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FICTION: GRUDGES AND FORGIVENESS

February 03, 2019

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Known for sarcasm and tongue-in-cheek humour, former Bollywood actress-turned-author Twinkle Khanna’s third book, Pyjamas Are Forgiving, is her maiden attempt at a novel. Her first book, Mrs Funnybones, is a compilation of her weekly columns written for an Indian newspaper while her second, The Legend of Lakshmi Prasad, is a collection of short stories.

The cover of the book is compelling: a woman upside down, ostensibly in the midst of a somersault, wearing loose white pyjamas and a kurta, with a jar of ghee and a pooja thali in a similar state of suspension. The title implies resilience and strength; the story, however, fails to leave much of a mark on the reader’s mind.

Khanna’s protagonist is Anshu, a middle-aged divorcee visiting Shanthamaaya Sthalam — meaning ‘peaceful place’ — an Ayurvedic spa/hospital in the heart of Kerala. Much of the story is a recollection of Anshu’s memories at the wellness retreat which was introduced to her 13 years ago by her favourite aunt, Usha Bua, who went there to seek treatment for her rheumatoid arthritis with Anshu accompanying her. Little does Anshu know that this tranquil place would, over time, become her second abode.

Bollywood star Twinkle Khanna’s debut novel leaves much to be desired. While the story does have some quotable lines, it will not stay with readers for a long time

Ayurveda is an ancient Indian medical practice and, according to experts, this form of traditional therapy is not just meant to help cure disease. It is a lifestyle that rejuvenates a person’s mind, body and spirit. Since her first visit with Usha Bua, Anshu has come to the quaint spa regularly and religiously to take a break from the pollution and pace of city life. She finds solace in Dr Menon’s therapies and this time round, the purpose is to cure her sleep disorder. For 28 days

she must detox her body, which is done by devouring copious amounts of ghee mixed with cow urine, turmeric scrubs, red-rice-and-milk face-packs and meditation. She must also abstain from sex, spicy food and the internet.

From the first few pages, it appears that Anshu is a pretty sorted kind of woman. But when her ex-husband Jay arrives with his new wife Shalini, Anshu’s life becomes a rollercoaster ride of myriad emotions hell-bent on disrupting her detox. We discover than Anshu and Jay split up seven years ago, but the bitterness is still fresh. Jay’s arrival unleashes an avalanche of memories past. Flashbacks to vacations in Europe, to Jay’s relentlessly mocking behaviour that she tolerated, to him cheating on her with Shalini are underscored by the fact that Shalini, then mistress, now wife, is everything Anshu is not: young, beautiful and slim.

Initially, the story treads at a predictable pace, but then Anshu forgets about Jay’s cheating past. Her love rekindles, her heart skips a beat every time he comes close to her. The renewed attraction eventually blossoms into an affair and, in a change of attitude that would put many a reader off, Anshu begins to cling to him despite knowing how untrustworthy he is.

As befitting a story set in a communal environment, there are characters other than Anshu, Jay and Shalini. There is Anshu’s mother and sister Mandira who interfere in Anshu’s life choices. There are a couple of Russians here to lose weight. There are Anil and Javed, a gay couple from Bangalore and then there is Jay’s lecherous cousin Lalit. However, Khanna doesn’t delve too much into these characters. Mainly carrying the story forward is Jenna, a performance artist whose foreign mystery appeals to Lalit who spends much of his time trying to lure young women into his room alone to watch films with him.

The first time I had seen Jay was also on the other side of a wooden door, my friend Prashant’s door to be precise ... I saw an athletically built man standing on the threshold, the short sleeves of his black t-shirt rolled high up on his arms. The first words he said to me were “nice face” and when I turned away from the door to call out to Prashant he added, “Bad backside.” — Excerpt from book

Although this was the first time I was reading Khanna’s work, I had some high expectations. It seemed promising enough. Anshu is kind of like any woman one might know: at times she is helpless and confused, at others she is a pillar of strength, such as when she sets out to protect Jenna from Lalit. The men are chauvinistic and manipulative, but Khanna manages to present them in a humorous way. There is relatable human sentiment and emotion and often Khanna grabs the attention with a witty, quirky turn of phrase — “Blame is a bullet that the world fires at the already wounded victim,” for instance.

The story touches upon many subjects: infidelity, rape, religious traditionalism, the trauma of losing a baby. There are subtle mentions of political and social arguments with references to conflicts between Hindu activists worshipping cows while members of other faiths eat beef, the #MeToo movement and feminism and there is quite a bit of interesting information about doshas [the three elements present in the human body that govern health], Ayurveda and Ayurvedic therapies. But to my utter dismay, the book on the whole is disappointing. The plot becomes monotonous somewhere in the middle and Anshu’s encounters with her ex become dull and repetitive. Also, what is the purpose behind the story? Is it to make Anshu realise her worth? Is it about women’s empowerment? If so, why is it so poorly done?

The good thing about this novel is that it is a short read. Khanna’s particular style of writing is her forte and her analogies, such as the one between pyjamas and jeans where the former, according to her, are forgiving in nature and the latter know how to hold a grudge, are entertaining. But, barring a few lines here and there, this is not the kind of story that would stay in a reader’s mind; this is masala entertainment to forgive and forget.

The reviewer is a freelance writer, an avid reader and a blogger

Pyjamas Are Forgiving
By Twinkle Khanna
Juggernaut, India
ISBN: 978-9386228970
221pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, February 3rd, 2019