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Whatever I think shows up in fiction: Twinkle Khanna

In her new collection of short stories, ‘Welcome To Paradise’, Twinkle Khanna examines themes of mortality

Twinkle Khanna's fourth book released last month.
Twinkle Khanna's fourth book released last month.

It was a chilly November morning in London. The boiler in Twinkle Khanna’s bathroom wasn’t functioning; the water was lukewarm. She was running late for this interview. After a delay of a few minutes, she logged in for the video call in an emerald sweater, kohl-ed eyes and dishevelled hair—just like a writer’s.

“I was standing there, looking at the lukewarm water and thinking it could be used as a metaphor in a story where someone is in a relationship which is not freezing, not really warm, but they are hoping it will get warmer; then they give up,” she said. Khanna’s latest book, Welcome To Paradise—a collection of five short stories published by Juggernaut—released last week. Fresh from completing a master’s programme in fiction writing from London’s Goldsmith college, she is brimming with writerly learnings.

Khanna has been writing professionally for a decade as a columnist for DNA and The Times Of India and has authored three books, Mrs Funnybones (2015), The Legend Of Lakshmi Prasad (2016) and Pyjamas Are Forgiving (2018). While juggling two different writing careers, she launched the digital content platform, Tweak India, and a publishing company, Tweak Books. Her breezy prose punctuated with her trademark wit signalled her fourth book would be an easy read too, but it was not so. Themes of mortality and elderly isolation underpin the stories; The Man From The Garage opens with a funeral, Nearly Departed deals with euthanasia, and the last story, Jelly Sweets, is about a grieving young mother.

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In an interview with Lounge, Khanna, 50, talks about her writing process, tools of fiction and truth being like a potato. Edited excerpts:

Did you plan to write a book about mortality?

I did not. Before Goldsmiths, I completed two short-term writing courses in Oxford, and one of the things we were taught is to never decide the theme before writing a story. The story always comes first. But I am 50, I have already lost a number of people, and with the amount of coffee I drink as my primary fluid, I don’t think I am going to make it to 100. You know, the truth of my existence appears in my writing. The truth is like a potato: You can make French fries or aloo jeera but the chemical composition does not change. You could call it a mid-life crisis or an existential crisis; but whatever I think shows up in fiction.

Why did you pursue these courses?

In the pandemic, for the first time, I realised that I was a writer. At one point I was unable to process the world because I just couldn’t write. So, I signed up for two courses in Oxford that ran for three months each: One was beginner’s life writing, followed by advanced fiction. Then I felt the need to learn more by pursuing a master’s degree in fiction writing at Goldsmiths.

In this programme, for the first time, I was able to analyse the text of my peers as well as other writers’ work. It helped me to take a critical look at mine. Apart from that, I was always intrigued by how time works in linear and non-linear narratives. I did a dissertation on the non-linear stories in Alice Munro’s work. It helped me find ways to use time as an effective navigational tool in fiction. In Welcome To Paradise, some stories move back and forth rapidly. There are two ways of writing a short story: One is where it is centred on a monumental event, and the other is when an entire lifespan plays out. I fall in the latter group and I was struggling with time, because there’s a lot of back and forth. Look at it as the behind-the-scenes work, almost like what you are seeing (or reading) is on stage and then there’s all the scaffolding to hold it up.

Can you illustrate this with an example from the book?

In the story Nearly Departed, there’s a passage where the 85-year-old protagonist Madhura is looking out of the window at the rain. I used the framework of the rain to bring up her past in the 1970s when she is with her partner and the ceiling is leaking. I had to mention the year and age of characters to peg the narrative to a certain point in time. There is a part when they are teenagers, and it flips to the present when she an octogenarian living with Parkinson’s. To indicate this, there’s a scene where her phone falls, and her fingers are trembling. It’s deliberate attempt to bring the physicality of the characters into the narrative. Other cues would be significant events, like the Emergency, food such as drinking Gold Spot, and cars that were fashionable, like the Fiat. These elements appear in the narrative to ground the reader.

What prompted you to create these characters, especially sketches of ageing women?

When I was younger, I had this notion that 60 is a grand age to reach. Now, I am 50 and feel very young compared to what I planned to be my evolution at 60. The other thing is, I have always been fascinated by older people; as someone gets older, they start turning invisible to the world. I see them and I like observing them because they are so much more. They have led a rich life, acquired a depth of experience, and have layers to them that younger people may not have. It comes up in this book. A protagonist in her 30s is not as interesting as her mother or aunt in their 60s. So, there is a fascination with getting older and it’s something that I have been preparing for since I was young. This is not to say that any stage in one’s life, be it 20s, 30s or 40s, is lesser than the other. It’s a progression: First you run, then walk and finally sit.

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What is your writing process?

I am extremely disciplined; in fact, my discipline is like a straight jacket, and I would like to be less disciplined. I start writing between 4.30-5am, and this book came to life with my daughter sleeping beside me, while I was propped up in bed in a dark room illuminated by the laptop screen. By about 12pm, my neurons go on a strike and I stop. The second half of the day is reserved for columns and Tweak. I try and write every single day. There is no such thing as waiting for a muse: you sit at your desk and if the muse is on their way to someone else, you are right there to catch them and bring them to your desk. I love taking day flights, because that’s where uninterrupted and thorough editing happens. If I am in-between books (like now), or only have to write columns, then I will take a night plane. I don’t use inflight Wi-Fi; maybe it’s the Gujarati in me that doesn’t want to spend any extra money just for this. After a decade of writing, I can finally call myself a professional writer.

When did you start working on this book?

It’s very difficult to say when or how a book begins; because so much of it lives in my head for a while before I actually put anything on paper. I began working on the story Jelly Sweets about eight years ago. I used to be a columnist with DNA then, and the editor Sarita Tanwar had seen the notes of this story. She encouraged me to finish it, but it needed time and some thinking. It was the last story I finished in this book. So, how do I tell you when I began working on this book: what’s the timespan. The quickest story in this book was probably The Man In The Garage that took three months.

What were you reading while working on it?

I was a student, and there was a lot of course material. We read extensively—almost a book a week. There were stories by Alice Munro, Zadie Smith and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. If you want specific book titles, there’s Cursed Bunny by Bora Chang, The End Of The Affair by Graham Greene and Family Life by Akhil Sharma. I like science fiction—Ted Chang is my favourite—and need to read those every night. After completing A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman, I banged my head on a window thinking I would never be able to write like that. I go through four-five pages of God Of Small Things practically everyday and like to read them aloud. This is my copy, as you can see, there are some 300 post-its. I remember somebody commenting about Arundhati Roy’s writing and saying Saraswati sits on her typewriter.

I approached the book as a light read but was overcome with emotion and paused several times…

I don’t want you to feel miserable. I had somebody, a friend, who said it made them feel really lonely. But it’s validation for me when you are feeling lonely, or overcome with emotion… we are mean writers, we want you to feel everything.

So, what’s next for your readers?

I am completely in transition and my brain is unable to focus on this next project. I am thinking of doing something in the speculative fiction genre—a deep interest. I want to stay away from redoing things. It’s easy to grow horizontally but I am trying to grow in different directions. This book challenged me and I set myself up for these things; maybe I have some sort of persecution complex that leads me to feel the need to struggle. I like that notion of stretching myself; physically I don’t do so much, so I like to do things with the mind.

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Welcome To Paradise By Twinkle Khanna Juggernaut Books, 224 pages,  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>297.
Welcome To Paradise By Twinkle Khanna Juggernaut Books, 224 pages, 297.

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