Twinkle Khanna is out with her fourth book, Welcome to Paradise, a collection of five short stories, each with a central female character. Prepare to sink into their estrogen-laden world and feel feelings. The author has a knack for presenting the deepest thoughts and questionable actions of her characters without judgement, so don’t you dare judge either. There is a certain sadness in these stories, the kind that makes you sigh, not cry. The stories are devoid of melodrama, even though there are enough dramatic characters.
The first tale, titled The Man from the Garage, is really Huma’s story about the day her mother passes away. There is typical funeral drama, only exaggerated, as her mom was a Muslim woman married to a Hindu man, leading to amusement and odd conversations, which have in all likelihood happened in many family rooms at many funerals. It’s all very real and relatable.
Twinkle writes about women who are spunky to the core. She gives a distinct personality even to nine-year-old Sara. The nuances of the shared lives of three generations in this story are so wonderfully sketched. Sara protects her mother Huma, just as Huma’s mom did for Adil. Sara gets angry and fights (even bites!)—I did wonder if Sara’s violent streak, for which she gets sent to boarding school—was autobiographical. The author has often confessed to using real people and their stories as inspiration, so why wouldn’t she borrow from her own, having confessed to being a somewhat violent child. But I digress.
Let’s Pretend is about Amrita, of nearly-past marriageable age, and the special relationship she shares with her bed-ridden bua (aunt). Bua is closer to her than her mom ever was, and they have secrets. Bua helped her buy her first bra, eggs her on to date, and even writes a cheque when she needs it. They spend wonderful hours together over buttered pav sprinkled with salt and chilli powder.
Bua is pretending to be Reena Puri and playing more than online poker with the dashing young Sumit. Unlike Amrita, who helps her create the fake ID, her aunt has no guilt about lying to her online 'friend'. She argues: "How is it harming anyone if I am pretending to be some Reena Puri? My body is pushed into stillness by this bloody Guillain-Barre (a rare disorder), let my mind at least entertain itself." Before long, Amrita becomes part of their online world and allows herself to dream. This is the most heartwarming short story in the book. Every story shines (and ends) with unpredictability.
In Nearly Departed, 86-year-old retired teacher Madhura Desai writes to the Chief Justice of India seeking permission for active euthanasia. I drew eerie parallels with recent reports of an old, childless couple who wrote to the President of India to allow them dignity of death. However, there is no morbidity here. Only lots of quirky characters. Madhura's desire to depart quietly into the night (like her beloved Pipi, who has gone away quietly, at least in his mind) is spoilt by Mrs Barucha and her world of campaigns, forming human chains, and brandishing politically correct placards.
Welcome to Paradise says hello to heartache and existential crisis. Garima realises that her husband “had not meant to cheat. He got carried away with his friends.” A trip away to Goa ‘fixes’ things. It was a solution no one expected but sometimes the strangest things can save a relationship on the brink of break-up. It’s a happy ending as far as I'm concerned. I love the philosophy of the unattached wiry man with greying curls, Pais, who lives by the beach with some dogs but "they don’t belong to me, and I don’t belong to them.” Like the George Michael song Freedom, Garima pipes in. Khanna employs humour and tenderness to transform the most awkward situations into something refreshing and memorable. Like when Garima is quizzed by her mom about her son.
For me, the takeaway from the story of Jelly Sweets was this: even the quietest people can be heroic. Like Nusrat. Twinkle is an observer of humans and situations, and that reflects in her words. Her stories read as an authentic expression of her viewpoint that doesn’t perceive women as weak or helpless. There is nuance and empathy. There is romance in Nusrat and Fayyaz’s story, but not the kind that is spoken or even evident. The sights and sounds in the stories are distinctively desi. My favourite part is how all her characters overcome their frailties, find their own version of happiness, and emerge winners. For me, this book is a winner too.