Photo taken from the author’s personal archives.

Sex Scandals, Shame & Urban Myths: An Interview with Aravind Jayan

Anjali Alappat

I have a confession: I don’t read a lot of contemporary literary fiction, and before I picked up Aravind Jayan’s debut novel Teen Couple Have Fun Outdoors, I hadn’t read any in more than a year. But, like many others, I am particularly susceptible to social media influence and when writers that I trusted gushed about the book, I knew I had to grab a copy.

It’s a testament to Aravind’s writing that I read more than a chapter of a book focused on the aftermath of a sex scandal. In a country dominated by depressingly misogynistic perspectives on women’s rights and privacy, and almost cartoonish beliefs about honour and propriety, I expected that I would have to push through some depressing writing to get to the good stuff. How wrong I was. And let me tell you, I’m grateful to have been!

Teen Couple Have Fun Outdoors (Hachette, 2022) is sharp, thought-provoking, and above all—fun. I found myself eager to meet Aravind and chat about this book. So we did. In a pandemic-friendly way, of course. We got on a Zoom call.

I honestly wasn’t sure what to expect. Meeting people whose writing you enjoy is such a hit-or-miss situation. It’s very easy to forget that writers, like everyone else, have their off days. And even though their writing has deeply touched you, you don’t actually know them. So, I was pleasantly surprised at how easy it was to talk to Aravind. In a few minutes, I felt like we had known each other for years. And after we’d discussed all the usual stuff: the pandemic (unreal), rents in Bangalore (even more unreal), and the fact that he’s not even 30 yet (just unfair), we settled down to talk about his debut novel.

The plot of Teen Couple Have Fun Outdoors centres around a middle-class family in Trivandrum, the city in Kerala where, incidentally, Aravind grew up. The family deals (or fails to deal, depending on your point of view) with a sex tape featuring the eldest son, Sreenath, and his girlfriend, Anita. Well, if you can call some creep filming them during an intimate act without their consent a sex tape. The book is set a few years after the video was taken, when it suddenly resurfaces and becomes a household topic.

The emergence of the video shatters already fragile family ecosystems. Insults are slung, sides taken, and Sreenath and Anita find themselves on one side, and their parents and polite society on the other.

The central character, if you can call the narrator that, is Sreenath’s younger brother. Nameless by the author’s choice, the narrator spends the duration of the drama both fascinated and repelled by it. The unlucky peacekeeper in a family of volatile people, he finds himself frequently torn between his parents and brother, mimicking maturity and trying to placate everyone. Spoiler alert: he doesn’t succeed.

Between the narrator’s musings on his dysfunctional family, pretty girls, some pretty boys, and his desire to escape from the whole situation, you find yourself in the front seat, navigating some complex and under-discussed issues. These include societal attitudes (and hypocrisy) towards sex and propriety; deeply toxic family relationships; the power of shame; internalised misogyny; and the idea that a sex scandal doesn’t just affect the people involved, but the people they love as well.

Making a Debut

Aravind first began writing Teen Couple Have Fun Outdoors a few years ago. The original draft for the story was extremely long and told from multiple points of view, and in Aravind’s opinion, “It was awful. The worst book ever.” He put it aside, and focused on his day job—advertising—for a few years.

Unhappy with his first attempt, Aravind then wanted to write an entirely different book. But somehow, he found himself returning to this idea. He says, “One day, I started writing, and the voice of the narrator sort of clicked into place. And I was like okay, I’ll just give it one more shot and see if it actually works this time.”

Clearly, it did. The result is a masterful debut novel, which combines dark humour with insightful social commentary. Personally, I found the cast of characters in Teen Couple Have Fun Outdoors wonderfully familiar. Who among us hasn’t heard the age-old line, “What will people think?” growing up. Or listened to an elderly uncle spew a litany of complaints about disrespectful and degenerate youths. When I tell him that, Aravind says, “It’s nice you found it relatable. Because that was one of the things I struggled with. I wasn’t sure if I was making it relatable or stereotypical.”

It’s a tough line to walk, but in a society that is increasingly becoming a parody of itself, perhaps this is what makes the book so accessible and universal.

So, why choose the aftermath of a sex scandal? Aravind says, “I needed an engine for the novel that had enough propulsive force, and could take me from page one to the end. I thought that this one incident could trigger a lot of things, and that it would be interesting to see how the different characters reacted.”

In the book, Sreenath’s father deals with the situation by going to make a police complaint—not to protect his son, but to register his own grievances. His mother decides that the only way to regain her reputation is by donating far too much money to a local cause. Between the lecture the father receives from the unsympathetic policeman on duty, and the pity the mother’s actions incite from the women in her social circle, it’s no wonder that they continue to grasp at extremes.

Aravind continues, “I thought that was a challenge. Especially in a country like ours where different things are moving at different paces. When all eyes are on you, how do you decide which way to react?”

The cover of Teen Couple Have Fun Outdoors, published by Serpent’s Tail (UK) and Hachette India.

Urban Myth

There’s an element of urban myth to the story as well. Most schools and colleges are fertile grounds for stories about ‘a friend of a friend’ who was in a similar situation. Millennials in India vividly remember instances like the Delhi Public School cell phone scandal that occurred in 2004—a teenage boy recorded a video of an intimate moment with a female classmate without her consent. We never saw his face, but hers was splashed across every porn site and news channel in the country.

More recently, female students in university hostels in Chandigarh, Kanpur, Mumbai and Bangalore have reported being filmed without their consent while showering. Two college students in Karnataka committed suicide after someone took a video of them being intimate, and it went viral. A simple Google search reveals that this kind of story is becoming frighteningly more common by the day.

Aravind talks about the exaggerated stories that surround this kind of scandal, “When something like this happens, there are always rumours related to it, and it sort of takes on the aura of being an urban legend. Where people are talking about it, and being like: do you know what happened to the couple in the video? They were sent off to Dubai, or they were brought into the police station, or they went into hiding and they changed their names.”

Arguably, the people who are being filmed are the innocent parties. But shame underlies the majority of the interactions in the book, as it does in real life.

Aravind says, “Growing up, I thought shame was a wonderfully propulsive force. People do all sorts of things because they’re ashamed.”

In fact, being unashamed under these circumstances is what is considered more extraordinary. When his parents confront him about the video, Sreenath says, “Why should I act ashamed? I’m not ashamed. I didn’t rape anyone or steal anything. You can all go to hell.”

You can’t help but admire his and Anita’s insistence that they have done nothing wrong. Aravind says, “I think that, quite obviously, they’re traumatised and stunned by it. They choose their reactions at the very beginning, and they’re determined to stick by it. Which is almost comical and kind of childish because everything around them is changing. I also wanted, in a twisted way, for the reactions of both sets of parents and that of Sreenath and Anita to be slightly parallel.”

He adds, “Sreenath and Anita were a certain way before the video happened. They projected themselves in a certain way: modern, forward-thinking liberals, who take no bullshit from their parents, and stand up to people. After the video happens, one of their priorities is to continue to project themselves as the people they said they were.”

All in the Family

In a country where parental reactions to impropriety can range from honour killings to being disowned, Sreenath’s parents’ reactions seem almost the norm. They rage, curse, and tell him that if he leaves, he shouldn’t return. This is, of course, in sharp contrast to Anita’s family, who are desperate to control the situation. Anita’s mother is determined to smooth things over by ensuring that the young couple get married, regardless of what they (or anyone else) want. At one point, she even creates a biodata for Anita and hands it over to Sreenath’s parents, trying to simulate some kind of normalcy amidst the chaos. It’s absolutely outrageous, and in its own way, a great primer on how the average Indian household approaches scandal.

While Sreenath leaves his parents’ house in a fit of rage, Anita essentially runs away from hers. Once her family finds out about the video, she’s immediately shamed, and told that her parents don’t want to speak to or even look at her. She quietly grabs her bags and leaves. It sets the tone for the rest of the book, where her mother maintains stony silence with her daughter and spends all her time trying to intimidate Sreenath’s parents into forcing the couple to get married.

Anita’s rage, though quieter, is very present throughout the book. It’s also tinged with despair. She’s well aware of the way society will view her, and while she refuses to buckle under the almost universal disapproval they face, her defiance slowly begins to wear thin.

It’s hard to be a pariah, even if you feel like you’ve done nothing to deserve it. At one point she says, “It’s fucking traumatic being a woman in this country.” She’s not wrong.

The book also shines a light on another underlying yet central relationship—that of siblings. The narrator, despite growing up in the same house as Sreenath, seems mystified by him. He also constantly tries to insert himself into the unfolding events, both because he feels obligated to as Sreenath’s brother, but also because he wants to be in the thick of things. Projecting a false sense of maturity and worldliness, he only succeeds in driving his brother further away.

“A lot of siblings don’t really connect with each other until they move away from their parents, or are given that space to bond. And from Sreenath’s point of view, the narrator is often the agent of the parents, an agent of the system making him do things he doesn’t want to do. And when the video surfaces, Sreenath thinks that the narrator ought to be on his side instead of trying to sell their parents’ schemes to him. I think a lot of resentment comes from that.”

He adds, “And part of it is the resentment that a lot of older siblings carry—I’m clearing the path for you. I’m fighting all the difficult battles for you, and you’re just coasting in my wake.”

On the narrator’s part, he feels the crushing burden of having to keep the family happy in the aftermath of this scandal. And as Aravind says, “The narrator lives in fear of his family fracturing, or being left alone with the family, he’s always trying to find substitute families for himself. He’s fed up, he wants to find something more functional and escape, and he’s trying to reach for that throughout the book.”

Aravind holds a translation of his book at the Gothenburg Book Fair, photo by Nina Eidem.

A Generation Apart

In many ways, Teen Couple Having Fun Outdoors is a study of contrasts. Two different generations experiencing the same events, but having completely different reactions to it. The emphasis on the generational gap, Aravind insists, was unintentional. “I didn’t write it as a commentary on the generational gap. But I think it naturally ended up being emphasised. The generational gap is there, but there are other gaps: education, social circles, all of that stuff. I wanted all of these people, in these small pockets, to guess at what other people’s reactions were going to be, and in very short sighted ways, act on that and get it horribly wrong.”

Another important gap—that is never really addressed—is the identity of the person who shot the video. Aravind says, laughing, “He’s a non-entity in the book. The mechanism of removing porn from the internet is a non-entity in the book. A lot of structural things are non-entities.”

“Everyone is busy blaming the couple for it. So he gets a free pass. He’s just dismissed as some creep. The minute you bring him up, the reaction is: why are you talking about him? Why were you (Sreenath and Anita) in the bushes doing what you weren’t supposed to do?”

In this, Aravind has nailed New India. Misdirected anger, wilful dismissal of facts, and societal outrage are now characteristic of public discourse, often rendering nuance—and meaningful justice—impossible.

As Aravind writes in the book: “Sex was one thing; a sex scandal was another thing altogether.” Nothing encapsulates the book, and the world we live in, better.