‘I’m a terrible eavesdropper’ | Twinkle Khanna on her new book ‘Welcome to Paradise’, and on taking notes from conversations around her

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There’s a lot about Welcome to Paradise, Twinkle Khanna’s new collection of short stories, that reminds you of her previous books — a kind of dark, wicked humour that scratches at the absurdity of life, and distinctive dialogues that paint rich, complete characters. But there’s also a lot that is new — this is Khanna at her most experimental yet. There’s a refusal to stay in line, to stick to the norm. 

The subjects explored in each story, the non-linear narrative that will not be confined, and her exploration of her Ismaili Khoja ancestry — all of it comes together to signal Khanna’s own deep and involved examination of her writing process, and a willingness to see where it will take her, even if it is uncharted territory. Edited excerpts from an interview:

A big part of your writing style has been humour, and in this book, there’s a lot of subtle, dark humour, but it isn’t front and centre. Your style is leaner, more pared back.

I don’t think you can change your style very dramatically, though I do believe that I have two distinct voices. One is in the columns, so Funnybones has a distinct voice. I think what I was struggling with earlier was the fact that I was under constant pressure to replicate that voice in my books, and I think at times my own internal pressure to do that, to give the reader that, made me add things that may not have served the story as much. So in this book, what I decided to do was to shrug off that pressure. But my natural style is to find the absurd in everyday life, in the mundane. It’s the way I look at life. I don’t think I can survive anything without that. So this book has humour in it. The humour serves the story, but I deliberately decided not to give in to the pressure of being funny on every page, and that was a conscious decision. 

You’ve lived so many different lives in these stories. Tell us a little about that process.

I need to know a lot more before I actually start writing. So I do a lot of research in the beginning. With the story, ‘Nearly Departed’, for instance, I did a character sketch of the protagonist Madhura Desai, which explored her inner workings, the lexicon she would use. And then I had to do a lot of research into Parkinson’s and its symptoms. I spoke to a physiotherapist who works with Parkinson’s patients — so the part where Madhura’s legs scissor is something that came from my conversation with the therapist.

How do you develop the dialogues for your characters?

I’m a terrible eavesdropper. I’m always listening to other people talking. I will take notes. So I have all these dialogues. I sometimes lose those, I need a filing system for it. But if you ask me technically how I do dialogues, I don’t have an answer. It just happens. Yeah, I do also sometimes make a sketch where one character is arguing with another about something that deeply bothers them. None of that will make it to the story. That’s just an exercise for me to see how they use language so that it fits them. It’s a bit nerdy, but it helps me. 

You were three books old when you decided to pursue a Master’s in Fiction Writing at Goldsmiths, University of London, last year. What led you to that decision?

The pandemic changed a lot of things for a lot of people. We had time to sit down, reflect, and deal with what was happening. In fact, I’ve been writing now for 10 years, but I always hesitated about calling myself a writer. And ironically, it was during the pandemic, when I was unable to write, that I realised I’m actually a writer, because I am unable to process the world around me unless I write about it. So I had a block for the first time, because my nature is to go out there, look at things, hear things, and then come back to my quiet corner and play with it in my head. But back then, there was no going out anywhere. I realised I’m a writer because I was unable to really deal with the world any other way. So, first I decided to do a course at Oxford — two courses, three months each. When I finished those six months, I realised I had learned so much about things that I was doing instinctively. I only knew how to write because of what I had read in my life. I also felt so immersed in the world of writing and talking about writing and meeting people like me, even though it was online. So I thought, if I’ve done this for six months, I might as well go and try for a year and do my Master’s.

But there’s always an origin story. When my son was young, I used to take him to this college counsellor, and every time I would meet him, I would say, ‘You know what, I want to go back to university.’ And one day, he got fed up and said, ‘This is not the time for you to go to university. Just concentrate on your child.’ So I said, ‘That’s such a misogynistic thing, I’m going to write about you in my column,’ and he said, ‘No, no, no, I’m kidding.’ And strangely enough, when I was applying to universities, it was he who helped me. So again, it’s like in the stories. Where does this one begin? Does it begin with the pandemic? Does it go back to when I would go with my son to the counsellor? 

You have mined your own life and past and history for these stories. How was the process of visiting your Ismaili Khoja heritage?

I think I was very lucky growing up in this absolutely multicultural and sort of bohemian household. By the time I was 11, I was living with my maternal grandmother, my aunts, all of them. And my grandmother would take me to the Jamaat Khana on Fridays. My mum would go to temples and I would go with her. So this was the religious side. Culturally as well, we had the Ismaili influence in our food, and in the way we would speak in Kutchi to each other. In fact, the first time I ever saw jelly sweets was when my grandmother’s brother was making them, and he would dry these on the terrace. I must have been nine then. But that image has stayed with me for 40 years. The brain is a marvellous, marvellous engine. I may forget names, and people I was introduced to last week, but I will not forget that image of those jelly sweets setting in the tray.

You refuse to over-explain in the book. You code-switch but don’t give the readers more than what’s in the story. Was that both a conscious and a political decision?

When you read a book that has French terminology, or German words, you look it up. They don’t sit down and explain. So I don’t explain what kichhda is. I mean, you get the gist that it is a dish she’s making. But if you want to know more than that, you look it up, if it interests you. 

I remember, when I was a younger writer and I had spoken to an agent in the U.K., they looked at one story and said, ‘Oh, but there are no white people in it’. And I was like, in your books, there aren’t brown people, but that doesn’t seem to really matter. And I felt that there are lots of things we have to also try and figure out which are not part of our culture, but we still read those books. And if you really want to know more, look it up. I look up so many things.

swati.daftuar@thehindu.co.in

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