Twinkle Khanna’s third book, Pyjamas are Forgiving, is certainly no prisoner to her oeuvre. Unlike Mrs Funnybones – which is laced with satire and a touch of humour – and The Legend of Lakhsmi Prasad – a collection of half-baked short stories on the social confines that suppress women in Indian society – Khanna’s third offering ventures into fresh terrain with uncommon assurance. However, it would be a mistake to presume that a refreshing change of tack can conceal the novel’s warts and flaws.
Pyjamas are Forgiving begins with a palpable sense of loss. Fuelled by the desire for seclusion and the restless urge to cure her sleep disorder, Anshu checks into the Shanthamaaya spa in Kerala and has to give up, among other things, her shoes. This willful act of surrender sets the tone for the rest of the novel. From the outset, the reader builds expectations about Anshu’s journey of self-discovery in the sanctum sanctorum of a Keralese spa. Some readers might also garner hopes of incidents and situations that wantonly interfere with the protagonist’s struggle for mental peace.
Given that the Shanthamaaya spa is much too restrictive to offer even a grain of peace to its guests, this doesn’t seem to be an undue expectation. With its strict diet regime and enforced celibacy, the spa becomes an uncomfortable and ominous setting where defiance breeds all manner of transgressions. Khanna’s narrative adds the right measure of chaos to pierce the protagonist’s bubble and shatter the illusion of calm. The problem arises when an unoriginal premise is used to bring forth the spa’s thin veneer of serenity.
Anshu, who is a frequent visitor at the Shanthamaaya spa, encounters her ex-husband Jay and his young wife Shalini. Ignorance struggles to become bliss and past affinities are rekindled. The estranged couple strikes up a secret relationship that is based on troubled nostalgia rather than genuine emotion. As Anshu and her forbidden paramour are “meandering through the labyrinth of yesterdays, avoiding the existence of tomorrow”, another conflict brews in their midst when Lalit, Jay’s increasingly unlikeable cousin, lands himself in trouble. Anshu is begrudgingly sworn into silence about a secret she cannot keep and soon learns the dangers of summoning the past where it isn’t welcome.
For a novel that is mired in a web of secrecy, deceit and intrigue, Pyjamas are Forgiving lacks any semblance of action or drama. The plot is predictable and devoid of any plausible twists or turns. Khanna’s style is lucid, funny and engaging. But crisp narrations and the occasional flashes of humour cannot compensate for a plot that has no clear direction. As a result, a novel that ought to be plot-driven and unputdownable struggles to create memorable scenes.
Weak characterisation is another source of concern in the novel. Anshu’s observations about Shalini are, at best, superficial. Shalini’s cavalier approach to life at the spa and her glaring lack of sensitivity make her hopelessly unlikeable. The negative aura that surrounds Shalini is perhaps an accidental outcome of Khanna’s creative choices. In Pyjamas are Forgiving, all insights and observations are filtered through Anshu and her often blinkered vision of the world. Since the stranglehold of the past continues to exert an influence on the narrator’s mind, it is difficult for her to view Shalini as anything other than a ‘husband-snatcher’ who could potentially be “an undiscovered fourth dosha” in Ayurveda.
In many respects, Anshu is also oblivious to the emotional crutches that she continues to rely on. Her blind veneration of her former husband and their uncertain relationship may repel most readers. At some points, this form of hero-worship seems rather insipid (“He said fetch. I said woof”). It is troubling to see the extent to which Anshu romanticises her past with Jay, even though she still bears the scars of their failed relationship. Although Anshu manages to make all the right decisions by the end of the book, her indecisiveness and obvious lack of caution in pursuing a man who has hurt her in the past appear somewhat bizarre.
Some of the most poignant moments in the book emerge when Anshu hearkens back to the early days of her marriage. These flashbacks are mired between two extremes and serve as well-meaning reminders of why their relationship ended. From senseless reminiscences of young love to dark, distressing memories of a miscarriage, they are Anshu’s silent guide and enable her to make sound choices.
Nevertheless, the protagonist’s conclusions about Jay and the dangerous compromises he expects her to make are a bit puzzling. She writes: “Jay, unfortunately, would always remain my deep-fried gulab jamun, a delicacy from the days gone by when I had an indefatigable constitution but one I could not digest anymore”.
While this sentence offers a simple analogy that highlights the need to maintain a safe distance from the past, it is a tad confusing how the narrator arrives at this discovery. In the last few pages, rushed epiphanies are made and events are summarised in a string of hurried passages. This compromises on character development and the overall effect of the novel. Even the supposed punchline of the novel — “I will always be a pyjama. I am just going to be one with a shorter drawstring” — loses its appeal in the author’s urgency to end the book before tying all the loose ends.
If you can forgive some of these lapses, Pyjamas are Forgiving may seem like a quick read that will get through a long plane ride or a particularly stressful day.