Her “cauldron of words” seems to be bubbling over: Twitter’s resident @MrsFunnybones since 2014, serial chronicler of our shaky times in weekly newspaper columns and author of the superhit semi-memoir of 2015, Twinkle Khanna has cracked the formula again: this time, in fiction.

It’s been a sweet November for this star:The Legend Of Lakshmi Prasad, her latest labour of writerly love, has gone zooming up bestseller charts in a matter of weeks since its release in November, standing at No. 2 on the HT-Nielson Bookscan in the fiction category, behind only Chetan Bhagat’s One Indian Girl. Rub your eyes but you’ll still see two of her up there: her sassy debut Mrs Funnybones was still No. 1 at the same time on the non-fiction list.

Her soaring popularity as a writer, fittingly, shows little trace of the Twinkle Khanna we glimpsed in and out of the limelight all those years ago: the fumbling moves of a struggling actor, the media glare in fits and starts, mainly for being the pretty, well-groomed daughter of superstar parents and, later, the wife of a major film-star, and, even later, the somewhat predictable starry foray into the business of interior design.

The Twinkle Khanna of today is a lot more sparkly: she’s predictably unpredictable, and in doing all that she does now, she’s got her own fan following of entirely her own making. It’s hard to miss her these days, popping up with her words of pop wisdom and weirdly goofy anecdotes about home and the world, in media interviews and talk shows (Her appearance on Koffee With Karan recently was rightly hailed as the best episode in years), book launches and page 3 shoots, on bookshelves and social media. With all that, the eminently quotable Khanna is being hailed as not just a bestselling author, but an instantly likeable face of pop feminism, one who can deliver spurts of seriousness with a delicate lightness of touch.

Why, the other day I even spied a Twinkle Khanna quote about being a happy misfit neatly boxed into a graphic and passed along my Facebook newsfeed, where Paolo Coelho would have been spouting some tired “wise words” a week ago.

A soft feminist?

At a time when the F word seems to strangely daunt all manner of people, celebrities especially, Khanna has been quick to make it a pet subject, like she clarified in an interview recently: “People think feminists are aggressive, hardened people, which is not true. It probably filters down from the fact that when the movement was coming into being, you had to be strident in the face of such great opposition. Feminism is nothing else but advocating for equal opportunities for both genders. We’re also trapped in many roles – either you’re a working woman or a homemaker. I think we have the ability to do several things at one time and do them all efficiently.”

Even so, her new three-star quality book, The Legend of Lakshmi Prasad, which has met with mostly generous reviews all around, is a surprise. Her debut, Mrs Funnybones – Khanna called it a work of “a few facts, a little fiction, a few decaying brain cells, and a couple of old bones into my brewing cauldron of words” – was a quick, light read, much of its meat gleaned from her newspaper columns. Lakshmi Prasad is certainly a leap, but an assured one; it’s what she says she always wanted to write.

Image credit: IANS

Not a celebrity selling her books

You can feel Khanna’s deep affection for her characters in these four shining stories about freedom and belonging, love, life and companionship, social taboos and breaking barriers, in the heartlands and the city. These are linear, largely straightforward tales circling women and their lives, devoid of intellectual pretensions, but pertinent and sensitive. Some critics have called this book “old fashioned” or “too floridly descriptive”, only “occasionally humorous.”

But then the book shows, if anything, a Khanna of many shades: simplistic, eccentric, heartwarming, uplifting, entertaining, with humour more muted than we’ve seen before, but surely there, lurking between the lines. Early in the title story, we land somewhere near Munger, in a village surrounded by a thousand trees, where the abundance of the precious fruit Jardalu – the sweetest, golden apricot, its branches framing the book’s cover – is evidence of the land’s riches.

This wasn’t always so. The catalyst is Lakshmi Prasad, the daughter of a local farmer, who watches her older sister suffer the blows of a violent marriage, and the shame of having given birth to a girl. A simple idea, and the shame turns into a boon for decades to come. Earnest and fable-like, this one is a gentle warm up to more complex stories.

Salaam, Noni Appa, the tale that follows, celebrates the life and loves of the 68-year-old Fiat-driving Noni. Khanna’s humour and eye for small detailing brings this story to life, in Noni’s relationship with Binni, her younger sister, and in the growing closeness with their dignified yoga teacher, Anand ji. “And just like that Anand ji began singing ‘Meghshyam Ghanashyam’ in Raga Megh Malhar, ‘Yeeeeaa aa yeeee ji…’ Noni Appa calmly switched off her hearing aid and continued sipping her tea slowly.”

It’s obvious Khanna is a passionate observer, of people and places, in and out of comfort zones, and of all kinds of moments big and small, as all writers must be.

From the narrow alleys of a tiny town in Madhya Pradesh to a seaside villa in Bombay, from a village in eastern Bihar to a highway near Kayamkulam, Kerala, the spaces that these stories inhabit feel authentic, and this may be of particular interest to sceptics who continue to find it hard to imagine someone from the film tribe writing about anything besides what appears within the confines of their sea-facing villas.

Khanna is clearly not one of those. Her stardom seems less opaque – which is probably the key to her growing popularity as a writer – as she keenly bridges the divide between the celebrity and the aam aadmi. When she’s writing, or chatting, or tweeting, it’s a sort of reminder that celebrities are ordinary souls with extra layers of make-up that sometimes takes just a couple of tweets to wipe off.

Like this twitter user discovered recently when he tweeted about her book to Khanna:

Which was followed by:

The story that counts the most

The most talked about story in the book is also the closest Khanna comes to cheering one of her pet causes – menstruation and all the hush around it. She wrote in a 2015 column: “Why are sanitary napkins treated like radioactive isotopes? They are wrapped in layers of plastic and newspaper, then someone ties a string over this mysterious package and then it’s put in a bag of its own – separate from any vegetables or cereal boxes that it may contaminate by its very presence.”

It’s interesting that she turned this strain of thought, and the story of a man doing his bit for cheering the same issue, into studied fiction. After chasing the man who invented the low-cost sanitary napkin machine for months, his story became the absorbing The Sanitary Man from a Sacred Land, which makes up half the length of this book. As Khanna tells it, keeping intact many bits of Arunachalam Murugunantham’s real story but transplanting it in Madhya Pradesh from Tamil Nadu, she makes it sparkle alternately with humour and poignant moments.

“She had tried cajoling him, screaming at him and had even put on a mighty show of having chest pains. But Bablu had promptly called Vaidya ji…who after checking her pulse had declared, ‘Behan ji, you have a lot of gas in your system,’ and had prescribed pills for indigestion. Rachna too had her own complaints about Bablu. She had gone across to talk to him but he refused to listen to her and said, ‘Rachna, since you are so interested in my well-being, tell me, are your periods due soon? Try my new pads and fill out all the details on this feedback sheet, please.’”

And then comes the tweet-worthy line, a version of which Khanna wrote in one of her newspaper columns: “Women have been looking for a cape and have been handed an apron for centuries. But here was a man who wanted to help women swing the apron around, let it flutter down their backs and watch them soar through the blue skies.”

That sums up the mood of Khanna’s stories, and flashes of her we get to see, and it’s pretty clear that she’s got a lot more up her sleeve and in those “Girl Boss” titled notebooks she scribbles in and talks about. It’s a good thing Khanna writes as often as she does, because her brew seems particularly therapeutic for these sore-throated times. And the charts prove it.

Image credit: IANS