Monoj K. Hazarika teaches English at Ramjas College, University of Delhi. His research interests include World Literature, Queer Literature, Film Studies, and Translation Studies.
This article examines Shyam Selvadurai’s novel Cinnamon Gardens in terms of its protagonist’s bisexuality. Temporally located in 1927 in colonial Ceylon, the novel explores the changing political dynamics of the island nation in the early twenteieth century, and how the principal characters engage with their individual issues of self, identity, and alienation. The article’s focus is the protagonist Balendran Navaratnam and his ‘sexual behaviour’ and ‘sexual identity’. It engages with exploring different ‘nuances’ –‘enforced’ or otherwise-of Balendran’s bisexuality.
Keywords: bisexuality, homosexuality, Kinsey scale, identity, alienation, Ceylon.
Bisexuality immediately doubles your chances for a date on Saturday night.[i]
This paper seeks to explore Sri Lankan-Canadian novelist Shyam Selvadurai’s Cinnamon Gardens (1998) in terms of its depiction of the protagonist’s bisexuality. Selvadurai’s first novel Funny Boy (1994) situated a young boy’s journey of self-realization as he begins to comprehend his homosexuality amid the growing racial conflicts between the Sinhalese and the Tamils in the 1980s’ Colombo. Selvadurai’s second fictional work is the historical novel Cinnamon Gardens – temporally rooted in 1927 Ceylon – the colonial nomenclature with which Sri Lanka went by until 1972. Its locus is the elite Ceylonese Tamil community, who reside in the affluent, fashionable Cinnamon Gardens suburb of Colombo. Juxtaposing two stories of self-discovery, one of Annalukshmi Kandiah, and the other of Balendran Navaratnam, the novel encompasses one year of the characters’ lives – beginning with the birthday of the Mudaliyar Navaratnam, Balendran’s father, in 1927, and ending at the same in 1928. As a historical period, the 1920s is significant for Sri Lanka as the British colonial rule in the island nation was beginning to wane around that time. Debates surrounding independence, universal franchise, and the future of the island colony were pervading the political scenario as the Donoughmore Commission[ii] arrived in Colombo to decide on these issues. Having this historical moment as its backdrop, the novel explores the principal characters’ struggle for independence and assertion of identity as they step across lines set by traditions.
The historical context of the novel goes as follows. Headed by Lord Donoughmore, the Donoughmore Commission was constituted by Dr. Drummond Shiels and Frances Butler. The Commission was sent to Sri Lanka to investigate the shortcomings of the 1924 Manning Constitution of Ceylon and to suggest constitutional reforms. Earlier “the Manning Reforms … abolished group representation and introduced territorial representation. This gave rise to
vociferous protests from Tamils and other minorities …”[iii] The Donoughmore Commission conducted a survey in Ceylon, paying attention to the arguments of various groups and sides. Two significant groups that the Commission met were the Ceylon National Congress, formed in 1919, and the Women’s Franchise Union, formed in 1927. After all the discussions and surveys and talks, the Commission had recommended “universal franchise, making Ceylon the first Asian country to receive it.” (Cinnamon Gardens 379)[iv] The Commission moreover devised a system of executive committees that would control all government departments. The committees would be formed of people from all ethnic groups. Thus “the system … was the Commissioner’s recognition of the multi-faceted nature of Ceylonese society. (CG 378). It, most importantly, rejected the principle of communal representation. It is at this politically charged, significantly remarkable backdrop in Sri Lankan colonial history that Shyam Selvadurai situates his second novel Cinnamon Gardens. At various levels, involvement of the principal characters with this political ambience and its turbulences – either directly or indirectly – takes place in the novel which, in the words of Selvadurai himself, is “a colonial Novel for a Post-post colonial age.”[v]
The novel revolves around two protagonists – the young school teacher Annalukshmi Kandiah and her middle-aged uncle, Balendran “Bala” Navaratnam. The chapters alternate between the two thus maintaining a very uniform kind of narrative design throughout. Vera Alexander rightly points out that “the dual shape of the narrative … forces readers to continually shift attention from one protagonist to the other.”[vi] The two principal characters, apart from tied to each other by familial bonds, also share a similar predicament in terms of their subjugation to life, manifested differently though, and then their eventual assertion of identity at the end of the narrative. The attention of this paper is centred on Balendran Navaratnam as it is through this character that Selvadurai addresses the issue of bisexuality. However, a certain sort of queerness can be attributed to the character of Annalukshmi as well. Though undeniably heterosexual, this character shows some tendencies not in tune with the traditions of her time which makes her queer to a certain extent.
Selvadurai explores the issue of bi/homo-sexuality in Cinnamon Gardens through the character of Balendran Navaratnam. Balendran, a forty-year-old man, kept his homosexuality undisclosed. Married to his half-English cousin Sonia with a son studying in London, he lives
in a world of his own due to his clandestine homosexuality. While studying in London twenty years earlier, he had fallen in love with an Englishman named Richard Howland. Balendran’s domineering, conservative, and orthodox father discovered the relationship and disrupted it, and subsequently ended it. In deference to the wishes of his father, Balendran got married but was forced to re-apprise himself in the wake of the arrival of the Donoughmore Commission as Richard Howland, his lover from the past, was visiting Sri Lanka with this Commission. Re-ignition of love between the two estranged lovers took place, and Balendran found himself in a quandary. As the narrative progresses, Balendran breaks his relationship with Richard as he is pulled back to his familial duties, asking him to leave Sri Lanka. However, by the end of the novel, he realises the importance of Richard in his life as the one who truly and completely understood him, and tries for reconciliation by sending him a letter asking him for his friendship. This is the overarching narrative curve of Balendran Navaratnam in Cinnamon Gardens.
The intensity of Balendran’s feelings for Richard can be seen as his father, the Mudaliyar Navaratnam informed him of the impending arrival of his past lover. Even after twenty years of separation, the name of Richard could bring out a very powerful reaction in him –
Balendran felt light-headed, felt the need to put his head between his legs, to have the blood enter his head again. But, at the same time, he had an equally strong need to maintain his dignity, his calm, in order not to betray in his father’s presence the impact that name still had on him after all these years, the combination of regret and dismay that arose in him. (CG 31)
The text provides some meaningful instances on Balendran-Richard relationship in London. Their first meeting, for instance, holds special significance –
… the first time he had seen Richard, [he was] coming across the lawn of Lincoln’s Inn, his gown flapping out behind him. It had been a fine autumn day and he, Balendran, had been leaning on the balustrade, too lazy to go into the library and study. He had watched Richard come up the step and Richard, looking up, had seen him too. “Hello,” Richard said, as if they had met before.
“Hello,” Balendran had replied shyly.
“Care for a tea or coffee?”
Balendran had nodded.
Balendran wondered, even to this day, how Richard had simply glanced at him and saw his desire. He, who was so very careful not to be detected watching men. (CG 112 italics mine)
This first encounter of Balendran and Richard is remarkable in that without any sexual sort of exchange between the two, it had a distinct, unmistakable element of sexualisation. It was a moment of recognition, as it were, between two homosexual men of their ‘commonality’ and their mutual attraction. There occurred just an exchange of glance between them, two strangers apparently, which was sufficient to take it to a different dimension. We get to see that difference being presumably materialised in their next meeting –
… Richard [was] standing by the piano, his face flushed with drink and the effort of singing, a lock of his blond hair fallen over his forehead, his hand around Balendran’s waist. As the evening progressed and their inhibitions fell away, Richard’s hand would invariably slip under Balendran’s spine until Balendran had to lean against the back of the piano so that the other patrons would not notice his arousal. (CG 36)
This jump in their relationship signifies as well as highlights Balendran’s affiliation towards homosexuality. The implied, abstract sexualisation of their first meeting received a distinct concretisation in the second. In the novel, Balendran is gay, straight, gay – alternately. Though the heterosexual manifestations of his character have never been explored explicitly, the textual implications are enough to comprehend his dominant inclination. He and his wife Sonia have a son – Lukshman, a character in absentia – thus establishing the procreative part of his marital life. But can Balendran be termed bisexual? Sex researchers have always found it difficult to put forward a clear-cut definition of bisexuality. Doubt, apprehension, mystery, and to an extent, distrust, have shrouded this aspect of human sexuality. It has been described as “a form of infantilism or immaturity, a transitional phase, a self-delusion or a state of confusion, a personal or political cop-out … even a lie”.[vii] According to Marjorie Garber, “bisexuality unsettles certainties: straight, gay, lesbian. It has affinities with all of these, and is delimited by none. It is … an identity that is also not an identity, a sign of the certainty of ambiguity, the stability of instability, a category that defies and defeats categorization.”[viii] However, The Encyclopedia of Lesbian and Gay Histories and Cultures defines bisexuality as “the capacity to be romantically and/or sexually attracted to individuals of more than one sex.”[ix] If we consider this simplistic definition as the definition of bisexuality for a relative convenience, then Balendran would perhaps not fit into the bill of bisexuality proper. The text makes it abundantly clear that Balendran does not feel any romantic or physical attachment with his wife. Rather a distance, a remoteness from her is what is felt by him. (After the birth of the son, however, parental bonding, the common ground of which was the love for their son, brought in an element of intimacy, rather companionship, between the two.) The text makes very straightforward mention of Balendran’s sense of alienation from his wife –
How often … [Balendran tried] 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. (CG 38-39 italics mine)
Cinnamon Gardens significantly does not have any moment of sexual intimacy between Sonia and Balendran. At times, there is a touchless, done-out-of-responsibility kind of holding of hands between the husband and the wife which has an element of asexuality in them (As opposed to that, the novel has two distinct kissing moments and implied lovemaking scenes of Balendran and Richard.) In fact, Balendran tried to distance himself from Sonia as much as possible by keeping, rather insisting “that they maintain separate bedrooms” (CG 80). A crucial phrase regarding Balendran and Sonia’s sexual relationship is “his formality even in their lovemaking” (CG 80 italics mine). This phrase highlights the lack of passion and desire which ‘normally’ accompany the act of physical consummation. When can one be formal in lovemaking? An act where there is every possibility to be wild, passionate, and informal? It is possible only when that passion and desire is missing. This phrase throws very definitive, remarkably meaningful light on Balendran-Sonia sexual relationship. Or rather, on Balendran’s heterosexuality. Balendran’s insistence on having detached bedrooms, his formality in lovemaking, his maintained distance are nothing but attempts to desexualise his relationship with his wife as much as possible.
Balendran’s clandestine homosexual encounters with Ranjan, “the one he always went with … a private in the army” (CG p.81) as he takes his occasional nocturnal strolls along the railway tracks further emphasise his sense of suffocation and alienation in his normative married life,
and the release (both sexual and emotional, to an extent) that he receives as he physically indulges with Ranjan. Cinnamon Gardens mentions –
They were a sufficient distance away from the wall now and they scrambled down the rocks to the beach, Ranjan taking Balendran’s hand and helping him. Amongst the rocks, they found a fairly private place ... A silence fell between them. After a while, Ranjan put his hand on Balendran’s crotch and began to gently massage it. He undid the buttons on Balendran’s trousers, and Balendran lifted himself slightly, so Ranjan could slide his trousers down his thighs. Ranjan bent over him and, at the feel of Ranjan’s breath on his arousal, Balendran sighed and lay back on the rock. He closed his eyes for a moment, then opened them and looked up at the night sky.
Balendran liked to take his time with Ranjan, to prolong his bliss as long as possible. (CG 82 italics mine)
Balendran enjoys bliss with Ranjan, the key-word in the above citation – an ecstasy which he likes to prolong as much as possible. This textual episode of clandestine sex, explicit in a certain way, though just mentioned once yet implied to have happened several times, situates his stronger homosexual affiliation clearly. Alfred Kinsey[x] devised a seven-point scale which measures sexual orientation on a scale of 0 to 6, with people who are considered “more heterosexual” leaning towards the lower end of the scale and people who are considered “more homosexual” leaning towards the higher end. Thus, an unwavering “utterly straight” person would be a “0” on the Kinsey scale whereas a person who has never been anything but homosexual in his/her entire life would end up as a “6”. A “perfect” bisexual would be a Kinsey “3”, since 3 is the median point between 0 and 6. How far applicable or accurate this scale is, is a different (and further probable) matter altogether, but an endeavour to situate Balendran on this scale would compel one to move towards the higher end of the scale as he seems to be more into the homosexual side of his orientation than the heterosexual one. In other words, he is bisexual with homosexuality being more potent in him than his heterosexuality. That potency makes him formal, proper, and distant in his forced heterosexual lovemaking. He does not feel as wildly about Sonia as he does about Richard or Ranjan or any other man. One cannot help but wonder whether Balendran would have ever married Sonia or any other woman for that matter had his father not compelled him to. Is it enforced bisexuality we are dealing with in Balendran? Would he have turned out to be a proper homosexual had the parental, paternal rather, enforcement not taken place? These are hypothetical queries but it appears that Balendran’s heterosexuality perhaps would have never been manifest had his father not intervened in his life and forced him to get married, and thus, so would not have his bisexuality.
A remarkable reference in the text is to Edward Carpenter[xi], the author of The Intermediate Sex (1908) which was a foundational text for the LGBT movements in the 20th century. Balendran had reportedly read this book and learnt that “inversion had already been studied by scientific men who did not view it as pathological, indeed men who questioned the whole notion that regeneration was the sole object of sex.” (CG p.58) Selvadurai even fictionalises a visit of Balendran and Richard to Edward Carpenter and his partner George Merrill in Millthrope. The text says –
When Richard and he had met Carpenter and his companion, George Merrill, Balendran had been amazed and then intrigued by the way they lived, the comradely manner in which they existed, the way they had carved a life out for themselves, despite such strong societal censure. (CG 59)
The trip to Millthrope instilled in Balendran and Richard a belief that for them too, a life of togetherness was possible, that they would also live like this one day. “The visit had given Richard and him such faith in the future of their own love” (CG 59). Until Balendran’s final acceptance of himself as he was, he had shown very ambivalent attitude towards homosexuality. In fact, to say that Balendran had been hypocrite about his sexual orientation, will be more accurate. It was for him “… something he had learnt to live with, a daily impediment … a badly set fracture” (CG 38 italics mine). The emphasised words exhibit Balendran’s negative, discriminatory attitude towards homosexuality. After Sonia and Balendran had met Richard and Alli, Sonia comprehended the kind of friendship these two were in (Alli was Richard’s partner). That they were “Friends of Oscar” (CG 111) was discernible to her. Balendran couldn’t fathom Sonia’s understanding, or rather knowing, of homosexuality as this is “[a] thing … beyond the pale of refined society, beyond the understanding of decent women” (CG 111). Juxtaposing this attitude with his nocturnal occasional carnal bliss with Ranjan situates Balendran as a hypocrite. The question why emerges from there onwards. Why was Balendran hypocritical about his homosexuality? The context is of importance here. It is Ceylon of the 1920s we are confronted with – Ceylon where the laws against homosexuality were quite strong and stringent. In fact, the readers are reminded that “it hadn’t been that long since the Wilde trial” (CG 141) when Balendran’s father appeared unexpectedly in Balendran and Richard’s London flat, and threatened to get Richard arrested for sodomy. Also, the fear of societal stigma and humiliation was another addendum. Vera Alexander says, “if homosexuality is banned in England, it certainly was a dark secret worth keeping in Ceylonese society.”[xii] And in trying to keep his homosexuality a secret, Balendran did take a stand of hypocrisy. He had submerged his desires underneath a façade of familial, societal propriety apart from occasional forays into anonymous sex.
Balendran’s final self-realisation occurred through his estranged elder brother, Arulanandan. Arul was banished to India by the Mudaliyar Navaratnam because of his affair with a low-caste servant woman called Pakkiam twenty-eight years ago. Arul, in his death-bed in India, made his younger brother realise that the norms he had been living by were not followed by anyone but him. “Balendran experiences his brother Arul’s death as a moment of enlightenment, of being shocked into an awareness of injustices and double standards in the society and, more precisely, the very family he is a member of.”[xiii] The rules, norms laid out by their extremely authoritarian father were not adhered to by the man himself, and Balendran gets to know of his father’s sexual exploitation of Pakkiam’s widowed, destitute mother earlier. This awareness made Balendran see his own hypocrisy – “I, too, am a hypocrite.” (CG p.279) The discovery of the double standards of his father made Balendran perceive his own duplicity, and he realised the significance of Richard in his life as his one true love as he wholeheartedly accepts his homosexuality.
Cinnamon Gardens mentions Balendran’s feelings of loneliness, of estrangement, many a time. Emotionally, Balendran is a drained kind of a character. There was always the problem of communication with his wife, and on the other hand, there was no one in his life who would understand him as he was – with his disposition (An Austenesque word which has been used quite frequently in the novel.) The most decisive moment for Balendran regarding his sexuality came when he confronted his father “with his true nature, unashamed, assured” (CG p.367). By doing so, Balendran shed the mask he was wearing; he was not a hypocrite any more. The confrontation took place thus –
“Why didn’t you leave me in London? I was content then.”
“I saved you from that … degradation. Look at what you have now. What would you have been in London? Nothing.”
“Yes, Appa,” Balendran said with gathering strength, “but I might have been truly happy.” He took a deep breath. “I loved Richard. That would have been enough.”
“Stop,” the Mudaliyar cried … “I forbid you to speak such filth in my house. Apologize immediately.”
“No, Appa. I cannot, for this is how things are with me. And there isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t live with the pain of knowing this and not being able to do anything about it.” (CG p.367)
This confrontation not only destroyed the shield of hypocrisy with which Balendran was masking himself, but also enabled him to assert his identity thus gaining his freedom from the paternal shackles. It enabled him to write a letter to Richard asking for his friendship. Significantly, Balendran did not decide to come out: he decided to stay in the closet as he considered “it would be wrong to hold [his] own desires paramount above those of [his] wife, [his] son. Such an act would be grossly selfish.” (CG p.385) However, this final act of Balendran was not borne out of his earlier hypocrisy; rather it was affected by his self-acceptance of himself. He no longer viewed his sexuality as an impediment. It became a part of him.
Balendran Navaratnam, with his apprehension, exploration, bowing down to societal pressure, duplicity, and eventual self-acceptance, embodies and carries the many different layers in the queer community – the oft-neglected and perhaps misunderstood bisexual community, to be accurate. Cinnamon Gardens mostly foregrounds his character as a son and as a lover, and the resultant tussle which ensues is the crux of this conflicted protagonist. A close reading of his unveils the ranges in which his emotional and physical needs wander (also wonder). He is most definitely not a Kinsey 3. Much of his suffocations, sufferings, duplicities, and actions seem to emanate from this precise ‘positioning’. There is a glib, informal, humorous saying in gay culture – “Bi now, gay later.” This saying expresses the belief or the suspicion in the homosexual community that a self-described bisexual is merely a homosexual in the initial stage of questioning his/her presumed heterosexuality, who will eventually accept that he is homosexual. An alternative, made-up version of this saying can perhaps be loosely applied to Balendran – “Gay now, bi later.” Balendran Navaratnam displays sexual fluidity in being a bisexual man with a stronger affiliation towards homosexuality. Whether he is “gay now, bi later” or “bi now, gay later”, he displays sexual fluidity and that makes him a queer figure.
[ii] In Shyam Selvadurai’s own words – “The novel is set against the backdrop of the arrival of the Donoughmore Commission from England. The purpose of the commission is to grant more power to Sri Lankans and to put in place a constitution through which this power can be exercised. The jockeying for power by the various ethnic, cultural, caste and religious groups reveals immediately the multifaceted, multi-cultural nature of Sri Lankan society. This period also marks the first serious rift between the Sinhalese and the Tamils, the Sinhalese demanding a centralized government, the Tamils and other minorities asking for a more federated system.” Shyam Selvadurai, Speech to the Canadian Bookseller’s Association, http:/www.interlog.com/ ~funnyboy/index.htm, personal website of Shyam Selvadurai
[iii] Saynatan Dasgupta, Shyam Selvadurai: Texts and Contexts, (New Delhi: Worldview Publications 2005) 82
[iv] Shyam Selvadurai, Cinnamon Gardens, (New Delhi: Penguin Books India, 1998). Subsequent references will be cited as CG and provided in parentheses immediately after the quote.
[v] Shyam Selvadurai, Speech to the Canadian Bookseller’s Association, http:/www.interlog.com/~funnyboy/ index.htm, personal website of Shyam Selvadurai
[vi] Vera Alexander, “Investigating the Motif of Crime as Transcultural Border Crossing: Cinnamon Gardens and The Sandglass”, in Christine Matzake and Susanne Muehleisen ed., Postcolonial Postmortems: Crime Fiction from a Transcultural Perspective, (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2006) 154
[vii] Steven Angelides, “Introducing Bisexuality”, A History of Bisexuality, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001) 1
[viii] Marjorie Garber, “Extracts from Vice Versa: Bisexuality and the Eroticism of Everyday Life (1995)”, in Merl Storr ed. Bisexuality: A Critical Reader, (London and New York: Routledge, 1999) 137
[ix] From The Encyclopedia of Lesbian and Gay Histories and Cultures, Bonnie Zimmerman and George E. Haggerty ed., (New York and London: Garland, 2000)
[x] Alfred Kinsey (1894-1956) was an American biologist. His research on human sexuality is considered foundational to the modern field of sexology. In his most famous book Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948), Kinsey developed the seven point scale to measure sexual orientation.
[xi] Edward Carpenter (1844-1929) was a poet, socialist philosopher, and early gay activist. At a time when the political ambience of England was hysterical about alternative sexualities generated by the Oscar Wilde trial of 1895, Carpenter started to live together with his partner, George Merrill, in Millthrope. They stayed together from 1898 to 1928, the year Merrill died. E. M. Forster’s novel Maurice was partially based on the Carpenter-Merrill relationship.
[xii] Alexander, op.cit. 156
[xiii] Ibid., 154
Alexander, Vera. “Investigating the Motif of Crime as Transcultural Border Crossing:
Cinnamon Gardens and The Sandglass”. Eds. Christine Matzke and Susanne Muehleisen.
Postcolonial Postmortems: Crime Fiction from a Transcultural Perspective. Amsterdam:
Rodopi, 2006. 139-160.
Angelides, Steven. “Introducing Bisexuality”. A History of Bisexuality. Chicago: University of
Chicago Press, 2001. 1-19.
Dasgupta, Sayantan. Shyam Selvadurai: Texts and Contexts. New Delhi: Worldview
Garber, Marjorie. “Extracts from Vice Versa: Bisexuality and the Eroticism of Everyday Life
(1995)”. Ed. Merl Storr. Bisexuality: A Critical Reader. London and New York: Routledge, 1999.
Selvadurai, Shyam. Cinnamon Gardens. New Delhi: Penguin, 1998.
---.Speech to the Canadian Bookseller’s Association,
http:/www.interlog.com/~funnyboy/index.htm, personal website of Shyam Selvadurai.
Zimmerman, Bonnie. and George E. Haggerty. Eds. The Encyclopedia of Lesbian and Gay
Histories and Cultures, New York and London: Garland, 2000.