In Kerala, removed from comforts such as seasoned food, real towels and internet connectivity, is a place ostensibly built to facilitate healing using Ayurvedic principles. Twinkle Khanna’s Pyjamas Are Forgiving is set in this spa-cum-hospital facility whose doctors believe Ayurveda holds answers that Western medicine hasn’t acquired yet. Every year or so, Anshu, a well-to-do woman retreats to Shanthamaaya Sthalam where she drinks ghee adulterated with cow urine and receives turmeric scrubs and red rice and milk face packs. She has lingering difficulties in her joints from a fall many years ago, and Shanthamaaya sets her right with each visit.
Shanthamaaya is a place where experienced patients return year after year, paying exorbitant fees, and new ones arrive to a sense of shock and disorientation as they adjust to a rigid, unpalatable diet and a schedule that can prove to be tedious. It’s a place outside the understanding of Anshu’s mother who plays cards at Gymkhana Club several times a week and of her sister, who returns to an “over-decorated flat” in Punjabi Bagh after a ladies’ lunch. It’s a world where sleep disorders are traced back to an over-consumption of Chinese food and over-stimulation of biological systems by alcohol, non-vegetarian food, and sex.
An easy read
Pyjamas Are Forgiving is easy to read, and to Khanna’s credit, she achieves this without dumbing down her characters to stereotypes. Her cleverness lies in being able to show how families can both be a comfort and an annoyance. The writing is not perfect, however, and the protagonist has blind spots that take her an excruciating length of time to begin to understand.
Anshu is the sort of contradictory character whose choice to spend her vacation time and savings on an Ayurvedic retreat may feel alien to some people (as it did for me), and whose humour and irreverence will endear her to others. Her philosophy may not resonate with a reader but she largely manages to be a character across the aisle one can listen to without a sense of frustration.
Khanna’s novel is funniest in the text’s female company. Anshu engages most authentically with the women in her life and the ones she encounters in the spa. She places, perhaps unwittingly, a turmeric stain on the shoulder of her ex-husband Jay’s new wife as she greets her in a seemingly friendly and harmless manner. She exchanges verbal “nuclear weapons” with her sister and is aware that it’s the security of that relationship that allows the customary vicious barb to co-exist with the love between them. She gently (if at times inconsistently) mentors the young woman whose first time at the spa leaves her nauseous and weakened.
The men in her life
It’s a tone that doesn’t usually carry forward into her interactions with men such as Jay whose crude jokes she appears to accept with more equanimity than she does the misguided criticisms of her sister. The novel exhibits a general wariness towards the men Anshu encounters in her life. The yoga teacher at the spa is described as lecherous, as is Jay’s cousin, Lalit, who lures a young woman into watching movies with him in his room alone. The male doctors at the Ayurvedic hospital are treated with respect, but Anshu also finds much in them to call out and laugh at, and occasionally criticise.
Pyjamas stalls when it focuses on characters such as Anshu’s ex-husband, Jay, whose humour leans on a perverse treatment of the women in his life. He invades the privacy of his ex-wife with unsolicited sexually charged comments and appears to relish betraying his present wife in doing so. Lines such as “...what are you planning to keep him warm with, Anshu? Your arms?” reflect a kind of male banter most readers will be painfully familiar with, but the relatability of these lines still doesn’t make for engaging reading.
Jay’s current wife, Shalini, becomes a more interesting character to observe because as the narrator, Anshu is willing to look at her actions in a more clear-eyed and critical way. Shalini’s internalised misogyny, homophobia and transphobia makes her one of the novel’s most unlikeable characters but her words receive greater scrutiny in the text than Jay’s do. On the one hand, the novel deftly shoots down Shalini’s homophobic questioning of a gay couple by asking them which one of them is the woman, and which one is the man. On the other hand, Jay’s over-stepping of sexual boundaries is skimmed over. It’s a sign that men get away with much more for much longer that it is late in the narrative before Jay’s actions are treated with suspicion.
Khanna acknowledges the role women play in enabling problematic men in their lives, and the dire circumstances required for them to recognise that. It is, by most measures, a mild indictment for abusive and manipulative behaviour, but Khanna pushes the boundaries of what’s allowed in funny, accessible literature. She’s able to work constipation and sex into humour that doesn’t feel derivate or exploitative. She isn’t swinging for happy endings or romantic resolutions. Instead, she opts for a hybrid read that will appeal to different stripes of readers.
Pyjamas Are Forgiving, Twinkle Khanna, Juggernaut.