Twinkle Khanna’s latest book, The Legend of Lakshmi Prasad, is a collection of four stories published by Juggernaut (whose publisher, Chiki Sarkar, was also behind Khanna’s first book, Mrs Funnybones). It takes unsuspecting readers on an adventure to the country’s dusty villages and grimy towns, even as the writer nudges them into embracing some of her pet causes, including menstruation taboos and women’s empowerment.
The Juhu and Versova homes are there too, but the setting ceases to matter once readers are drawn into a world where relationships are not tidied up and there is no happily ever after. The star-turned-author talks about her writing methods, source of stories, ugly notebook, and finding love and adventure in one’s autumnal years and more. Excerpts from an interview:
Your readers have been familiar with the world of Mrs Funnybones, which you created and nurtured through your columns. With The Legend of Lakshmi Prasad, you have moved to completely different territory. Each one of the four stories is set in a unique world and time. How did the book come about?
Doing Mrs FunnyBones 2 would have been the simplest thing to do because it has worked. But the mind takes unexpected leaps and you are furiously typing to keep up with it. I would have become complacent had I continued to do Mrs Funnybones.
I had actually decided to write a novel and was ten chapters into it when I was drawn into some research about menstruation for my column. There I came across, and was gripped by, Murugan’s story (Arunachalam Muruganantham, a social entrepreneur who created a revolutionary low-cost sanitary pad making machine, helping empower rural women in the process). I kept looking at it the entire day and, without having met him, wrote the first five pages and sent it to my editor saying this is what I want to work on.
I started chasing Murugan all around the world. I met him for first time in London, when he was there for an event at the British Parliament and I was in the countryside. He had been very elusive till then, not even responding to email. I chased him to Coimbatore and after many interviews he let me fictionalise his life. The rest of the stories happened simultaneously. The story about the two sisters, Salaam Noni Appa, was actually taken from the novel that I had been working on…with a wider setting.
The story of Sanitary Man From A Sacred Land is clearly special…but why did you not put the title on the cover? Why is it being wrapped away from view like the sanitary napkins you write so strongly about in your columns?
It was not like that. It is easier to write a column or a book than think of a title. It happens all the time. The reason we chose not to go with Murugan’s story is that I did not want readers to come with preconceived notions. If you look at the way the book is laid out, it is all about inviting them into my world, one step at a time. The Legend of Lakshmi Prasad is a short, simpler story. As you turn the pages, the stories get more complex until you arrive at The Sanitary Man…
See, my only fear is that people must not expect another Mrs Funnybones. That is all I have been trying to convey. It is a leap…whether I land safely on the other side I will know in a few weeks. I don’t really believe in playing safe and I would not have written the first column had I tried to play it safe.
Each of the four stories in your book is set in a different India – Uttarakhand, Madhya Pradesh, Yari Road and Juhu in Mumbai, Kerala and beyond. There is some realistic detailing that makes the stories credible. How did you go about creating these worlds for your readers?
If the Weather Permits (about a woman who stumbles from one bad marriage to another) is closest to my heart because that is my world. They are the kind of people I meet every day. But it still needed some research, considering I was writing about Syrian Christians in Kerala. I first plot out a story outline and then start my research.
I have a notebook – an ugly book that says Girl Boss. It is my life and in that notebook I do all my research by hand because it seeps in stronger than when typing. I played with different time periods. Lakshmi Prasad was set in the 1920s. Noni Appa, in the early 1990s. Sanitary Man, probably just before mobile phones came in. For this I went to Madhya Pradesh and spent eight days in Maheshwar, walking around looking at the streets, at people. For If the Weather Permits, I spent two weeks bumming around in Kerala on my own.
Noni Appa may have been a familiar world, but I had to call up my GP for details of ICUs at that time. Turns out they did not have oxygen masks but pipes, and I added that bit. But my editor said, it may seem authentic to you but the reader may not get it. So yes, we kept a few things and let go of others, but still tried to build a world that is believable.
Which of these stories is the most special to you?
I liked the way I wrote If the Weather Permits. Also because I know of so many women who are warned about potholes but jump right into them, one after another. Salaam Noni Appa was a pleasure…it is a story that gives me hope. That once you are alone…and women outlive men…and your children are away, you still have your sister who does not judge you. And that even when your bones are creaking, life does not come to a standstill and, who knows, there may be a great adventure waiting for you round the corner.
It would seem a lot of rigour went into the stories. Is it different with your columns, which obviously emanate from a different creative space? Are they easier?
Columns are more difficult. Here you have a plot and you follow it. With a column you are making things up as you go along. I need four smart lines in every column. I need to have a strange or odd or unusual perspective on the same things that five other people are writing about.
For instance, I wrote something about the ban on Pakistani actors. Luckily I had this memory of a parrot on a ledge. I said it was a parrot, my sister said it was an Indian ring-necked parrot. It coincided with the story I read about the pigeon that was arrested. So week after week I have to find unusual ways of looking at everyday headlines. Here I have time and can plot things at my leisure.
Do you think you are constantly censoring yourself with your column? Are you as candid as you would like to be?You can say what you want to say and yet refine your barbs…No one likes to be lectured and I try to entertain while getting people to see the absurdities of life clearly. I like cracking jokes in a crowd and with my column I do it for a wider audience. Sometimes I get into trouble. Sometimes I get away with it. I have to censor myself but my husband does it better. I am constantly trying to find the cleverest and politest way of saying what I want to say without causing any major disruption. I don’t want a mob outside my house pelting stones. But I think it is important you get your message across.
We are familiar with your humour in your columns. You take pot shots at yourself and others and play hopscotch with danger.
I try! I try!
But in this book, one gets a sense of a tragic undercurrent despite the empathy you have for all your characters.
I like tragic characters! Actually, this book is not far from my column. All the topics I touched upon…even Noni Appa’s story was there in a Valentine’s Day column about an older woman finding love. I look at life in a very pragmatic way. When you do that you see only layers and layers…You do not expect to see perfect endings because there aren’t any. It is about how you accept how imperfect things can be. Why should my characters have perfect endings?
Does Murugan actually talk the way you make him speak in the story?
He does. He has invented a funny language! What I like about him is that he was doing this wonderful thing but not being self-righteous. There is an easy witty way – a self-deprecating way – about what he does, and that is a common chord between us. There are a lot of people who do a lot of great things and are earnest about it. And earnestness is something I shun. You must take everything lightly in your approach. In my personal opinion, do what you must do but don’t take yourself too seriously!
When Mrs Funnybones appeared people were surprised to see a star who could actually write…
And people were still responding to your work as a star wife and star kid. Now that has changed, isn’t it?
Thankfully no one has asked me how it feels to be a star wife this time! Nothing in my life is planned. I did not plan this book. I don’t know what’s next. My novel is not abandoned. It had too many oddball characters and maybe I will use them somewhere.
My next work could be set in a dystopian world…who knows? You may even end up as character in my book. If you end up doing the same things, or wearing the same shirt, you could always go to Zara and pick one up, isn’t it?