go on to say that the conscious manifestation of the male’s maternal-feminine stance as a response to the Complex has been far less acknowledged -- and accepted -- than the radical-desexing approach.
In other words, though Arjie’s cross-dressing may find itself in the Land-of-the-Bad-Mother-Complex, it is in a house few like to enter.
The reason is simple: the pure, unadulterated joy Arjie derives from his “bride-bride” game seems less of a defensive response to the sexualized mother, but more of a delicious merging of that very sexuality – an exhilarating embrace of fluid transformation and unabashed transgression. And, in a cultural context of civil unrest in which even the National Unconscious apparently broods about boundary-crossing, this act of liberation seems downright defiant. Arjie himself spares nothing in detailing the ecstasy of his new bridal self:
It was a self magnified, like the goddesses of the Sinhalese and Tamil Cinema, larger than life; and like them…I was an icon, a graceful, benevolent, perfect being upon whom the adoring eyes of the world rested. (Selvadurai 5)
As Arjie says, the “primary attraction of the girls’ territory was the potential for the free play of fantasy.” Here, then we find the redemptive nature of such fantasy: the blurring of lines and the blurring of categories. By consciously manifesting the “maternal-feminine” stance, Arjie has exploded the brutally-carved boundaries in his society, as well as presented a far more liberating alternative to Saleem’s unconscious approach. But as the novel shows – through a somewhat deterministic framework -- this childhood cross-dressing exposes more than Arjie’s taste in kohl.
As Kamboureli states “…It is not merely Arjie’s…excessive romanticism that bride-bride represents. The game takes him a step ahead of himself, for it already embodies the script of his future self, his gay identity.”
A-ha. Now comes the million-dollar question. What exactly does she mean by “gay identity?” This is the dilemma that expands furiously throughout the book. For how can there be this “gay identity” if there is no name for it at all? In the first chapter, we have seen that Arjie does not realize his play is wrong until Her Fatness unleashes her torrent of epithets, which he clearly understands to be insults. And upon his forced exclusion from both the boys’ camp and the girls’ camp, he states: “I would be caught between the boys and the girls’ worlds, not belonging or wanted in either.” Before, he easily found his identity within the girls’ world, to which he had always “gravitated naturally.” Now, being thrown out, and “caught between,” he is not so sure: he has become the Other, without a world to call his own, and thus, without a name.
The stories in another important collection covering war-torn Sri Lanka -- Jean Arasanayagam’s All is Burning – can be said to offer this conclusion about identity construction: simply put, one’s identity is, ultimately, reduced to the space one occupies. If this is the case, then the real question in FB emerges: what happens to one’s identity when that space has yet to even be named?
To begin answering this question in the novel, let us first look at Lacan, who took Freud’s theory of psyche and gender, and added a third crucial term – that of language. In doing so, he significantly developed Freud’s ideas of the Oedipus complex. Succinctly stated, Lacan offered a variation of infantile stages, which is as follows: During the pre-oedipal stage, in which the child knows no independence from the mother, it also undergoes a preverbal stage, where communication takes place without language. Later in this phase, dubbed the “mirror period” or “imaginary period,” the child begins to view itself and the mother as independent selves. This is a unifying period. From there it enters the oedipal stage, learning -- through language -- the social rules that prohibit desire, including the desire for the mother. Here, however, a crisis ensues: the child must learn to adjust to the system of names and naming, part of the larger system of substitutions we call language.
For the child has little doubt as to its mother’s identity, but who is the father, and how does one know? The father’s relationship is hence established through language and naming. The father -- who is thus only a name -- is the “veiled phallus,” a signified with the signifier missing. This absent signifier represents the “Law of the Father” -- the law of substitution, in which the absent signifier comes to stand for absent wholeness in language, and hence, for the psyche. In the Lacanian theory, it is thus impossible for the system of language – and naming -- to ever express absolute presence. (Althusser 26-28)
It is my belief that FB’s construction of the Other – Arjie’s “unnamed” sexual identity -- appeals heavily to Lacan’s “Law of the Father.” At first glance, this is not too shocking. After all, in a book entirely dedicated to the breaking-down of social boundaries, it seems perfectly natural for it to promote Lacanian philosophy. For if language never expresses complete presence, wouldn’t the social categories created through that system of language, via naming, always be artificial and fragmented as well?
But the ‘funny’ thing is – please pardon that pun -- rather than confirming Lacan’s theory of language and naming, the book, instead, subverts it. Remember, if FB cannot even fully comply to the “textbook” complexes of modern South Asian psychoanalysis, did we really think it wouldn’t do the same for a famous French structuralist?
“Words invent the world,” say Suniti Namjoshi and Gillian Hanscomber in Flesh and Paper. And indeed for Arjie the Other, words not only invent his world, they eventually save it. While it may be true that the use of a “name” inherently presents the “signified-with-the-missing-signifier” problem, in relation to Arjie’s sexuality -- this signifier – rather than fragmenting his world – unites it, and actually brings it to life. More importantly, it is a tool for self-survival. In the context of communally-divided Sri Lanka, in which interracial heterosexual affairs are explicitly prohibited, and all gay romances are implicitly prohibited – through the insidious silence surrounding it – “naming” not only becomes desirous, it becomes necessary. Throughout the novel, we continually see Arjie’s frustration at how those around him discuss his “difference.” Namely, they don’t. After the adults discover the sari-clad Arjie, Cyril Uncle cries out to our boy’s father, “Ey, Chelva…looks like you have a funny one here.” And when he overhears his father using the term “funny” again, Arjie tells us:
It was clear to me that I had done something wrong, but what it was I couldn’t comprehend. I thought of what my father had said about turning out “funny.” The word “funny” as I understood it meant either humorous or strange, as in the expression, “That’s funny.” Neither of these fitted the sense in which my father had used the word, for there had been a hint of disgust in his tone. (Selvadurai 17)
Perhaps one of the most telling examples of the name-problem is an episode involving his father and the younger Jegan:
“I’m glad you take an interest in him,” he said. “That boy worries me.”
I leaned forward, wondering what it was that worried him.
“Why, Uncle?” Jegan asked.
My father was silent for a moment. “From the time he was small he has shown certain tendencies.”
“What do you mean, tendencies?” Jegan asked.
“You know…he used to play with dolls, always reading.”…
…For as long as I can remember, my father had alluded to this “tendency” in me without ever giving it a name. (162, emphasis added)
As is evidenced, besides the explicit, negative name-calling from his childhood cousins like Her Fatness, he is never given a named existence by any adult character throughout the book. He is left to do the inevitable: name himself. And that he does, in the story I have not, as of yet, addressed: “The Best School of All.” For in this chapter, Arjie’s open secret, though still hushed, begins breathing – and, at last, speaking.
Placed in a private school by his parents – in the hopes of making him less ‘funny’-- Arjie finds another Other figure, the also-marginalized Shehan, who wears his hair long and is said to be having sex with a head prefect. Through Shehan he actualizes his desires; through Shehan he finds his name. In the darkness of a garage, Arjie has his first sexual encounter with the boy. And it is here where the language-factor truly detonates, as he tells us: “Now I could feel his tongue against my teeth, a silent language that urged me to open my mouth.” (252) Yet, driven by what he has faced, the internalized values of his “heterosexual” society — the suffocating silence surrounding his “funny” ways – Arjie quickly destroys the name he had just begun creating. “I saw that I had committed a terrible crime against [my family], against the trust and love they had given me…I wanted to cry out what I had done, beg to be absolved of my crime,” Arjie mourns.
This mourning does not last long however. Arjie’s need to claim his name, to reclaim his name – in other words, to exist -- proves stronger than his allegiance to the rigid boundaries placed by his family and his society. This self-survival manifest itself in the climactic poetry-reading incident. Arjie, having been selected by Principal Black Tie to recite two poems (which celebrate the school) at the “prize-giving” ceremony -- and forced to steadily memorize them with the aid of Shehan under the Principal’s menacing watch – ends up flagrantly “mangling” the poems on the big day. He does this to publicly humiliate Black Tie, for the crimes that the Principal and the school had committed upon his beloved Shehan. After the defiant act, Arjie simply tells his love, “I did it for you… I couldn’t bear to see you suffer anymore.”
Queer theorist Ian Iqbal Rashid, in his revolutionary essay “Naming Names, or How Do You say ‘Queer’ in South Asian’?” reminds us of a humorous, yet not unfamiliar, commonality within the Diaspora:
South Asian father to his son, who has just come out to him: “Why all the fuss, just get on with it and keep it to yourself. Don’t let it interfere with your studies. And for God’s sake, when you get married, don’t tell your wife about all this business.” (Rashid 3)
Indeed, homosexuality within the subcontinental psyche seems to be tolerated – as long as it “remain a private, secretive practice, masked by the public face and conduct of an immaculate heterosexuality; in other words, without being named.” (ibid.) This is definitely the situation in FB – in fact, Arjie has a much easier time carrying out his affair with Shehan than those involved in visible heterosexual affairs, such as Radha Aunty. Unlike Radha Aunty’s case, however, Arjie’s love is never consciously acknowledged. But in Arjie’s defiant misreading of the poetry – for his love of Shehan -- the secret is revealed, at least in Arjie’s conception of his sexual identity.
In misreading the poem, he has ferociously claimed his desire for Shehan. And, if we read the school as a microcosm of the divided Sri-Lankan nation-state – necessary to do since Selvadurai, unfortunately, forgets the art of subtlety in his depiction of the head masters’ feuding – the act of defiance represents the remarkable potential for a new Diaspora and diasporic psyche, namely, one that will only be benefited, rather than weakened, by unabashedly visible and ecstatic Queerdom. Simply put, if the school’s leaders represent the State – committed to fostering communal division – and the students are its “innocent” citizens, then Arjie has not only transgressed boundaries -- he has erased them. For by humiliating Black Tie, he has, in effect, avenged all of the students; he has, for the moment, completely erased the divisive weaponry of the State. Thus, his action for Shehan – an exuberant self-acknowledgment and self-proclamation of his homosexuality – has not destroyed his Society; it has, instead, saved it.
Though Arjie faces initial sadness by his family’s response to his ‘self-naming’ (“I now inhabited a world they didn’t understand and into which they couldn’t follow me”), this disappointment fades as well, as he realizes that things actually may have become better since the incident. He relates how his mother acts differently now, preventing his brother Diggy from following Arjie and Shehan:
“…Amma called out to him to leave us alone. This surprised me, because it was the first time that Amma had shown she was aware of Diggy’s hostility towards Shehan whenever he visited me. Maybe, in the seven months I have known Shehan, Amma has come to accept him as a friend of mine.” (295)
Indeed, some change has occurred.
Arjie has created, fulfilled, and, ultimately saved himself through naming. The Unnamed Other has now been named. This is not, as Lacan says, merely “the signified-with-the-missing-signifier.” There is little fragmentation here. After all, the “signifier” in question – Arjie’s othered sexual identity – had yet to be created. Lacan’s “Law-of-the-Father” relies on the premise that the actual Father exists in the first place, which presents one of the inherent contradictions to Lacanian theory: in saying we can never fully know the Father, because of his missing signifier – the “veiled phallus” -- we already do know him. We might not know if he is ours, but we do know the pre-existence of him, and hence, the pre-existence of the signified. In this way, we already do know, at the very least, the signified. In FB, however, we must remember that the signified – Arjie’s unnamed sexual identity -- does not even begin to exist until Arjie allows it to. Ultimately, then, Arjie’s experience with the fragmented psyche occurs before, and not after, he finds his name.
Silenced in both South Asian patriarchal societies and the white queer communities in North America and Europe, South Asian gays and lesbians have had to invent themselves, often with new words and names of identification.
The appropriation of language has been integral to the invention of identity for South Asian men and women who feel marginalized in dominant South Asian societies.
They have used language to name themselves and also to address heterosexist oppression.
Does Arjie ever say “I am gay”? No. He doesn’t need to. As Rashid states, “Radical queerness does not just have to be characterized by [orthodox models] of ‘outness’.” A new vocabulary is being built, and the Queer Diaspora strengthens as its new words spill out. For, in the end, we must never forget the most important aspect of Arjie’s defiant act: The way in which Arjie ultimately is able to express his queer love is through a MISREADING of the poetry. Not only has he used the power of verbally-spoken words, he has crafted his own way to do so. FB, then, in appealing to the repressed fantasies of a postcolonial, postpartition Diaspora bogged down by its own boundary-restrictions, has issued a new alternative, one in which words – names -- serve not to restrict, but to liberate. The “love that dare not speak its name” now finally does speak, in a fully present language of its own.
Many of today’s “partition novels” have positioned the notion of individual identity directly with that of national identity, often through personalized constructions of categories such as race, religion, gender, and class. Yet, other than discussions of rape and sexual violence, the conception of explicitly constructed sexual identity – in such a context of communal division -- has frequently been ignored, remaining hidden. Midnight’s Children and Funny Boy address this secret realm of sexual identity, presenting it within a backdrop of social turbulence. In doing so, they appeal to the neuroses of a postcolonial, modern Diaspora indelibly affected by the visceral legacy of partition – and the continued presence of civil unrest. These two novels thus have tapped into the fantasies and fears of the subcontinental psyche longing to be released from the boundary-constraints firmly branded upon its body.
MC’s use of sexual identity – specifically, male construction of female sexuality, evidenced by Saleem’s desexualization of the adult women in the novel – offers a blatant uncovering of the modern South Asian psyche. This is achieved not only through its “textbook” rendering of the culturally-contextualized “Damned Mother-Complex,” but also through its conception of the “Raped Bharat Mata,” answering, in an unconscious schema, just how strongly “nationalist discourse, first during British rule and later in the postcolonial nation-state, [ has] articulated the ‘woman question.’” (McKean 251)
While MC depicts the “modern” diasporic psyche, FB definitely presents its “postmodern” self – in the truest sense of the word. Audre Lorde once declared, “we have been socialized to respect fear more than our own needs for language and definition, and while we wait in silence for the final luxury of fearlessness, the weight of that silence will choke us.” (Lorde 44) The Tale of Arjie breaks not only this silence, but also the rigid constraints far-too evident even in the Unconscious Saga of Saleem. Arjie, rather than seeking to destroy the Sexualized Mother, chooses instead to become her. This hyper-manifestation of the ‘maternal-feminine’ stance, though, is only one way in which the psychosexual repressions of Modern South Asia enters new territory in this novel. For FB -- in its rendering of the relationship between the Unnamed Other (Arjie’s queer sexual identity) and language – potently subverts the Lacanian notion of the “missing-signifier” and the “Law of the Father,” insisting instead upon the virtue of language, and the liberation of naming. In doing so, the novel develops the idea of a profoundly redemptive diasporic Queerdom, one in which the communal division based on rigidly-carved categories can be utterly exploded by the invention of new languages and new names.
If, as is commonly thought, it is natural to think about literature in terms of dreams, then the desires and fears of the modern Diaspora evoked by Rushdie and Selvadurai offer two vastly different realities of our nocturnal fantasies. Midnight’s Children uncovers the dream that imprisons. Funny Boy uncovers the dream that liberates.
I wonder which of these dreams we will be able to remember once we wake up.
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