My interactions with Twinkle Khanna have been few and far between – I haven’t watched Baadshah (arguably her best-known Bollywood movie), nor have I read her other books. Her Mrs Funnybones column for the Times of India was quite funny and on Koffee With Karan, she was among the rare celebrities with an engaging presence. I had never felt particularly compelled to read her fiction till I learned that Khanna was doing a master’s in creative writing at a London university.

The thing about film industry-adjacent writers is that you start hearing the buzz about their next book long before it actually materialises in any form – a privilege that any writer would kill to have. While most writers of this tribe take this privilege for granted, or simply waste it, Khanna seems to be aware of her potential. And perhaps the responsibilities too – of being funny, elegant, and most importantly, a writer of some merit. I wonder if being published by Juggernaut, a publishing house which does a very small number of fiction titles in a year, makes a writer strive to do an especially good job.

Twinkle Khanna’s first book after her master’s stint – she thanks her mentors and teachers in the ‘Acknowledgments’ – is an interesting mix. Although she is someone who was born in – and belongs to – the highest rungs of Bollywood hierarchy, I was pleasantly surprised to find that her stories have nothing to do with SoBo socialites or elite tea parties (excuse my presumptions about the ultra-rich). Instead, what I found are stories from middle-class homes in Bombay, holiday getaways in Goa, the fishing village of Satpati, and a charming cameo featuring our very own Jackie Shroff.

More than Mrs Funnybones

Despite an outsider’s perspective, Khanna does not sound out-of-place or patronising. I wonder if this is the result of a hyperactive imagination or careful observation of people who belong to these backgrounds. The set of characters is diverse too – an Ismaili Muslim family, a temperamental mother-daughter duo, two elderly online friends, a woman seeking legally assisted suicide, and a young mother devastated by her son’s death. Of course, intensely personal narratives such as these make it easy to gloss over political realities – and this is true in Khanna’s case too. She briefly mentions the 2002 Godhra riots in one story and, in another, caste-based segregation in Indian housing societies. Not much is made of these matters, but it still reminds us of her actor husband Akshay Kumar’s silence about many acts of injustice in the country and corresponding amplification of narratives from the ruling dispensation.

Much has been written about Khanna’s fantastic sense of humour, though I was not in the mood to read stories that would simply give me the occasional giggles while lacking any real depth. Thankfully, the stories were hardly funny. Which is a good thing.

I suppose Khanna will never – and perhaps doesn’t want to – shake off her Mrs Funnybones persona, but she seems to have stepped into a new era of writing with Welcome to Paradise. There’s restraint and maturity, and more importantly, there’s a lot of heart.

The five stories in the book are all somewhat long, with “Nearly Departed” boasting a page count of 80. Also the most innovative and stylishly written, it is easily one of the more memorable stories I have read in recent years. Madhura Desai, an 80-something woman is sick of living – ill with Parkinson’s while a dear friend (and former lover) is battling Alzheimer’s, and a general state of exhaustion that has followed her around for a few decades now. She has decided enough is enough and it is time to die with dignity. But death does not come so easy to those who seek it so earnestly.

What was actually a privately written email to the Chief Justice of India falls into the hands of overenthusiastic media-persons and soon enough things have spiralled out of Madhura’s frail hands. As she remembers the days of her youth and the time spent with her married lover, I realised how much of life we take for granted. The way it should progress, the “right” people we should fall in love with, a death that should come swiftly but tenderly. Khanna is right in calling a life a “loan” – albeit with a brief tenure – instead of a “gift”.

What you were never expecting to happen will happen to you and you have no choice but to go with the flow – or trudge along in the sludge. The observations on disability, ageing, and singlehood are honest and empathetic. There is no pretence, decaying and death is inevitable. Perhaps some control on it should be part of a wider human rights issue.

Actor Jackie Shroff makes a cameo in “Nearly Departed”.

Paradise lost

Three out of five stories in the book talk about death. The first one talks about death and substance abuse. The pauses in the story perfectly encapsulate the helplessness and rage that one must feel while witnessing their loved one being consumed whole by something so terrifying. In another story, a young mother loses her son to a playground accident. A cricket ball hits his head and the child drops dead. Language fails her grief. Soon enough she is bundled up and returned to her maternal home – stripped of her status of first a mother and then a wife. What follows from here is a tender story about finding love and friendship in someone who has experienced similar grief. The second chance at life that is granted to both is rare and precious – they grab it without any shame or fear, even as they make peace with their own and each other’s ghosts of past selves.

“Let’s Pretend”, the second story in the book, starts on a playful note about an elderly woman pretending to be middle-aged on an online game/chatroom. She becomes e-buddies with a mild-mannered middle-aged widower with a pleasant face and warm smile. Privy to the elderly woman’s secret is her niece, who fears that her aunt’s middle-aged persona is in reality based on her. The aunt dies sometime later but the charade doesn’t. Despite the fabrication of identities, one cannot be mad at the two ladies – their hearts are in the right place. Moreover, haven’t all of us done questionable things out of desperation and loneliness?

The eponymous story, “Welcome to Paradise”, is as much about an unconventional pair of mother and daughter as it is about a marriage taking its dying breaths. But mothers aren’t easy to rid of and neither are husbands – more often than not, wounds of the heart and past are stitched up. For the sake of sanity and begrudged normalcy. Paradise gained is paradise lost.

It was probably for the best that Khanna gave up a career in Bollywood. It’s near-impossible to blaze your own trail when your parents are the iconic Dimple Kapadia and Rajesh Khanna. Having a family of superstars sure helps but nepotism has little to do with the literary success that Khanna enjoys – it is proudly, and rightfully, her own.

Welcome to Paradise, Twinkle Khanna, Juggernaut.