Twinkle Khanna: “I’m not Mrs Funny bones!”
I’m going to begin this article with complete honesty, as Twinkle Khanna would. It was easy to dismiss her when I heard she’d published her first book Mrs Funnybones in 2015. “Another celebrity author driving us serious writers further down the pecking order,” was my first thought. It was hard for me to imagine Twinkle as a writer. Celebrities cannot be artists, just like an artist should not be a celebrity. Fame repels creativity. The praise around her book didn’t impress me either, for people kowtow to anyone touched by Bollywood’s stardust, whether deserving of it or not.
Three years and three books later, when we sit down for a long chat at her sea-facing office, Twinkle asks me whether I’ve read her books. I tell her that I have but only before our scheduled interview. “It’s okay,” she replies. “People were surprised that I could even spell my own name!” Her self-deprecating humour throws me off. I laugh. What I don’t tell her is that her writing has left me with a feeling I didn’t expect: surprise. As a short story writer and a devotee of stalwarts like Alice Munro and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, I judge writers by their brevity. I therefore introduced myself to Twinkle’s writing with her debut short story collection, The Legend of Lakshmi Prasad (2016), expecting to be left apathetic like I am with most bestselling (read: awful) books in India. I wasn’t. Instead of relying on hackneyed plots about Bollywood that would’ve come easily to her, she’d entered the world of rural India, female infanticide, gerontophilia, feminism and menstruation, with the deftness of a surgeon and the empathy of a nun. Not only did she know how to tell a story, she also knew how to write, a truly rare combination for Indian authors today. I began reading her debut novel Pyjamas are Forgiving (2018) with more elation and found that I couldn’t put it down. I realised that pegging Twinkle Khanna as a celebrity writer has been a serious PR gaffe. She is a writer, and a good one at that. She deserves better.
There are two kinds of people in the world. Those who look at a butterfly and see its beauty, and those who look at a butterfly and see its metamorphosis. Media focus on Twinkle has been on optics. Her journey is assumed to be folklore, a convenient presumption to adopt for a child of superstars who is married to a superstar. But when she’s moved past her legacy to create her own, doesn’t her journey deserve to be captured as more than that of a celebrity scion?
“Everything from the outside is different,” she says, addressing my concern. “Once I wrote about a train journey and how the strap of my bag got stuck around a woman’s neck. Someone asked, ‘How does this woman know about trains?’” A pause. “Yes, I was privileged till the age of 10, and then with my mother (actor Dimple Kapadia) I led a middle-class life. I went from a convertible to a rickshaw, but I loved it! I loved the freedom! Due to this I’ve had two very different vantage points. This gives me insight into multiple narratives.”
It shows. Twinkle’s writing does not reflect navel-gazing, a tool used by many novelists. Instead, she occupies narratives that are clearly varied from her own life experiences. How does she dive into these other micro-worlds? “How are people alive if they don’t wonder?” she asks me simply. “Our backgrounds may be different but our emotions are universal.”
True. But an author needs to be anonymous in order to observe. In fact, the best part about being an author is that people know your name but rarely your face. It allows us to slip into the crevices of society unobserved. This can’t be true of Twinkle whose name and face are imprinted in the minds of millions. “The problem is that when I’m trying to watch people they’re watching me,” she admits. Still, like any good writer she checks for the veracity of things she brings to paper. “Whatever I don’t know, I find out. I went to Maheshwar (Madhya Pradesh) to interview people for a story. I spent 10 days in Kerala with Padma Shri award winner Arunachalam Muruganantham, the inventor of low-cost sanitary pads (whose story is the basis for the movie Pad Man that released this January, which she produced and her actor-husband Akshay Kumar acted in). I did research to find out the kind of oxygen masks that were used at Nanavati Hospital in the 1980s for another story.” For additional research she watches documentaries and uses the modern-day writer’s favourite tool: the internet.
The author has done something else that intrigues me. In an era where India’s bestselling writers stick to the same genre (and very often the same plotline), Twinkle has written across genres, from non-fiction to short stories to a novel. “Every story has its own form. But you don’t know what form your story will take till you sit down and write it,” she says. It’s true. Stories, like life, cannot be divided into genres. And, therefore, writers should be read, not classified.
The writer, who says her biggest challenge is slowing down her story pace, also knows that being a columnist has helped her write more succinctly. “There is more showing, unlike in short stories where there is more telling. My biggest challenge in writing my first novel was to show and not tell.”
Like most writers, Twinkle — despite her celebrity status — also faced the problem that authors often encounter after selling short stories. “People expected Mrs Funnybones Two. Now that I’ve crossed that barrier, people don’t know what to expect of me.”
I can see why people expect her to continue writing humour. It befits her. After all, comedy is truth, unflinching and honest. Not everyone wants to see it, and rarely on a woman, but good comedy ensures that it’s there to be seen. This is another impressive thing about her: her ability to transmit her sense of humour onto words on a page. A lot of ‘funny’ people don’t have the same ability. “I write the way that I speak,” she says. “What you see is what you get. But I still rely on research. The humour in a village will be different from that in an urban setting. To tackle this I use dialogue. That’s something I’ve worked on diligently. I didn’t know how good I was with dialogue when I started out, but I think I’ve improved now.” I love that she’s struggling with her art like the rest of us, and is confident enough to admit it.
Does her success also stem from this confidence? I’ve always believed that it takes an immensely idealistic or immensely courageous person to write books, and Twinkle’s life does stack up to the latter. But she presents a different perspective, something I’m mulling about, “Writers have little confidence. That’s why we write. Perhaps we are misfits in the real world and therefore we need to make up our own world to inhabit.”
And most misfits find it easier to inhabit the world of books. Yet, and this is another trait distinct only to India’s current commercial authors, who proudly claim to be non-readers, they don’t read and yet bemoan the loss of readers! But Twinkle reads a lot. “Any writer has to work on their craft. They have to get better at telling a story. For that, a writer needs to read. I can’t write like F. Scott Fitzgerald and I can’t write a book like A Man Called Ove (2012), but reading helps me know my own value.”
In fact, on days she does not feel like writing, due to a lack of discipline and not ideas, her worst-case scenario of a writing block, she turns to reading. I have experienced this. A couple of months ago she didn’t only read my short story book Happy Birthday (2013), on a day that she was unwell, but also wrote to me.
While she doesn’t follow a writing schedule, Twinkle begins writing every day at 7 a. m. “After my husband has left for work and my kids have left for school. I write for three to four hours. I write in silence without music or distractions. But once I’m neck-deep in a book I can write for longer hours. Everything else becomes white noise.”
Writing is one of humanity’s most isolating exercises, we surmise, as she continues. “Being a writer means that you can’t give 100 per cent of yourself to other aspects of your life. Even if you’re physically present, you’re emotionally absent. I once sleepwalked through my daughter’s birthday. I also become reclusive when I’m writing. If I go out, even with friends, I’ll lose my flow. Sometimes characters are more interesting than friends. In fact, for a month after I finish writing a book, I feel depressed because I have to go back to the real world!” she says.
“The only thing that worries my family about my writing is that they obviously want my attention. Sometimes, when Akshay (Kumar) sees me writing he’ll say, ‘Come, let’s play Ludo.’ I love that he doesn’t realise that I may be in front of him physically but mentally I’m somewhere else. So, no, I can’t play Ludo while I’m writing. But I think it’s important for my children to see my work ethic as it will set an example.”
In the world of Netflix and Pokémon, Twinkle has inculcated the habit of reading in her children, Aarav (16) and Nitara (6). “My son writes well and I must say he can string together a nice sentence. My daughter loves reading. She’ll want to go to Granth bookstore in Juhu and read authors like Julia Donaldson. She reminds me so much of myself. When I was little I would tell myself stories for hours. Because of Akshay’s athleticism, and her genetic mix, she does the same thing, only while skipping around with a baseball bat!”
She doesn’t hold it against her husband that he doesn’t read. “Not even film magazines or my books,” she admits. “But he’s a good sounding board for me to bounce ideas and plot points off.”
Most writers bemoan frozen shoulders and widening hips as par for the course. But I look at Twinkle and wonder how she keeps it all together. “I do get fat when I’m writing because I’m sitting in a chair for 12 to 16 hours a day! I eat a lot more! I drink too much black coffee! I wish I were like Haruki Murakami who jogs and swims while writing, but I guess male writers have no household responsibilities, do they?” We guffaw. As mothers and writers it takes so much more for us women to write. Something has to give and it’s usually exercise. I haven’t heard a single male writer lament of the same.
These issues are even more real for many women of India who are used to dealing with multiple levels of patriarchy and they often put being a wife, mother, daughter-in-law, or sister, above being themselves. As Twinkle writes in her latest book, women are trained to appease, ‘bending backwards till we find ourselves lying flat on the floor as someone tramples all over us,’ which unfortunately translates into literature and publishing as well.
Even in the 21st century, female writers are judged more for their names, clothes and looks, than their writing. ‘Serious’ female writers are supposed to look a certain way, which is problematic in itself. But Twinkle doesn’t give a damn. “What is a writer supposed to look like? All I know is that writers are those who don’t exercise and drink too much coffee.”
Female writers also don’t tend to market their books in the aggressive way that male authors feel entitled to. It’s no wonder that the country’s top-selling authors are typically male. Twinkle wants to change this. “I don’t believe that women are given the same opportunities as men in publishing. We’re told to be amiable. To say things nicely. I’m aggressive. I have high testosterone levels. I want to sell more than men. I want to change my name to Chetali Bhagat.”
We laugh again. But I know that if someone can do it, it’s Twinkle. Chetan Bhagat’s novels may sell more than a daily newspaper, but Twinkle is the largest read English language columnist in India, and in 2015 she was the highest-selling female author in India.
Of course, a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write, said Virginia Woolf. Unfortunately, through aeons, writing books has made little money as compared to other professions. Twinkle says she’d never advise any author, man or woman, to give up their jobs and write full-time. “It’s impractical. Writers don’t make enough money from writing. If I just had to write, it wouldn’t suffice. If I had to rely on my columns I’d be a pauper. Fortunately, I have enough padding.”
In fact, Twinkle identifies as a feminist, unlike a lot of her contemporaries, through her writing, her words, her actions, and the recent films she’s produced. “Equality has been about walking backwards since men are inferior to women! They usually even die 10 years younger than we do! And we still have to treat them as equals,” she says sardonically.
What made her a feminist, I ask. “Growing up there were no conversations around feminism,” she says. “But I watched my mother and aunt, and I understood what feminism meant. It was only in my thirties that I realised that I was unique. I never felt less than a man. I didn’t change my surname when I got married. My sister (actor Rinke Khanna) is the same, so you know who’s influenced us. If I can help women make their lives easier using my privilege and power then why not?”
Gregarious and outspoken, Twinkle clams up when I try to bring up some controversies around her social and feminist activism. The backlash she received for her tweet of a man pooping on a beach, the negative reactions to the Pad Man social media campaign, and the Akshay-Mallika Dua controversy…. “I examine criticism but I don’t care about what everyone is saying. I learn and jump higher. I learn and move on. I’m a feminist but I don’t want to be put on a pedestal. I’d rather do my work with my feet on the ground. I want to keep my perspective.”
Fair enough. She seems very connected with the basic necessities that give people dignity and humanity, whether it’s the cause of sanitary napkins or accessibility to toilets that she’s undertaken. What’s made her sensitive to such needs? “I haven’t thought about why I’m sensitive to this, why I like meeting people from different walks of life and talking to them. I know that I lived in a self-centred way. But once I knew that I wasn’t going to drown, I knew that I could help others. You have to survive before you tell others how to survive.”
Which brings me to the end of our interview, where I want to talk about how hard it was for her to stop acting and essentially ‘reject’ her legacy? “Because of my circumstances, fame was never a draw. People aspire to be in show business but since I’d been a part of it, I didn’t. I wanted to be different from my parents. I was guided into a profession I had no interest in. I did my best, but I wasn’t good enough. I could not run around trees. I didn’t consider myself an actor. Fortunately, my parents gave me other gifts,” she shares. “I failed as an actor but I didn’t die. I kept trying new things. I kept being practical and productive. Even today, after being an author, I have new businesses coming up. You have to keep trying even when you gain success. Therefore, the trees I plant don’t just exist, they also give fruits. People get stuck in a loop of failure. Don’t. Get over your fear of failure.”
Twinkle, who’s worked as an actor, a film producer and an interior designer, eschewed all other identities in order to adopt the one that’s given her the most joy, respect and credibility. “I began putting down ‘Writer’ as my occupation in immigration forms only last year,” she says with the pride that she’s earned. She considers writing her true calling and says, “I like writing because with it I can hide behind corals and rocks, and avoid swimming at the top and going belly up. Writing helps me offer the truth gently and hide behind someone else. For example, in real life, I’m not Mrs Funnybones!”