If you come to Twinkle Khanna's debut fictional offering, a collection of four stories called The Legend of Lakshmi Prasad, having read and enjoyed her columns (as I did), you may be in for a disappointment.
The voice of Mrs Funnybones -- Khanna's witty, raucous and charming alter-ego, who seldom fails to deliver a perfectly pitched weekend column -- is scarcely audible in this book. Instead, we hear an earnest, crusty but well-meaning narrator telling us about life's little ironies, using characters who seem to have leapt out of documents chronicling the success of government welfare schemes. (This is true for at least the first and the concluding stories in the book.)
The decision to not carry over a chatty avatar into the persona of a fiction writer may have worked just as well for another writer -- but in Khanna's case, the absence is painfully conspicuous, and feels like a loss. I must admit her material is the sort that makes for interesting short stories: a village belle becomes an icon of girl power in her local community, thanks to an ingenious entrepreneurial idea; a woman in her sixties' suddenly discovers love in a man she least expected to meet; a much-married young woman pays a tragic price for living by her passions; and an extraordinary man creates a revolution, against all odds, by finding a way to manufacture cheap sanitary napkins and scale it among the rural population.
The last story is drawn from life, based on the incredible achievements of Arunachalam Muruganantham, who faced adversities from society, including his own family, in his crusade to make sanitary napkins for women in rural India who, for generations, were forced to use unhygienic methods during menstruation for lack of affordable options.
Even as Khanna tries to fictionalise the plot, by adding endearing details about the protagonist Bablu and his wife Gowri, the tendency to lapse into a brisk, often flat, non-fictional mode plagues the telling of the story. Since readers may be already familiar with the broad contours of Muruganatham's success story, the progress of the narrative towards that inevitable conclusion may also feel plodding.
There are sparkling sentences every once in a while, when you glimpse Khanna as Mrs Funnybones, making a serious point in spite of her comic intent: "An arranged marriage is a peculiar situation where you marry a complete stranger and then go about determinedly trying to fall in love with them." But these instances are few and far, between pages of serviceable, though unexciting, descriptive passages.
The opening story, featuring its eponymous heroine Lakshmi Prasad, is another inspiring saga, but plagued by the show-but-not-tell syndrome, which may have been fixed with stricter editorial intervention. Though having worked in publishing, I'm painfully aware of the resistance put up by authors, especially those who are venturing into a genre for the first time, to making changes to their labour of love. The result of this tendency to overwrite is either a blah central moment -- the kind of anti-climax that kills a short story -- or a sense of frustration in the reader, who keeps waiting for the punchline that never comes.
Elisa Thomas, forced by her parents to marry any man if not a suitable Malayali Christian groom, is the classic anti-heroine that Cole Porter wrote songs about
My favourites, among the four, are the middle two, where the tone is more subtle, less didactic, though in each case, Khanna, unfortunately, cannot seem to resist the urge to tell us the moral of the story and what to make of it. "Salaam, Noni Appa" touched me for the depiction of the lives of its namesake Noni and her sister Binni, Ismaili sisters who live in Bombay. The nuances of class, religion, old age and the drudgery of marriage are beautifully conveyed in the account of Noni's growing fondness for her yoga teacher, Anand ji.
"If the Weather Permits", the story that follows "Salaam, Noni Appa", is a darkly humorous tale of a young woman's repeated attempts at marriage -- for love, sexual pleasure, to appease her patriarchal family -- and her eventual tragic, even banal, end. Elisa Thomas, forced by her parents to marry any man, if not a suitable Malayali Christian groom, is the classic anti-heroine that Cole Porter wrote songs about, one who smoke and drank and whiled away her life dangerously in the pursuit of pleasure and meaning.
Having said this, I hope Khanna will venture into fiction again, more confident and perhaps taking into account the flaws and dents in this promising debut.
The Legend of Lakshmi Prasad by Twinkle Khanna is published on the Juggernaut Books app (₹120) and in paperback (₹299).
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