“Log kya kahenge?” (“What will people think?”) is a common Hindi phrase in India, a forewarning of public opinion on one’s personal life. Such opinions are generally understood to be overly critical, a judgment on one’s character and moral compass. The phrase hovers over Aravind Jayan’s humorous and heartwarming first novel, Teen Couple Have Fun Outdoors, haunting the eponymous protagonists’ families and lives.
Amma and Appa live in the Blue Hills housing colony in Trivandrum, Kerala. They’re proudly on the road to a comfortable middle-class life, complete with a white Honda Civic – that marker of success and social mobility – when things fall apart. A clip of their eldest son Sreenath and his girlfriend Anita, caught on camera in “sex-adjacent” activities, has been posted to a porn site and is now circulating far and wide, gathering more momentum and causing more mortification with each passing day. This viral video breaks the internet, severing familial bonds and leaving the reader wondering what the ripple effects will be.
Narrated by Sreenath’s younger brother, who strives to negotiate conversations and relationships between the families when all hell breaks loose, this bittersweet novel explores generation gaps and gossip, the paradoxical power of the internet – its simultaneous permanence and transience – class dynamics and small-city life in South India. It is a fresh take on the family drama, the internet novel and the comedy of manners, slicing through inherited ideas around shame, honour, and reputation. After all, “sex was one thing; a sex scandal was another thing altogether”.
Our narrator’s acerbic observations inject a truly infectious energy into the prose. Earlier on in the novel, we’re told that, on hearing of his son’s deeds, Appa was certainly going to have a heart attack: “Appa’s heart attack was like that Californian earthquake, the Big One. It was always on its way.” Halfway through, we hear of Anita’s interfering, matchmaking uncle, Mohan: “He really was a machine. If you fed him paper while he talked, you could shred the constitutions of at least three democracies in no time.”
This is a story about fathers and sons, mothers and daughters; about young Indians’ fight against age-old societal norms, mentalities and expectations. At its most telling moments, it’s also about two brothers, and how the physical and emotional distance between them widens. As the narrator says, hurtling towards the ending, “Sree didn’t say anything. I’d rather he turned mad. I wanted to both punch him and be punched by him. I felt that if we punched each other just the right way, certain words would come tumbling out and everything would be all right.” Words uttered – unfairly, unforgivably – hurt as much as words left unsaid. Jayan is fascinated by communication generally, and specifically the online rumour mill that is digital life in India, replicating the ever-present networks of gossip. (An online post is also the prompt for Megha Majumdar’s acclaimed debut A Burning, albeit to more violent ends.)
A policeman tells Appa, who is pleading for the video to be removed, that the internet is not like his fridge; he can’t just put things in and take them out as he pleases. But towards the close of the book, something else happens in Blue Hills: a 25-year-old is arrested for dealing marijuana. “That’s all everyone is talking about now,” Amma says. She seems annoyed, the narrator notes. Whether or not parents and children, siblings, or couples talk to each other, there will always be something – or someone – else to talk about.