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The many faces of Mrs Funnybones

From her hugely popular column to short fiction and now her first novel out this month, Twinkle Khanna has come a long way. What keeps Mrs Funnybones ticking and reinventing herself?

Photos: Dabboo Ratnani
Photos: Dabboo Ratnani

On a sweltering afternoon in August, Twinkle Khanna is seated at a restaurant in a hotel in central Delhi, sipping black coffee, her favourite beverage, as regular readers of her columns would know. “I hope you’ve had a chance to read the book?" she asks tentatively, referring to her first novel, Pyjamas Are Forgiving, published this month by Juggernaut Books. She looks visibly relieved when I assure her I have.

This question, which must be on the mind of every writer meeting a journalist, probably assumes another dimension in Khanna’s case. Her illustrious Bollywood pedigree and association with the industry, which continues well beyond her own acting career (partly due to her husband Akshay Kumar’s involvement with films), could easily distract from her avatar of a writer. I’m not surprised that her publicist calls me before our meeting with a gentle warning to stay off “personal questions". I do, actually, have many such questions to ask, though all pertaining to her prolific output as a writer.

With a popular newspaper column running for the last five-odd years, two best-selling books, and now a novel in her CV, Khanna has firmly carved a place for herself in India’s publishing universe. “There never was any confusion about her talent," says Chiki Sarkar, publisher of all three of her books. The first one, Mrs Funnybones: She’s Just Like You And A Lot Like Me, was conceived when Sarkar was still the publisher of Penguin Random House India. Since then, each of her titles has sold more than 100,000 copies, Sarkar says. “Of all my authors, I have been the most brutally honest with Twinkle, but with each book she seems to be teaching herself to be a better writer."

Her editor’s fondness apart, the evolution of Khanna’s voice should be obvious to anyone who has followed her work, whatever their opinion of the merit of it. The boisterous tone of Mrs Funnybones, her alter ego in the eponymous column, seemed to recede from the short stories she wrote in the 2016 collection, The Legend Of Lakshmi Prasad. In Pyjamas Are Forgiving, we are in for yet another surprise. While we do still hear the wisecracking Mrs Funnybones and her naughty cackle every now and then, Anshu, the narrator of the novel, is mellower, more worldly wise—something of an old soul.

A divorced single woman, most likely in her early 40s, Anshu is childless, successful and (as she discovers to her alarm) still shockingly susceptible to her past “mistakes". Taking a well-earned break at an Ayurvedic spa, where the daily regimen involves drinking ghee and subjecting one’s creaky joints to painful yogic contortions, Anshu stumbles upon her philandering ex-husband, Jay. The sight of him sets her ancient wounds burning with a generous sprinkling of salt. For he’s there with his current wife, Shalini, the younger woman for whom he’d left Anshu several years ago.

Naturally, Anshu’s initial reaction is of sheer disbelief at such a nasty coincidence, followed by rage at Jay for every humiliation he’s ever caused her. In a last-ditch effort to pull herself together, Anshu tries a steady sniggering condescension at Shalini’s uncouth behaviour. She resolves to stay brave and civil but the effort of remaining aloof upsets whatever little balance her body had gained after days of the rigorous treatments. Briefly, she even contemplates flirting with a handsome young fellow, only to discover he’s mortally ill. And so, the stage is set for the inevitable: the revival of a steamy romance between an estranged couple.

Like all writers, Khanna has drawn shades of her plot from life, especially her pursuit of yoga and ayurveda. “Most stories will tell you how people fall in love. But I wanted to have a flip book, go back in reverse, and figure out what happens if we told that story the other way round," Khanna says. “Do two people who have once loved each other deeply ever really fall out of love?"

The possibilities raised by that question may be many, but the relative ease with which Anshu finds herself back in the arms of her Casanova husband disturbs an easy feminist reading of her character. “Being a strong woman doesn’t mean you don’t have frailties," Khanna says. It is these dents in her characters that often make them uncomfortably real—and relatable.

But that’s not all. The plot darkens considerably, especially towards the end, as an unsavoury incident shatters Anshu’s second honeymoon with Jay. The conclusion, where the conceit of pyjamas being forgiving is somewhat clumsily explained, left me curious about Anshu’s motives, but also feeling empathy for her. “I had three-four different outlines with separate endings," Khanna says. “Then one day I found myself on a 9-hour flight with no internet. I didn’t sleep and wrote out all possible outcomes." That’s her one advice to writers, she adds. Disable the internet and go on a long train or plane journey.

A sentimental education

Khanna’s journey into writing has been circuitous. It begins in her girlhood, at boarding school, when she wrote a bunch of poems. “My family life as I knew it was disrupted, everything I had taken for granted was snatched away from me," she says, referring to the separation of her actor parents, Dimple Kapadia and the late Rajesh Khanna. “Those first poems, if I remember right, involved maggots," she says. “I still write poems, but they are terrible, and Chiki doesn’t let me put them in anywhere. I don’t read much of it though, maybe a bit of Rumi now and then, but no Rupi Kaur."

In her early 20s, Khanna says she wrote half a book, about a young girl who lived with her Ismaili grandfather, bits of which were reincarnated in the story “Salaam Noni Appa", in The Legend Of Lakshmi Prasad. “Then I didn’t write for the next 20 years—not a word, not even a diary entry, nothing." She was planning to qualify as a chartered accountant after school, when she got her break in the movies in Rajkumar Santoshi’s Barsaat in 1995. “I don’t have a grand education," says Khanna, “books have been all my education." Now, every summer, she likes to take a course or two at some university, though she’s not tempted to enrol in a creative writing programme. “I’d have loved to study literature," she says, a touch wistfully. When she finds the time she takes workshops in design (she runs a design store in Mumbai). “I’m really good with Photoshop," she says. “I’ve altered my dress and style in so many photos and sent them off to various magazines."

Khanna’s turbulent early years and stint in the limelight make her an ideal candidate to write a celebrity memoir (Soha Ali Khan’s sassy The Perils Of Being Moderately Famous aced that game in 2017). But she laughs off the idea. “I’d be dishonest in a memoir, that’s why I prefer fiction," she says. “Being famous has never appealed to me beyond a point as I have grown up in a fishbowl. I’m the person looking for a stone to hide behind, and with Mrs Funnybones, I found the perfect shield." And so began her columns, first in Daily News & Analysis (DNA), currently running in The Times Of India (TOI).

Journalist Sarita Tanwar, who introduced Khanna in the pages of DNA, remembers her as “a dream" to work with. “She rarely missed a deadline, unless she was travelling. She never needed suggestions on what to write about, or reminders," she says on email. “Her copy was ready to send to press."

Neelam Raaj, Khanna’s editor at TOI, where she writes a fortnightly dispatch as Mrs Funnybones, agrees. “Initially a lot of people asked me if she has a ghostwriter," she says, dismissing such speculations. “Twinkle is never complacent or cockily confident. She keeps asking me how the column is doing."

She can be a tough cookie though. Raaj admits the two have argued over some columns, especially one where she went hammer and tongs at India’s godmen. “One of her most controversial pieces appeared towards the end of 2016, when she took a potshot at Salman Khan," Raaj says. “All hell broke loose and the Bhai fans started trolling her big time on social media."

If Khanna is unreserved with her opinion, she doesn’t spare herself or her family. In Mrs Funnybones, the book strung together with the best of the columns, we find her merrily taking digs at her mother, mother-in-law, children, and “the man of the house". She isn’t hesitant about poking fun at the “wrong" English that Indians speak or joking about Karva Chauth, while observing it down to the last detail. Mrs Funnybones is a bundle of contradictions. But “she’s just like you," as the subtitle wickedly reminds us, “and a lot like me."

Khanna’s columns were an instant hit, Tanwar believes, for the fact that she is a star wife and yet leads the most “normal" life. “She never wrote about designer bags, European holidays or private jets." Instead we encounter her husband, who isn’t too useful around the house; her mother, who has an embarrassing habit of repeatedly referring to her childhood obesity; her mother-in-law’s tough love; and awkward parent-teacher meetings at her daughter’s school. “Her column was a living example of (something similar to the popular American feature) Stars—They’re Just Like Us," Tanwar adds.

“I didn’t sit and think how people would judge me," Khanna says about the earnestness with which she embraced her role. “I had a quiet life, a decent career in design, I didn’t need to jump into this, nor did I want to be put on a pedestal." Pedestals are, as she puts it, very narrow spaces and too high up. “If you do a little twirl, chances are you will fall, and I do want to dance a little sometimes."

The ideas for the columns, stories, books aren’t hard to come by for her, especially living in a country like India, which is brimming over with “content". “I can write at least my next 50 columns on the subject of cow, I’m telling you." It also helps immensely that she writes exactly the way she speaks. “When I met (writer) Moni Mohsin (who interviewed her for Elle recently), I realized the way she writes and speaks are entirely different. It was fascinating to see her inhabiting another self so completely."

But being Mrs Funnybones, sashaying around trailing streamers of mirth, isn’t always easy. Early on in Pyjamas Are Forgiving, there are a couple of lame jokes (an egregious one involving a fantasy of former Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh looming between Anshu’s legs), apart from a few metaphors that seem to be trying too hard to elicit a laugh. But Khanna baulks at the very thought of feeling any pressure to be funny. “What is pressure? Right now we’re sitting here and there’s seven pounds of atmospheric pressure on us. But do you feel it?" she says. “Of course, you don’t, because you are used to it. So am I."

The escape artist

Becoming used to seeing the quirky side of life is a talent that Khanna says she was meant to have. “I didn’t have a choice! My name is Twinkle, how can I take myself seriously?" she says. “With a name like that, who’s ever going to give me any prize? I wish I had a fancy Bengali name, something like..." she pauses.

How about Manimugdhamala?

She seems to like the sound of it.

Curiously, it was another Bengali with a strange nickname, Jhumpa Lahiri, who helped her come to terms with her bothersome moniker. “In The Interpreter Of Maladies, there’s a story (This Blessed House), where one of the characters prefers to go by her pet name, which is also Twinkle," Khanna says delightedly. “She’s extremely charming, happy and popular."

Speaking to Khanna about writing, one is constantly ambushed by such literary titbits—which isn’t unusual for someone who claims reading to be the top priority of her life. “I read mostly science fiction-fantasy, every night before I go to sleep, even if it’s only a few pages," she says. Isaac Asimov, Philip K. Dick, Ursula K. Le Guin, Margaret Atwood—she rattles off the names of some of her favourites. “I don’t think I’ll be any good at writing sci-fi though," she adds. “I’ve read too much of it to write anything of my own, though I do have an idea for a dystopia set in India." Occasionally, there are books she wishes she had written. “After reading A Man Called Ove (by Fredrik Backman), I wanted to bang my head on the wall—because I can never write like that."

There’s isn’t as much passion in her voice when it comes to cinema. “I’m not really a big movie person," she says. “Again, I mostly watch sci-fi and horror. I think people should anyway curtail their time on Netflix by watching it the way I do: only when I’m on my stationary bike." She adds, mighty pleased, that she has exercised a good hour and 15 minutes the other day while watching Sacred Games. But she doesn’t have any special thoughts about writing for the screen. “I don’t like to segregate different genres. Writing is a more fluid arena," she says. “I look at what the story needs instead of starting with the thought of writing in a particular form."

At the moment, she says, there’s “a strange feeling of emptiness" inside her head. “When I was working on Pyjamas Are Forgiving, I had something to escape to, but now I’m trapped in the real world." So what does she fill that void with? “Usually with lots of vodka...which is completely going down the wrong path," Khanna says, “or else, I begin to write again."

Hat trick

An easy guide to Twinkle Khanna’s books

Pyjamas Are Forgiving

(Juggernaut Books, 325)

Khanna’s latest book and first novel started life as a short story, she says. But then it began to grow out of control. Layers were added to the plot until it assumed the form it did. Set in an Ayurvedic spa, it combines several themes that are close to Khanna’s heart: yoga, Ayurveda, wellness and the sinuous workings of the human heart. What could have been a story about an embittered woman, jilted by her dissolute husband, turns into a romp, thanks to Khanna’s gift for observing the absurdities of life. It’s not fun and games all the way though. There is a dark twist that resonates with many ethical questions and conundrums currently buzzing in the #MeToo era.

The Legend Of Lakshmi Prasad

(Juggernaut Books, 299)

Although published in 2016, Khanna started working on one of the stories in this collection almost 20 years ago, and has returned to it several times over. Some of the others are of more recent vintage. The last story, based on the life of Arunachalam Muruganantham, who braved adversities to create low-cost sanitary napkins for rural women, is the best known, thanks to the movie PadMan (2018). Akshay Kumar, who starred in the title role, later thanked his wife on social media for being the biggest champion of the project. “Full credit to this gorgeous superwoman for finding, chasing and making this film a reality," he tweeted, with a picture of him with Khanna.

Mrs Funnybones—She’s Just Like You And A Lot Like Me

(Penguin Random House India, 299)

At the Mumbai launch of Khanna’s first book in 2015, Pritish Nandy, a communications expert among many things, spoke of his role in bringing Mrs Funnybones between two covers. A fan of Khanna’s columns, he had almost fixed a deal with a rival publisher for her, when Chiki Sarkar, then publisher of Penguin Random House India, foiled his carefully laid plan. Charmed by Khanna’s voice, Sarkar offered her a deal she couldn’t say no to. The rest, as they say, is history. Author and editor picked the best of the columns, added some new material and illustrations—and the book was done. Conceived along the lines of a desi Bridget Jones’s Diary, the chapters take the reader on a roller-coaster ride through the tragi-comic life of a star family.

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