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An interview with writer and novelist,
Aravind Jayan

By Shraddha Upadhyay

20 May 2024

Aravind Jayan is a writer from Trivandrum, Kerala. He is the winner of the 2017 Toto Funds the Arts Award and was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize in 2021. His first novel, Teen Couple Have Fun Outdoors, was shortlisted for the 2023 Everyman Wodehouse Prize for Comic Fiction. It has been translated into several languages. 

In this interview, ​he talks about his novel Teen Couple Have Fun Outdoors; the mix of cosmopolitan culture and small-town intrigue of Trivandrum; the lack of privacy faced by new or college going couples; how sometimes, sociological or ethical discussions come as byproducts of simply trying to make a piece of writing work; his interest in reading translated Indian literature; and, a possible sequel of his novel.

1.“Teen Couple Have Fun Outdoors” sounds like a news item from a local newspaper. It connotes sensationalism. The central plot of the book is the ‘sex scandal’ which has affected all the characters in distinct ways. Tell us the process of grounding the theme in the specific context of Trivandrum?

I always thought Trivandrum – which is my hometown – had a good mix of cosmopolitan culture and small-town intrigue. This meant most characters would have had just enough room to make interesting choices without the setting bearing down on them in a completely dictatorial way. It gave them the ability to flit between different schools of thought, different camps of people and so on. By no means is this unique to Trivandrum, and I’m pretty sure I could have had the story play out almost anywhere, with a bit of tweaking. But since Trivandrum is my hometown, setting it there gave me a certain kind of comfort and familiarity.

2. The narrator of the book is a trainee journalist which provides an interesting perspective of looking at morality, values and aspirations of the characters from both lenses of objectivity and empathy. The book brings out the immediacy of the events and offers insights into the broader social and ethical implications of the character’s actions. What did it take to bring these various facets together? 

To be honest, the narrator’s job was purely an afterthought. I didn’t want him spending all day at home, and I’d once done an internship with a Trivandrum newspaper – that was that. I did think quite a lot about why he was telling this story. In the end what I landed on was this: when the scandal breaks out, the narrator’s family loses control of their own story. In retelling it, the narrator is trying to get a better grip. Any sociological or ethical discussions are simply byproducts of him trying to frame the episode in a way that lends the people he cares about (and himself) the most amount of empathy. 


3. The context setting in the book is fantastic. The book begins with the family’s excitement about the newly bought “Enamel white” Honda Civic. The family lives in the Blue Hills society where the houses resemble those in the board game, Monopoly. In the household, the father sometimes cooks on Saturdays and calls the mother “feminist” in arguments. All the comical quips point to the context too. When Sreenath shouts at Appa for entering his room, he says, “Your room is what, an embassy?” How did you choose these markers of places, people and the things they say?


Thank you very much. I wrote about the Honda Civic in chapter one and that scene gave me a clear picture of who these characters were and how they lived. As for the quips, really, it’s just whatever fit the scene. ‘Monopoly houses’ because, aside from the air of conformity that comes from all the houses being cute and similar, to me there also appeared to be a competitive element between the different residents. With the ‘embassy’ comment I really just wanted to highlight the odd kind of freedom/lack of it you have when you’re still living with your parents.

4. In the book, Trivandrum is referred to as a “hometown”. Hometown carries emotional charge. It is a place to leave but it is also a place to come back to. It is a place where you intermittently live but do not completely belong. What prompted this reflection on the relationship between characters and the city and other urban environments?


One of the earlier drafts of the book began with the line “It’s only a law of physics: any vacuum that offers privacy is filled sooner or later by a couple.” I did my college in Pune and even though I was away from home, finding privacy was difficult. You often end up in strange places. Shady motels in tourist traps, abandoned lakesides, weird parks. This experience was something that stuck with me. It’s doubly amplified when you’re living in your hometown as a relatively new adult because you’re also surrounded by people who refuse to recognise you as an independent entity and are belligerent about giving you space.

5. For the narrator, finding anything “intellectual” or “cultural” in the city comes as a shock, there is constantly a sense of amorphous lack in the city. Orhan Pamuk, in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, talks about this feeling of displacement or “not being in the centre” while living in Turkey. He said that they missed the richer and more interesting aspects of life because they didn’t live in the Western world. In contrast to the “centres”, all other cities are dubbed as “small towns”. What went into developing the story arcs of characters that are battling the self-image of being residents of “small towns”?


In my book, this worry of living in a small town seems confined to the younger characters. For the older characters, especially the parents in the book, the idea of escape from the so-called small town signifies arrogance. If the ‘small town’ was good enough for them, why isn’t it good enough for their kids – that sort of logic comes into play. In reality Trivandrum is not a small town of course. It’s a city. Not one as big as Bangalore, say, but a city nonetheless. While writing I did also think about the cultural influence of the western world with respect to what we aspire to. I’m not an expert on any of this, obviously, but the western world does have a lot of cultural exports. I feel that many middle or upper-middle class children (including the younger characters in the book) grew up watching western soaps or movies which show things (especially freedoms) that are completely missing where they live. I think the need to move away is partly coloured by this search too.

6. Big cities are portrayed as arenas of constant excitement. There is a section in the book, “Even without adrenaline, Bangalore carried weight. I pictured shopping malls you could camp in, and people walking all around the city, going club to club, house party to house party till early morning. Then they’d stumble into their colourful offices, nursing ice packs and talking about how watermelons cured hangovers”. Where did these observations come from? 


For many of us in Trivandrum, Bangalore always held special status because it was a big city far from home, but still in the South. I suppose a lot of these images came from non-sensical day-dreaming. Some of it came from the time when my cousin moved to Bangalore for his first job. He was the first one to move to the city and also the first one to experience actual financial freedom. Hearing about something so small as him staying out as late as he wanted or drinking as much as he liked – it was thrilling. This despite the fact that I’d already lived away from home by then. 

7.  A pivotal conflict between Sreenath and his parents emerges regarding his academic path after high school, a common parenting concern. It reveals not only a fixation on academic achievement typical of middle-class aspirations but also an underlying emphasis on merit as a means to escape the confines of their hometown. Tell us more about writing such sections in the book where the theme is universal in some sense, but you make it seem so place-specific.

I’m not sure Sreenath’s or Anita’s parents see merit as a means to escape Trivandrum. Like I said, I’m not sure they think of their hometown as something to ‘escape’. In my head, most of the parental characters are quite satisfied with the city and in fact, can’t fathom why people would want to go further away. With regard to the academic bit, and with several other parts of the novel as well, I did struggle with what was relatable vs what was stereotypical. Specificity helps distinguish the two, at least a little bit.

8. Apart from the scandal, the book explores the interaction of technology with the life of the city. For instance, Amma subscribes to Netflix to cope with the grief or Sreenath’s brother installing the dating apps to combat claustrophobia in the city. Both attempts turn unsuccessful. If we were to switch off the internet, in your the storyline, what other alternative means would your characters have employed to fill the voids in their lives? Indulge us with some other place-based imaginations.


That’s an interesting question. To be fair, they do try non-technological means to fill the void even in the book. The narrator is often at the public library, or at the beach. He takes to running. There’s a lot of scootering around and a bit of weed smoking. For the narrator’s parents, everything they do on a daily basis seems to me like an exercise in void-filling, including buying their new Honda Civic. 

9. In the event of a sequel to the book, do you envision Sreenath and his brother becoming disenchanted with the “big city” and contemplating a relocation back to the tranquil setting of Trivandrum?


I doubt they’ll be disenchanted. Though I genuinely think that once you gain the ability to leave a place, you also lose your fear and dislike of it, the sense of claustrophobia. So it’s quite possible that the characters would want to head back to Trivandrum at some point. At least the narrator might.

10. What is the experience like of writing a story in English that unfolds within a setting where another language is spoken? How do you effectively convey to readers the sense of that different accent or linguistic environment? Are there any particular books or authors who have successfully executed this technique that have influenced or inspired your approach?


In my head, I knew when English was being spoken and when Malayalam was being spoken. Both Sreenath and the narrator were sent to an English medium Jesuit school. Anita would have gone to an English medium as well. So, often when conversations happen between them, especially if the conversations are about something tricky, I imagined they were talking in a mix of English and Malayalam. Meanwhile, the conversations between the younger characters and their parents, I knew, would happen entirely in Malayalam. The only time I let the reader know what language was being spoken was when the characters veered from this norm – for instance, when Sreenath says something in English to his parents. Otherwise I figured code-switching happened way too often to bother the reader. In any case, my intent was always to carry the spirit of what was being said. I’m not sure if it was effective – and it’s very likely I would have made strange errors here and there because of this language situation. Not sure either if there were any specific books I looked to, but I did read a lot of translated Indian literature during the time I was writing the book...That must have had an influence.

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By Shraddha Upadhyay

She is a lawyer and a development sector professional with a keen interest in urban spaces. She writes, reads and translates poetry, fiction, and non-fiction in English and Hindi. She explores personal narratives through her newsletter, "Shraddhaben Speaking".

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