Author Aravind Jayan effortlessly gets into the head of his characters and brings out their varied reactions in a humorous manner.

Black and white photo of Aravind wearing specs and a beard Aravind Jayan
Features Books Friday, December 09, 2022 - 16:58

It sounds like a risk, naming a book Teen Couple Have Fun Outdoors. Judges of book titles, ones like this reporter, might take one look at it, write it off as “some teenage romance meh”, and walk away. Luckily, not every reader and critic takes such a skewed view of books, and quite a few lovely reviews have popped up in the months after the book’s release this July. Turns out, the book has little to do with teenage romance, and more to do with the video of a couple’s intimate moments in a public place — taken without their knowledge — spreading most naturally like wildfire all over the internet. To make things worse, the said couple is in Thiruvananthapuram, where the sight of a short skirt can send shock waves down passersby, let alone a video like that.

Aravind Jayan, the Thiruvananthapuram-raised author, was not entirely sure if it should be written about at all, a video like that. “The question was why write about it, is it even a big deal? But then that would also be the question that the characters have in their minds. Then it became about that,” he says in an interview to TNM.

Strangely enough, he has not come across any such incidents in his personal life or heard about it from someone he knew. He has heard about the existence of such videos, and grew curious about how the situation would play out if it happened in his family or the family of someone he knew. If that’s the case, Aravind is unusually empathetic. He seems to effortlessly get into the heads of his characters and bring out their very different reactions. The protagonist couple, Sreenath and Anita, appears rather cool and indifferent about it at least on the outside, while the parents predictably see it as a major catastrophe.

In the middle of it all is Sreenath’s brother, narrating the whole story. Funnily enough, though he is telling the story of another’s life and the reactions of everyone around him, he doesn’t become a voice in the background you don’t take note of. He is right in the thick of everything and his thoughts are as much out there as his words. The best part of it all is his innate sense of humour. It is comforting to realise this in the very first chapter, where he is put in charge of a bunch of neighbourhood kids and he says, “I had to make sure their kids didn’t eat sand or throw themselves in front of a vehicle.”

This humour is very handy when the traumatic part of the story unfolds – two people caught up in the drama surrounding a video of their very private moments. To convey, for instance, what it would mean to the parents, he writes: “They were the type who had to change the channel if they saw people getting romantic while one of us was around — sometimes it didn’t even have to be people; once it was Bugs Bunny and his rabbit girlfriend.”

The parents are more or less typical — the father is all tough love, and the mother, though not stereotypically soft, seems a little meek and almost almost English in her attempts to avoid confrontations. In the narrator’s words, the mother is “someone who tries to diagnose a fever when anyone in the house went through some form of turmoil that was unreachable to her. A fever diagnosis put her in control.”

And the father, tough as he is, is like every other typical Malayali who is ‘ready to please’ in the event of a police station visit. The younger son, who accompanies ‘Appa’ to the police station with a request to get the video removed, describes the policeman’s condescending attitude in very relatable terms. After firing the father – of a young man who had a few consensual romantic moments with his adult girlfriend – for “ruining the girl’s life”, the police could have got Appa to admit anything. Though his situation calls for sympathy, you can’t help but laugh when the narrator writes, “You could have got him to admit anything. Did he smuggle drugs? Yes. Did he assassinate Kennedy? Sure. Was he in cahoots with Judas? Indeed.”

It is a whole different story with Sreenath. Aravind says Sreenath chooses to act like it is nothing because that is his defence mechanism. “He knows that the minute he caves into shame, he doesn’t have his last line of defence. He has taken a stand that it is not a big deal and he sticks to it,” the author says.

You don’t learn much about Anita, except that she too acts cool in the limited scenes she is present. She is atypically inexpressive, having you guess forever what her state of mind is. No tears, not even a good laugh, just a lot of bad headaches and tired expressions. Perhaps because it is another gender entirely, Aravind didn’t want to dwell too much on her mind and make the wrong guesses. Same reason he didn’t make the narrator a woman. It is curious though, how Sreenath would have behaved if it was a sister he had. He is the difficult guy here, not the sibling.

Sreenath is extremely irritable, all the time. He is never nice to anybody, except to Anita and sometimes to his friends. You try to figure out why he is so mean to the younger brother – our narrator – every time he knocks on the door and tries to talk peace. You’d imagine brothers so close in age – one is 22, the other 20 – to be thick, share stories that their parents don’t learn about, and that one will call the other at the first sight of trouble. But Sreenath’s brother is kept pretty much entirely out of the picture, despite his many attempts to help.

In Aravind’s book, the brother is not exactly meant to be a nice guy. He is supposed to be that annoying mediator that one normally associates with older middle-aged men, the kith of a family in trouble who tries to make everything right by talking to both sides in a duel. To a reader, he needn’t come across like that. He was only 20, wanting everyone in his family to be in it together, wanting both sides to be happy.

Aravind agrees that he should have cut the narrator some slack. Poor guy doesn't even get a name. It occurred to the author that he doesn’t have a life or identity of his own, and so he doesn’t have a name. “Throughout the book, he is solving someone else’s problem.”

You tend to further disagree with the author if you have noticed the character’s many traits that carve him out as a different individual. He happens to take an interest in the lives of the people around him. He has his own tiny romantic escapades, not afraid to experiment, is a bit of a slacker when it comes to work, and is rather caring of his parents in a way Sreenath in no way is. Every time he tells Sreenath “but that is the way they think”, it is like he is the older, more mature brother.

Aravind says that even the younger readers did not find fault with the way the parents reacted. They understand where the parents come from. On the other hand, the mother on the other side – meaning Anita’s side – is hard-core annoying. Somebody please take her and her car and park it on top of the Jadayu rock. She will likely not even notice, as long as she has people she could irritate around her.

But my biggest rue is the way the author puts down Thiruvananthapuram as such a boring place to be in. “You couldn’t squeeze a lot out of it besides the beach, a few awkward bars, and half a mall,” he writes. In a line after that, he calls the place “so quaint there was nothing left to do but kill yourself.” Aravind!

It is because he thinks of it as his home, and universally everyone wants to get out of their hometown at some point, Aravind says. “When you have that level of comfort about a place you can talk poorly about it. Like, this is my place, I can talk about it the way I want. It could also be any place, it is the point of view of the character that makes a difference. You could be in New York and still want to get out of there badly,” the author says.

You could forgive him for Thiruvananthapuram though, the book really is one to be read and recommended.

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