Book: The Return of the Butterfly
Author: Moni Mohsin
Price: Rs 299
It doesn’t really prickle my conscience to wear these goods,” a Pakistani “socialite, artist and philanthropist” recently told a magazine about wearing fur and crocodile skin. “It is the same as eating chicken.” The quote — “prickle” and all — is real, in all of its Jessica Simpson-esque “tuna is the chicken by the sea” glory. But it could well have been uttered by a character in Moni Mohsin’s new book, The Return of the Butterfly.
The private lives of Pakistan’s high society were once largely hidden behind tinted car windows and gated mansions. But the explosion of society magazines in the 2000s, now boosted by local editions of Hello! and OK! and a plethora of blogs and Facebook pages, have allowed the “poors” (as Butterfly puts it) a glimpse into the palaces of Pakistan’s very, very (tax-evading) rich.
Mohsin has been satirising socialites and their fascination with Birkins, Basant and Botox long before they put their private lives and Louis Vuitton bags out on display for roving photographers. From the frenzy surrounding the Imran Khan-Jemima Goldsmith nuptials in the 1990s to the past two elections, the Butterfly has flitted through them all in her column for The Friday Times news magazine, and her books, Duty Free and The Diary of a Social Butterfly. This novel too features a motley crew: from long-suffering husband Janoo to son Kulchoo, who is brimming with sarcasm and newfound vegetarianism, and mother-in-law, the Old Bag. It retains Mohsin’s signature satire; the one-liners leave one chuckling for days afterward. “Hai, this is what I love most about London. It’s Lahore but with shops and electricity,” Butterfly enthuses after yet another trip to the home of her beloved Harrods.
But more than the earlier books, The Return of the Butterfly is a sharp indictment of Pakistani society. Butterfly has never been apolitical — in fact, her insights into Pakistan are what make her a beloved character and not a mere caricature. This book has a stark undertone. In it, Butterfly emerges as not just a garden (party) variety socialite but one whose insights into her peers, with their hypocritical political beliefs and penchant for candlelight vigils, are so spot-on that one could almost weep with relief. She notes how Lahori society condones the assassination of Governor Salmaan Taseer, who was killed in 2011 by his own guard for defending a Christian woman accused of blasphemy, or how they quickly jump onto Imran Khan’s bandwagon when his political star starts to rise. “And thanks God, lots of PLUs also—People Like Us,” Butterfly writes about Khan’s rallies. “You know, khaata peeta, English-medium types who normally never come to political rallies.” I laughed out loud at this, because of the number of times I have heard this.
Butterfly is also an astute narrator of a changing Pakistan, and shows how the rich are struggling to understand that the bubble they’re ensconced in can burst every so often. Of note is the brilliant scene when Butterfly asks her cousin Jonkers, who has just survived a suicide bombing, how he’s lost so much weight. I’d repeat it here, but really, just that passage alone is worth buying the book and giving it to all of your friends.
This comfortable bubble (in Butterfly’s case, a “compact si 14,000 square feet ki kothi”) isn’t exclusive to Pakistan and that’s what makes this book so relatable. From the ladies who lunch to those snickering at them, the “poors” and the khata peeta khandanis will recognise something of their own lives in The Return of the Butterfly, even as they wipe away tears of laughter.
Saba Imtiaz is a freelance journalist based in Pakistan and the author of Karachi, You’re Killing Me!