Long before the “khata-peeta khandanis” of Pakistan found their place in society magazines, Pakistani author Moni Mohsin had put them in an irreverently hilarious column that she wrote for The Friday Times, a weekly newspaper brought out by her sister and brother-in-law. Through her protagonist Butterfly, a society lady given to gaffes as effortlessly as to “top ke brands” and tabahi parties, Mohsin took a tongue-in-cheek swipe at the country’s high society. The satire was refreshing, and the columns so popular, that in 2008, Butterfly, the disarming flibbertigibbet, made her debut in a novel, The Diary of a Social Butterfly, to a great reception.
A lot has changed since that debut. Social media has chipped in with satire and sometimes, sarcasm, and society magazines with adulation; a steady influx of chick lit has worn thin the refreshing candour of well-done lampoonery, but Butterfly hasn’t lost her edge and neither has Mohsin. In the latest book, the third in the series, The Return of the Butterfly (Penguin, Rs 299), which has the political events between 2008-2013 in the backdrop, Butterfly is back and in full throttle. When she is not trying to stay ahead of her kitty party pack, she is bemoaning the “halaats” that are “so bad” in Pakistan following Benazir Bhutto’s assassination or dismissing Barack Obama’s victory at the US elections as a non-event. Half of Butterfly’s charm, says Mohsin, lies in how she is a bit of Everysocialite. “The Butterfly is a composite character, inspired by many real people, some of whom are also men. For instance, one of her favourite phrases ‘Do number ka maal’ is a stock expression of a male friend of mine. Her attitude to her mother-in-law is based on that of a distant cousin’s while her relationship to Janoo (Butterfly’s husband) is inspired by so many couples I know in Lahore,” says Mohsin, 50.
Though Mohsin is based out of London, there’s no dearth of Butterflyisms around her. “I travel to Pakistan about three to four times a year. I collect my material from ‘there only’, but also from social media, from watching TV, from chatting to friends in London, from emails from my sister and my niece and nephew, who all keep me up-to-date…and…from eavesdropping on conversations on Oxford Street in the summer months (‘oooh, yai bag kitna cool chhay’) when the stretch between Selfridges and John Lewis could very well be Khan or Liberty Markets,” she says.
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It’s great material for a satirist, but not an easy time to be one. Mohsin remembers a “tongue-lashing” she received once from someone who thought she was running her down. This dwindling sense of humour and a growing culture of intolerance in the subcontinent is an unpleasant reality that one has to accept, but not necessarily abide by. “It makes me angry and unhappy when freedom of expression comes under attack, as it has begun to do with depressing frequency in the subcontinent…It bothers me, but not enough to shut me up. In fact, if anything, it makes my satire all the sharper and harder hitting. Because I write in English, I can get away with saying more than I could if I were, say, an Urdu satirist on TV,” says Mohsin, who still does “the odd bit of journalism” and is working on a non-fiction next. And despite Butterfly’s penchant for misspellings and the affectation that informs her speech, Mohsin finds writing in her voice a breeze. “Having written in this voice for more years than I care to recall, I have to admit that it comes as naturally to me now as breathing. In fact, it is not writing in her voice that I have to think about,” she says.
Is there a bit of Butterfly in her as well? “‘Haw, how you can ask?’ I do have hidden shallows,” she replies promptly.