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A chat with Moni Mohsin

By Henna Butt
May 13 2013




Moni Mohsin’s vivacious protagonist, Butterfly, features in novels, Diary of a Social Butterfly and Tender Hooks based on the long-term success of her column in Pakistan’s Friday Times newspaper which features the same much-loved characters.

The Diary sees Butterfly chronicling the highs and lows of her life as a Lahori socialite, mother, daughter, wife and friend (perhaps “frenemy” might be more accurate). She is temperamental, melodramatic, vacuous, self-centered, spoilt and privileged; meaning her diary entries tend to bemoan anything that impinges on a “GT – uff now I have to explain GT to you also? Get Together, okay?”

Mohsin writes The Diary in Butterfly’s voice, making use of what she refers to as “subcontinental English”. Flecked all over with words and phrases from Hindi, Urdu, Panjabi , this dialect has its own rhythm which Mohsin masterfully brings onto the page so that one can almost hear that shrill, entitled voice in one’s ears. The author relishes this non-standard use of language, “one of the greatest joys of working this was using this language – I felt I was in a sense almost creating something new. I enjoyed writing that.” She embraces this evolution of English-language literature, citing To Kill a Mocking Bird and The Colour Purple as forerunners to this place-centered style.

Having spent her early life in Lahore, Mohsin studied for A-Levels and university in the UK before returning to work as a journalist in her home city, spending ten years at The Friday Times. She now lives mostly in the UK whilst regularly visiting Pakistan.  This ‘transnational’ lifestyle has made a clear impact on the author’s work, as she tells me, “[having lived in Pakistan and the UK] allows me to look at both of these places with greater objectivity.”

Political comment is clearly central to The Diary: each entry’s personal headline is juxtaposed against a political headline from the same day, for example “Musharraf for Islamic renaissance” and “Butterfly buys fake Rolexes”.

Whilst Butterfly is frothy and frivolous, her husband Janoo, who Mohsin considers to be her most successful character, is intensely concerned about the political tumult that surrounds them. Exasperated by his wife’s party-obsessed unconcern for the country’s welfare, Janoo acts as Mohsin’s mouthpiece. However, Janoo is not cutting; the author’s satire is, instead, more forgiving and whilst she wants to express that Butterfly can be ridiculous, she demonstrates an empathy and affection for her heroine. She defends Butterfly against my contempt, “she’s brave and loyal, [Janoo] is dull but she’s entertaining”.

It is, perhaps, rather unfortunate that the protagonist and her asinine friends all happen to be women, whilst the voice of reason, Janoo, is a man in Mohsin’s Lahore.

“The woman just sprung out to me, she just arrived one day”, the author tells me. This seems, to me though, too great an opportunity to turn a stereotype on its head. But it could be that I’m just missing poor Butterfly’s virtues.

Despite what I think of her, Butterfly is well-loved, in India even more so than her native Pakistan. Her character does indeed transcend cultural differences, as Mohsin tells me “this lady, exists in several cultures, in you’ll find her in Moscow, you’ll find her in Riyadh, you’ll find her in Rio, you’ll find her in Jakarta; ladies with a lot of money and time who are disassociated from rest of world due to privilege”.

The presence of this archetype all over the world unearths a hypocrisy that exists in how we view Butterfly. Whilst in a stable country we might see her and her friends as a part of the furniture, for some reason we deride these characters more for their lifestyle in an insecure place like Pakistan. For Mohsin, though, Butterfly showcases a fun-loving optimism that highlights the triumph of the human spirit in the face of adversity. A characteristic the author values greatly amongst the Pakistanis that she knows, the will to carry on despite the constant threat of violence.

Mohsin seeks to illustrate that the most privileged cannot escape the problems that continue to dog Pakistan. Even cosseted Butterfly suffers when the “beardo weirdos” shorten her beloved Basant festival.

Unlike Mohsin’s UK-based readership, on the subcontinent, Butterfly isn’t just popular amongst women. The author tells me that for every woman that follows her on Twitter, four men follow her. In India and in Pakistan, her readers are both men and women; however, here in the UK the book has been thrust into the “chick lit” genre with its pastel cover and swirly-fonted title. This highlights an issue endemic in UK publishing which sees women writers boxed into their own category of “women’s literature” that which is written by “women writers” and solely marketed to “women readers”.

“I read everything that comes out of Pakistan”, Mohsin is staunchly committed to supporting her contemporaries writing in the country, explaining that even now, very few Pakistani writers gain recognition abroad. Whereas before Pakistan was being written about by “white journalists”, now, Mohsin feels that Pakistanis are finally gaining the voice to describe themselves. She draws hope though from the success of this year’s inaugural Lahore Literary Festival which, she tells me, was a roaring success, not just amongst literary circles but amongst people from a wide cross-section of society.

Mohsin is currently in London working on her next novel which will see her continuing to broach difficult political themes in contemporary Pakistan, albeit without her friend Butterfly in tow.


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