Twinkle Khanna has a new book out. This should come as a surprise to no one after Mrs Funnybones, her first book, turned her into a bankable celebrity author. But where Mrs Funnybones rehashed her hugely popular newspaper columns, her latest goes in a different and more risky direction—fiction. In The Legend of Lakshmi Prasad, four short stories are told in her signature narrative style—tacit social commentary layered with whimsy and plenty of humour. So we meet Lakshmi Prasad, the village belle who finds empowerment in jardalu mangoes; septuagenarian Noni Appa, who discovers love in her twilight years; Elisa, whose relationships change with the weather; and, most intriguingly, Bablu, sanitary napkin man, modelled on social entrepreneur Arunachalam Muruganantham. In a freewheeling chat, the actress-author spoke about the genesis of the book, feminism and her abiding love for science fiction.
Edited excerpts from the interview:
Your first book was very slice-of-life, an extension of your newspaper columns. Why fiction this time around?
I actually didn’t want to write Mrs Funnybones. I wanted to write a pre-partition Muslim story. And Chikki Sarkar, my editor, she kind of threw a Thesaurus at my head and said, “You have this voice, people like it, just write Mrs Funnybones.” And that’s how it came about.
When I finished, I pretty much went into the next book and wrote 10 chapters. And then, one fine day, I was doing some research on a piece on menstruation for a newspaper column and I came across Muruga’s story. So I looked at it, and looked at it—at that point I hadn’t even met him—and I just decided that this was something worth getting out there. It was a magnificent story—it had humour, it had a strong social message, he was an extraordinary man. So I just started writing and I wrote a couple of pages, and I started chasing him. And he’s very evasive. I chased him for months. I got his number from someone who does TED Talks, then I called him and he finally picked up the phone. At that point, I happened to be in the countryside in London. He said, “I can’t talk to you because I’m on my way to London.” He was giving a speech at the Parliament house or something. I told him I was driving down to meet him. He’s had a lot of people making documentaries on him and doing articles or books or stories, but he finally agreed.
So it basically started with his story and the 10 chapters of the book I’d already written got trashed.
There’s a diverse range of characters in the book and all except one of the stories take place in tiny villages. What was the research process like?
For Muruga’s story, which we placed in Madhya Pradesh, I went to Maheshwar for a week. I originally wanted the town to be Itawa, not Dewas as it is in the book; but eventually I decided that it was too small a village, so we changed the name to Mohana. I went there, I walked around, I looked at people, what they’re doing, how they talk, what is it like, what are the roads like.
For the third story, about Elisa, I spent about two weeks by myself in Kerala— and I was there for some Ayurvedic panchkarma nonsense, so that idea started growing there. And I was simultaneously writing this one and Muruga’s story.
There’s a strong feminist theme running through the stories. Would you call yourself a feminist? You got some flak for a column you’d written in which you suggested that feminism was becoming a marketing tool.
I never said I’m not a feminist! I wrote one column where I was being sarcastic and I called myself a “wombist”. Now which sane person would say that “wombist” is a better term than feminist? I was being sarcastic and perhaps it was my fault in not getting the point across as clearly as I would have liked to. I don’t think there’s any doubt. If people see anything I do, and the way I live my life, there is no ambiguity about me being a feminist. And anybody who says they’re not a feminist by the clear definition of the word would be kind of idiotic, no? What does it mean at the end of the day? You just want equal opportunities.
A lot of the themes are also extensions of what you have written about in your columns. Menstruation, for one.
Well, it would crop up, no? Because it crops up every month for 42% of this country. But I also want to say one thing. Even for someone like me, maybe five years ago, if there was a sanitary pad in my bag and it would peek out or fall out, I would be embarrassed. So if someone like me, who is kind of a little more broad-minded, thinks like that, there’s obviously a huge taboo. It’s not just for a certain strata of society, it’s everywhere. So if it crops up every month, we should talk about it.
What is the next step for you as an author?
I don’t know, but the minute I finished the book, I felt the need to start writing again, because I felt lost and empty; so, I don’t know. I have a few ideas, but it could be anything. The one that is in my head is about a dystopian future.
You’re going into science fiction territory?
I read science fiction every single day of my life. It’s my primary love. The rest of it I just read to broaden my reading and even today I read one science fiction short story every night. I follow magazines like Lightspeed and Strange Horizons. Ken Liu is one of my favourite authors, Neil Gaiman, from the younger ones, Paolo Bacigalupi is another favourite. I’ve grown up only on science fiction.
Is there a favourite book?
From all that I’ve ever read? Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, perhaps, but all of (Isaac) Asimov. I’m a huge Asimov fan; I’ve read everything. And I feel really proud, because in his Foundation series he has Hari Sheldon who comes up with psychohistory, and the guy who won the Nobel prize for economics (Paul Krugman) actually said that he studied economics because of that and I was so happy.
How did this love for science fiction develop?
I had an uncle who was this big reader and we all lived in one big bustling house and he was a big sci-fi fan. He used to have cartons of even comic books, X-Men and things like that, and he had all these novels. And I was very, very young and he would pass them on to me and I think it started pretty much there.
For some reason, I don’t know why, people think that because we’re from this particular background, we don’t read; our IQ is probably 50 or something. But both my sister and I are big readers. My sister reads as much as me, probably more, but she reads a different genre. She reads more of this stuff that has French bakeries and whatnot and I can’t read all of that. I’ve had my nose in a book my whole life, I never thought it would be useful, but it is now. What’s really nice is that I don’t have a photographic memory so words get blurred, thoughts get mixed up and they come out as something new.