Actor, interior designer, film producer, writer: Twinkle Khanna has dabbled in many worlds. But it’s the last of these she seems most at ease in, a calm that comes from a passion rekindled relatively late in life.
Khanna, who forayed into Bollywood following in the footsteps of her star parents Dimple Kapadia and Rajesh Khanna, left the industry in 2001 after appearing in about 15 films. But it wasn’t until more than a decade later that she burst on the scene as a writer. She began with newspaper columns, the popularity of which led to her first book, Mrs Funnybones, published in 2015.
This was followed by a short story collection, The Legend of Lakshmi Prasad. A tonal departure from her satirical columns, the book moved out of Khanna’s star-studded world to dig out stories from all corners of India. One of them, inspired by the work of Arunachalam Muruganantham, activist and inventor of low-cost sanitary napkins, was reborn as the movie Pad Man, starring her husband Akshay Kumar, with which Khanna launched her production house, Mrs Funnybones Movies.
Now, Khanna has taken her tryst with the written word a step further with her first novel, Pyjamas Are Forgiving. The book is centred on a 40-something woman who bumps into her ex-husband and his current, much younger, wife at an Ayurvedic retreat.
The writing bears Khanna’s humorous and light touch, but the meat of the novel lies in its emotional subtext, in the fallibility of its characters and the protagonist’s negotiation with physical and emotional discomfort as she juggles the rigorous drills of an Ayurvedic facility with revisiting the heartache of a broken marriage.
Khanna spoke to Scroll.in about how her first novel was born, what her writing process is, and the experience of being a woman that is a common thread in all her work. Excerpts from the interview:
An Ayurvedic retreat and an ex-husband. The premise is both captivating and captive. How did it come to be?
Most writers should go around carrying two signboards. One is “what if” and the other is “why”. I went to a retreat like this many years ago and at that point, though I never thought I would end up using them, I made very detailed notes about the place, the rituals. It was very very stringent and because I’m a bit of a stickler for rules, I followed it very precisely.
After a few years, I was asked to write a short story for an anthology. I asked for a month to work on a piece. This [retreat] was in my head and because it’s a confined space and what happens is, it’s like being in Big Boss or Survivor – emotions are inflamed, friendships become close very quickly. So I thought it was a very interesting place for something like this to happen. A month later, I had to call up that editor and say that listen I’m very sorry, but it’s turning out to be a novel, and I thank you because you have set me down a path of what will probably be my next book.
It’s an intriguing title, Pyjamas Are Forgiving. What does it mean?
It’s used literally and figuratively. Because the story revolves largely around the physical presence of this piece of clothing. And the other is about how we sometimes tend to be too accommodating and forgiving, and have a longer drawstring than we should.
Are the characters based on people you know? Are there strong influences? Or is it entirely a fictional thing?
Nobody can say that they don’t draw from real life to write. It’s not possible. Whether it’s a short story or a column or a novel. A lot of people segregate between forms but really it’s the same. You do draw from real life…you have characters and stories…you draw from yourself.
That brings me to my next question. What was the experience of writing a novel, versus short stories and columns, like?
For me the process between writing the three forms is not very different, aside from the time that you spend. That is about the only difference. But the discipline is the same. What you’re trying to achieve is the same. I would say that even the things I’m talking about are the same – women and their place in the world. It’s something I write about across these three genres.
But wouldn’t the way you take an idea from beginning to conclusion differ for a short story versus a novel?
No, I don’t think there’s a difference in how a story is drawn out based on the form. In my experience. In a novel I would say that you have to focus on other characters besides the protagonist, whereas in a short story you don’t. In a novel you have more space for showing rather than telling. In short stories you don’t, so you have to tell a little bit more than show because you’re compressing events and incidents. But what I have found is...all of these forms have intermingled because this [Pyjamas Are Forgiving] started out as a short story and became a novel. It is the story that tells you what form it needs.
How much time was this book in the making? And what is your writing process?
I spent about a year-and-a-half on it. I pretty much write every day…something or the other. But maybe if I’m working on a column that particular week, maybe for two or three days I won’t be able to focus on the novel.
The other thing is that in the beginning everything is more scattered, but by the time you’re halfway through a novel, everything else fades away. The last two or three months, you’re writing, at least for me, 10-12 hours a day. And it’s not because anyone is asking you to but because now you’re completely immersed in that world. That world becomes more real than your world. So you’re sitting at your desk, in your living room, but you’re absolutely not mentally present for anyone in your family, or even yourself at that point.
But what I enjoy about the process is that you’re in your mind but you’re still at a distance. You could say it’s akin to, in a strange way, maybe meditation. Because you’re in your mind, but you’re at a distance from your mind. You’re not involved in your emotions, but you’re feeling the things when you write.
At least in this book. I didn’t feel it in my last one as much, but I felt in this one that I was at some point going through the emotions that the character was going through and I would behave like that, even in my normal life when I got up from that desk. Because actually, mentally, I never left that desk. I would be having dinner with my family but I would still be in Kerala about to go in for a massage and thinking, “What is my ex-husband thinking at that point?” or being the ex-husband and thinking, “How do I manoeuvre things my way?” So there’s a little bit of you in every character. Not just the protagonist.
Do you plan to take Anshu’s journey further? The novel’s ending seems to leave room for that...
This is the end to me. I wanted an end which was ambiguous. She’s a woman who is looking for redemption. It was her journey. There are other things that happen around that plot. And other things that reference what is happening in the world right now. But it is her journey that we are focussing on. Her story, in that regard, is complete.
This is your first published novel. But is it also the first you ever wrote? Or have you written or even started one before this?
I’ve written half a novel when I was in my late teens and early 20s. And before this I wrote another novel which I left halfway. But I don’t think anything that you write really goes to waste, because you always use that. You put it into another form in another piece. I think a lot of writers [look at these as] blocks or feel they’ve wasted time. I had about 25,000 words in that novel, which I left and started writing Lakshmi Prasad at that point. But when I started writing this, I had a lot of material that I could take from that one. It’s still there, something could come of it later.
Your journey has been very interesting. You started out acting, then moved to interior design. When you acted in your last film in 2001, had you already decided to step away from acting, or were you just taking a break which later turned into a permanent departure?
I had been trying to leave the movie business for a few years. But every time I would, my mother would urge me to wait. Then, in 1998 or ’99, my mom used to make candles and I took that and turned it into a business and I started assisting an architect. So I was already shifting away from acting. I knew very clearly that I wanted to work in design at that point. So there was no taking a break and not coming back…I was trying to leave much before I did, and I should have left much before.
Why do you say that? I’ve heard you express this view in earlier interviews too.
I don’t think I was suited for it. I don’t think I was gifted at acting. I felt it was something I was constantly struggling [at]. I worked very hard. But those were not my gifts and I’m somebody who’s very guarded in a way. So to let people see me laid bare was an issue. The strange part is that with writing, you are allowed to be more honest in fiction than in non-fiction. So I am able to bare my truths under lots of layers. And that for me is liberating.
And how did writing happen?
When I was working in design, at one point, I’d just had a baby [her second child, daughter Nitaara]. I had a friend, an editor, who left one paper to join another and decided to have columns. So she came to me and said, “Would you do a humorous column, because you read so much and you always have these strange, funny remarks?” But I had not written anything for 20 years and I didn’t know if I could. But I thought of writing just for myself and see if I had something to say, and see if I could say it well enough.
In the beginning, there was so much to say that I ended up writing three or four columns [when one was needed]. Whereas today I find that the process is a lot more difficult. They say it gets easier but I have found that it gets a lot more difficult in fact [with regard to columns]. Because your core beliefs are just four or five [in number] and you have to address them in novel ways, and that can become a challenge. Whereas in the beginning, it’s untouched.
How did it become a full-fledged thing then?
So when I wrote those columns I felt, yes I can do this. But I wasn’t yet thinking of it as a career. It grew into a life of its own, actually.
And did that happen in a linear way?
Once the columns became popular, someone approached me to write Funnybones as a compilation of columns with some fresh ones. So that was anyway not much of a stretch because I had been doing that. Then, I began writing that novel that I had in mind. And one day, I was doing some research, and I came across Muruganantham’s story and just started writing four pages based on that. I sent it to my editor and said that look, I know that we’re halfway through this book but this is what I want to write. So I dropped [the novel] and started working on the short story and then that developed into a collection of short stories.
When you finish one writing project, do you immediately start thinking of the next? For instance, have you planned your next work?
I always have a few ideas and halfway through any project I start tinkering with those other ideas. Even right now I have two strong ideas on what I want to start with next. But everyone around me has asked me to take a break and I think my family also needs me to be mentally and physically present. Though in my head I’m itching to begin again.
Coming back to the industry, what is the experience of being a producer like, versus your time as an actor? And any plans to return to acting?
None at all. As long as I don’t have to be in front of the camera, I’m fine. And again, I’m not a producer because I want to make movies. I had a compelling story to tell, and so I had to make a movie [Pad Man]. It’s not the other way round. If I don’t find another compelling story, I won’t make a movie.
And what about scriptwriting, for instance?
I don’t really look at writing like that. I mean people segregate writing. But scriptwriting also – for me it will always be a story first. And then let’s see what happens. For example “Salaam Noni Appa” [from Legend of Lakshmi Prasad] was adapted by Lilette Dubey into a play. From Murgunantham’s story, we made Pad Man. So forms keep changing but for me it’s the story. Is this a story that is urgent, do people need to hear this, will this settle arguments in my head and theirs…these are the things that matter.
Anything in particular you want readers to take away from your novel?
I think what I’m trying to address here…one is how the world looks at a woman who is a certain age, who’s single, who’s unmarried, and how she looks at herself. The other thing is when they talk about empowered women, they think these women are infallible. And though my protagonist is an empowered woman, she is also a victim to her frailties and her weaknesses, which is what every woman is. And so this myth of a strong woman carving her own path and never faltering really needs to be examined. Because that’s not what life is and those are also not the standards that women should have to live up to.
After a novel, short story and columns, have you thought of another format, maybe poetry, for example?
I love poetry, but I’m a very bad poet. My poetry is best left to greeting cards! I don’t think it deserves to be anything more than that. But I don’t know…it could be anything. It could be a graphic novel. If I have a story, I will find a way to tell it. Whatever form suits it best.