In her new short story collection 'Welcome To Paradise', Twinkle Khanna explores themes of mortality
It was a cold November morning in London. The boiler in Twinkle Khanna's bathroom was not functioning; the water was lukewarm. She was late for this interview. After a few minutes of delay, she logged on to the video call wearing an emerald green sweater, kohl-ed eyes and tousled hair, just like a writer's.
“I stood there, looking at the lukewarm water and thinking that it could be used as a metaphor in a story where someone is in a relationship that is not icy, not really warm, but hopes that 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 degree in fiction writing at London's Goldsmith College, she is packed with writing experience.
Khanna has been writing professionally as a columnist for ten years DNA And The times of India and has written three books, Mrs Funnybones (2015), The legend of Lakshmi Prasad (2016) and Pajamas are forgiving (2018). While juggling two different writing careers, she launched the digital content platform, Match India, and a publishing house, Tweak Books. Her light prose, punctuated by her signature humor, indicated that her fourth book would also be an easy read, but it wasn't. Themes such as mortality and isolation of the elderly underpin the stories; The man from the garage opens with a funeral, Almost left is about euthanasia, and the last story, Jelly candiesis about a grieving young mother.
In an interview with LoungeKhanna, 50, talks about her writing process, where the tools of fiction and truth are like a potato. Edited excerpts:
Were you planning to write a book about mortality?
I do not have. Before joining Goldsmiths I did two short writing courses at Oxford, and one of the things we were taught was that we should never decide on a theme before writing a story. The story always comes first. But I'm 50, I've already lost a few people, and with the amount of coffee I drink as my main fluid, I don't think I'll make it to 100. You know, the truth of my existence appears in my writing. The truth is like a potato: you can make fries from it or… aloo jeera but the chemical composition does not change. You could call it a midlife crisis or an existential crisis; but what I think appears in fiction.
Why did you take these courses?
During the pandemic, I realized for the first time that I was a writer. At one point I couldn't process the world because I just couldn't write. So I enrolled in two courses at Oxford, each lasting three months: one was life writing for beginners, followed by fiction for advanced students. That's when I felt the need to learn more by doing a master's degree in fiction writing at Goldsmiths.
In this program I was able to analyze the text of my colleagues and the work of other writers for the first time. It helped me to look critically at mine. Additionally, I was always intrigued by how time works in linear and non-linear stories. I wrote a dissertation on the non-linear narratives in Alice Munro's work. It helped me find ways to use time as an effective navigation tool in fiction. In Welcome to paradiseSome stories go back and forth quickly. There are two ways to write a short story: one is when it focuses on a monumental event, and the other is when an entire lifetime takes place. I fall into the latter group and had trouble with time because there is a lot of back and forth. Think of it as the behind-the-scenes work, almost as if what you're 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 Almost left, there is a passage in which the 85-year-old protagonist Madhura looks out the window at the rain. I used the framework of the rain to bring up her past in the 1970s, when she was with her partner and the ceiling was leaking. I had to include the year and age of the characters to tie the story to a specific point in time. There's a part where they're teenagers, and it cuts to the present, where she's an octogenarian who has Parkinson's disease. To illustrate this, there is a scene where her phone falls and her fingers tremble. It's a conscious effort to bring the physicality of the characters into the story. Other signals could be important events such as a state of emergency, food such as drinking Gold Spot, and cars that are in fashion such as the Fiat. These elements appear in the story to ground the reader.
What prompted you to create these characters, especially sketches of older women?
When I was younger, I felt like 60 was a good age to reach. Now I'm 50 and feel very young compared to what I intended my evolution to be at age 60. The other thing is that I've always been fascinated by older people; as a person grows older, they become invisible to the world. I see them and I enjoy observing them because they are so much more. They have lived rich lives, deep experience, and have layers that younger people may not have. It is discussed in this book. A main character in her thirties is not as interesting as her mother or aunt in her sixties. So there's a fascination with growing older and it's something I've been preparing for since I was young. This is not to say that every stage of a person's life, whether in their twenties, thirties or forties, is less than the others. It's a progression: first run, then walk, and finally sit.
What is your writing process?
I am extremely disciplined; In fact, my discipline is like a straitjacket, and I would like to be less disciplined. I start writing between 4:30 and 5 a.m., and this book came to life as my daughter slept next to me, while I lay in bed in a dark room, lit by the laptop screen. Around noon my neurons go on strike and I quit. The second half of the day is reserved for columns and Amendment. I try to write every day. There is no such thing as waiting for a muse: you sit at your desk and if the muse is on its way to someone else, you are there to catch it and bring it to your desk. I love doing day flights because that's where the uninterrupted and thorough editing happens. If I'm between books (like now), or just have to write columns, I take a night plane. I don't use WiFi on board; Maybe it's the Gujarati in me that doesn't want to spend extra money for this. After ten years of writing, I can finally call myself a professional writer.
When did you start writing this book?
It is very difficult to say when and how a book begins; because so much of it sticks in my head for a while before I actually put anything down on paper. I started working on the story Jelly candies about eight years ago. I was a columnist with DNA at the time and editor Sarita Tanwar had seen the notes on this story. She encouraged me to finish it, but it took time and some thinking. It was the last story I finished in this book. How can I tell you when I started working on this book: what is the time span. The fastest story in this book was probably The man in the garage that lasted three months.
What were you reading while you were working on it?
I was a student and there was a lot of course material. We read a lot, almost a book a week. There were stories by Alice Munro, Zadie Smith and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. If you want specific book titles, that is possible Cursed bunny by Bora Chang, The end of the affair by Graham Greene and Family life by Akhil Sharma. I love science fiction – Ted Chang is my favorite – and have to read it every night. After finishing A man named Ove by Fredrik Backman I hit my head against a window, thinking I could never write like that. I flip through four to five pages God of little things almost everyday and enjoy reading them aloud. This is my copy, as you can see there are about 300 post-its in it. I remember someone commenting on Arundhati Roy's writing and saying that Saraswati was 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 be miserable. I had someone, a friend, who said it made them feel very lonely. But it's an affirmation for me when you feel lonely, or overwhelmed by emotions… we're mean writers, we want you to feel everything.
So, what's next for your readers?
I'm fully menopausal and my brain can't focus on this next project. I'm thinking of doing something in the speculative fiction genre – a deep interest. I want to avoid having to redo things. It's easy to grow horizontally, but I try to grow in different directions. This book challenged me and prepared me for these things; Maybe I have some kind of persecution complex that makes me feel the need to fight. I like the idea of stretching myself; I don't do much physically, so I like to do things with my mind.
Welcome to Paradise by Twinkle Khanna Juggernaut Books, 224 pages, ₹297.