Aravind Jayan - “The anxiety of being watched has increased”
The author of Teen Couple Have Fun Outdoors on his debut novel that has been shortlisted for the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize for Comic Fiction
How did you end up making your debut as a novelist with a book around a sex scandal?
I feel now that I was interested less in the sex scandal and more in the idea of being caught on camera in an unexpected way. This has been a worry ever since I saw one of those hidden camera prank shows back in school. With Tiktok, Instagram reels, and so on, the anxiety of being captured and watched has only increased. That said, what ended up being the meat of the book for me is the narrator’s task of playing the middleman within his own family.
Why did Trivandrum and Bangalore seem to be the ideal settings for this plot?
In the novel, Trivandrum is where the narrator wants to escape from. He dreams of faraway places before finally settling for Bangalore, as many Malayalees do, as I have done myself. The values assigned to either of these places in the book, though, are mostly just projections of the narrator’s state-of-mind rather than anything objective. In that sense, I’m sure I could have moved it around.
The title Teen Couple Have Fun Outdoors sounds like a cross between the headline of a news report and the caption of a porn video. How did you come up with this?
The novel remained untitled for a long time, and when it was time to submit it, I decided to title it like a porn video. It was the first title I thought of, and also a pragmatic choice. I thought it would increase the odds of someone noticing it on the bookshelf and picking it up at least to comment on the peculiarity.
These days, I’ve started regretting it. If I’m asked, “What’s the name of your book then?” I find myself having to repeat it at least twice.
Sreenath and Anita are filmed without consent while having sex. The video creates havoc in their families. The book does not explore who might have filmed it, and what their motivations might be. What prevented you from going down the whodunnit route?
For most people in the book, the couple are both offender and victim. Even if I did do a version that was more along the lines of a whodunnit, the couple wouldn’t have been absolved, so it would have had to be an addition to the current plot. This would likely have made the book bulky whereas I wanted it to be as slim and as focused as possible. Even now, I find things I could have cut out. I did try a version from the point-of-view of the person who filmed it, but that felt flat and distant.
Your narrator, Sreenath’s unnamed younger brother, is so funny; he could easily be a stand-up comic. What was it like to sculpt him as a character, and get into his shoes?
I feel most families work through a process of constant negotiation. With the narrator, I wanted to explore this tiresome role of being the middleman. Practically speaking, he also helped in editing the main characters’ struggles. Without the filter and distance that he brings, the book would have been overdramatic. I am glad that you found him funny. Thank you very much. He is somewhat insufferable otherwise.
The narrator does not have much success with the girls that he has crushes on but he feels validated after a sexual encounter with his bisexual friend Rishi. Did you consider expanding that sub-plot in the Bangalore or Trivandrum sections of the book? Or did you feel like taking on misogyny and homophobia might be too much for one novel?
I was always trying to cut down the size of the book. I also wanted the narrator’s experience with his friend to be an isolated one. It seemed to me that the more interesting plot line was for the narrator to covet his friend’s seemingly accepting – and the way he sees it – “sophisticated” family while his own became increasingly fractured.
Appa stops talking to Sreenath for a month; he is upset that his son went to an LGBTQ+ rally. I wonder how Amma and Appa might have reacted if the sex video had featured the narrator and Rishi instead of Sreenath and Anita. What do you think?
That’s a very interesting question. I think the result would have been worse. But I also believe Sreenath would have backed the narrator unequivocally, that the brothers might have come closer together, and that the narrator would have found some semblance of continued family there.
When Sreenath says he needs space, Appa replies, “What space do you need? Do you want me to build you a shopping mall?” He is hilarious when he is angry. Tell us about the aspects of craft that went into figuring out the right tone and comic timing for him.
While writing I struggled to find the balance between stereotypical characters and characters who are relatably true to their background. Appa was one such person I worried would become too uni-dimensional and flat. Him being caustic and angry rather than just angry, for example, helped in this regard. The combination of feeling so righteous and being so lost at the same time is also naturally funny, I think.
Amma makes a big donation to an underprivileged school after the video is leaked. It is the only time when she has some agency in the novel. Is she trying to buy people’s loyalty, get them to stop talking about her disgraced son, or feel better about herself?
Throughout the book many people try to ward off shame by acting aggressively unashamed. This is mostly a misguided attempt made towards that end. It is also, as you said, a way in which she tries to get some agency and register a subtle protest against her husband who, for most of the novel, drives the parental response.
Why do Sreenath and Anita give into Anita’s mother’s demands to get married? It seems unconvincing to me, given how determined they are about making their own choices. Did you picture other scenarios, or was this the only one worth exploring?
I wanted everyone in this scenario to be unconvinced, including Anita’s mother. While the couple stay strong, I felt there would be a part of them which, despite all declarations to the contrary, hold themselves responsible for what happened. There is also a part of them that worries for their parents and feels guilty. It is only when the parents propagate fresh injustice by pushing for the marriage that the couple feel entitled to cut them off completely. In my head, Sreenath and Anita needed a final shove before they could rebel any further.
How did it feel to have your book longlisted for the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize for Comic Fiction? What’s your relationship with Wodehouse like?
I had an English teacher in school who recommended PG Wodehouse books to everyone, but I have only read one or two of them. I hope to read more of him now. I am very grateful to be shortlisted. With awards in general, though, you also tend to be sceptical.
Apart from champagne and a complete set of the Everyman’s Library P.G. Wodehouse collection, the prize winner will have a Gloucester Old Spot pig named after their book. What do you think of this prize? Would you have preferred cash instead?
I think a pig is very nice, but cash is better tender.
Chintan Girish Modi is a freelance writer, journalist and book reviewer.