Juhu, like any of Mumbai’s other busy suburbs, can be chaotic and noisy.
But the building at the end of a narrow lane, which sits right by the edge of the Arabian Sea, has an air of quiet.
This is the home of Twinkle Khanna, former actress, designer and writer, and her actor husband Akshay Kumar. They live here with their two children.
On the second floor of the building is the office area for Grazing Goat, Kumar’s production house. It is here that I am to meet Twinkle Khanna, to discuss her new book – a collection of short stories titled The Legend of Lakshmi Prasad (published by Juggernaut).
Lakshmi Prasad is Khanna’s second book, the follower to her successful literary debut Mrs Funnybones. It comprises four short stories, mostly fiction (except for the last one, which is based on Arunachalam Muruganathan, the sanitary napkin crusader), and each takes on a different theme: the importance of the girl child, a single woman’s disastrous experiences with ‘settling down’, the camaraderie between two sisters now grown old and mature love, and of one man’s mission to make sanitary napkins accessible to all women.
Khanna walks briskly into the office; for a day filled with interviews about the book, she is dressed in ripped jeans and a formal jacket, with her hair slicked back in a no-nonsense ponytail. Then she kicks off her heels and settles cross-legged on the couch and instantly seems approachable, casual.
Making the switch to fiction with The Legend of Laksmi Prasad, she tells me, has been easy.
“Actually all my editors find it really odd when I say this, but I find fiction easier to write than non-fiction,” she says. “What happens with a column is that I have a particular amount of days (in which to write it), and I need at least one smart line in every column. One zingy line. So I have to take a topic which may not necessarily be humorous, give it a twist, give it a perspective – because there are other people writing about it – and even the elements that I add from my own life are partly fictional… As far as fiction is concerned, you get more time. I get two weeks to do my research, fill in the details, do a plotline. Whereas I just have to jump into (my columns).”
The Legend of Lakshmi Prasad started out as a very different book. In fact, it wasn’t about Lakshmi Prasad (the girl in the first story) at all. Instead, it was a novel – one that Khanna began writing when she was 18, left unfinished, and revisited nearly two decades later, after Mrs Funnybones was complete.
That abandoned novel has been parsed down into a short story in Lakshmi Prasad, and is without a doubt, the best among the lot. It tells the story of Noni Apa, an elderly woman whose low key life gets its spark from her close relationship with her sister, and later, a musically-inclined gentleman. The description perhaps doesn’t do justice to a story that’s rich in detail and emotion, no less poignant for being fairly sedate.
“That was the last story I wrote…” says Khanna. “Noni Apa is a story I’ve been trying to write since I was 18 – with different characters, different points of view. When I was writing it the first time, there was a grand-daughter, who was the protagonist. When I took it up the second time – after Mrs Funnybones – she was 40. But finally, when I actually wrote the story, the old ladies are the protagonists and I think that’s the way it was always meant to be.”
What really comes through in this particular story is the bond between the two sisters – Noni Apa and Binni – who’ve navigated the vicissitudes of life together. Khanna has said that her own relationship with sister Rinke Khanna was the inspiration, in a way, for the fictional characters.
“As far as my sister and I are concerned, what I drew upon is the unshakeable bond we’ve always had. We are a year-and-a-half apart, and we will always have each other’s backs – no matter what. We laugh at the same things. So the element that these two sisters have, where they tease each other mercilessly or have this banter going on, is something I have with my sister… it doesn’t matter if today we’re 40, have husbands and children, live in different cities; what I have (with Rinke) is unchangeable.”
While elements from life have found their way into Khanna’s stories, there’s also a lot of detailing that comes from research (“I have to look up everything!” she says) and from conversations with friends, experts. So from describing an ICU set up in the late ‘80s to the exact distance between stations on a railway line and how long a train might stop there – Khanna invests meticulous attention in getting it right. She has notebooks filled with pointers before she even gets down to writing the actual story.
Khanna admits the approach to writing is one she has to life as well.
“I am very disciplined, that is my nature,” she explains. “I’m one of those people who’ll print out two weeks’ worth of colour coded menus. I can’t cook, but I definitely need to feed my family! I get up very early. By the time the kids go to school, it’s 7 am. I get to my desk by 7.30; if I go for a walk, then by 8.30. I write for two hours. It’s quiet. Nobody at that time needs anything of me. And then I get ready and go off to the office.”
Over the last month-and-a-half, that schedule has changed, as Khanna wrote for seven hours a day to meet her publisher’s deadline. “So I really had to rush to finish it – which is great, because I think if you really need to finish a book, that’s the only way to do it.,” she says, adding that writer’s block is not something she faces.
The ease with which she’s slipped into the role of writer may seem surprising considering that apart from a few “morbid poems” and “half a book” that she wrote during her teens, Khanna entirely gave up writing for 20 years. Looking back, she says she doesn’t know why the break occurred, just that it did.
“I don’t know…I didn’t even think about it, other than ‘maybe one day, when I’m 60, and the kids have all grown up and I’ll have a lot more to say’.” Khanna is glad, however, that she took up writing again when she did: “I have a very young child – my daughter is 4 – and I’ve always been working… but I was really fortunate that (rediscovering writing) happened to me because it blew any midlife crisis I may have had out of the orbit. I didn’t have the space in my mind to think about (growing older). I was so busy thinking about everything else!”
A voracious reader since she was a little girl (Wodehouse and Asimov were early favourites; F Scott Fitzgerald is a more recent one), Khanna, however, says she’s never wanted to ‘model’ her writing on that of any author – although she often wishes she could write as well as the ones she admires.
What’s moulded her writing more, are her life experiences – growing up amid strong women.
“I grew up in a household of very strong women,” says Khanna. “My mother, my aunts, my grandmother – they were all very independent. There was no concept really of living according to norms or rules, of things that women are supposed to do or not, that was not what I grew up with... What I grew up with, was a house filled with people who were painting or sketching, playing the guitar. I had an aunt who also wrote really bad poetry, like me! Crocheting or knitting… So we were constantly doing something, and there were nine of us, in this house. I think my childhood was bohemian in a way and that – not really having to subscribe to convention – has really helped me in my life.”
Khanna’s formative years were important in another way: As an overweight “oddball”, she used humour to deflect barbs.
“There were two sides to my personality at the time,” says Khanna. “I’ve never been able to tolerate unfair things or behaviour. So I was very quick with both – my tongue and my fists. And I didn’t fit the mould: physically, and in other ways also. I was the fattest girl in my class and I had a little moustache. So I had to do something to break out. And in a way I’m glad because had I relied on my looks, what would I have today? I didn’t have a choice. I had to have a quick comeback if people teased me about my weight or my name.”
Khanna today may be a far cry from that awkward adolescent, but the quickness of her quips remains intact. That may have something to do with finding her creative and professional niche; first, as a designer, and now as a writer. Her years as an actress she discounts as not being creatively fulfilling.
“My acting career was not something that I was inclined towards or I had the aptitude for. People get their knowledge in different ways: kinetically, auditorily or visually. I can’t imbibe anything by listening, it’s always what I read. So that was a big disadvantage in the acting profession, where you have to respond to a lot of things by ear. Also I’m a very practical person, the emotional side of me is very limited. I don’t think I could draw on those to perform. It was a very frustrating time in my life. All I would want to do is come home.”
Khanna is already thinking about ideas for her next book – it could be a novel set in a dystopian future, or another collection of short stories, she says.
Is there any pressure now, to live up to her “Mrs Funnybones” image?
“Yes definitely in the beginning when it started, I felt, ‘oh I have to live up to this’… for instance, if I had to go up on stage,” says Khanna. “Then I realised it’s always been like that: I’m always a little shaky, with my knees wobbling before I’ve to go up. But once I’m up there I’m fine. I have to eventually just be myself, and that’s good enough.”