(Originally published in The Indian Blog World, July 2009 edition)
Pakistani writing is the toast of the season and names from Daniyal Moinudeen to Moni Mohsin to Sethi are making waves in the literary world. The recent international book fairs held in various corners of the globe have felicitated writings from the sub-continent, especially Pakistan. Pak writers have interested us even before this current wave, Mohsin Hamid, and Bapsi Sidhwa are household names to the voracious Indian reader, who looks to literature to know more about this neighbour which is so near yet so far. But when I read about the theme of Moni Mohsin’s novel, I was apt to think, is this a typical debut novel with just peripheral depth, even chick-lit and riding on the fame of the journalist in the author?
My reading the book cleared my apprehensions and gave me a new vocation for the current season. I am now as crazy about Pakistan Writing in English as any of them out there and have got copies of almost all the books making it to the shelves in my favourite book shop, including the very latest one by Sethi. But this review is of Mohsin’s ‘The Diary of a Social Butterfly’.
Moni Mohsin’s first novel was a coming of age story, ‘The End of Innocence’, in the backdrop of West Punjab, in 1971, which was a decisive year for Pakistan. Moni took up her columns written during another crucial period in Pak history, 2001-2008, in the voice of an empty-headed society lady to formulate her second novel.
As some one has said, columns fall flat when they come out as books. But not so with Moni Mohsin. Moni’s very perceptive and hilarious accounts of Pakistani high society in her avatar as the best ‘eve dropper’ in town are extremely entertaining as a book as it was as a column. No, I didn’t leave out the ‘s’ at the end of ‘eve’; the spelling is Mohsin’s and this is a sample of the hilarious language which will keep you LOL all the time.
As the title indicates, this is Butterfly’s diary, and Butterfly is someone ‘everyone knows’ and she lives in a big fat kothi with a big fat garden in Gulberg and is all ‘sophisty’. Her whole existence is a hectic social life filled with parties, good food, dressing up and gossip, and her banes are her in-laws, the Old Bag and the Gruesome Twosome.
Her acronyms and misspellings make you howl with laughter, right from vagina (that’s angina) to brain haemorrhoids to buttocks (that’s Botox) to Bangcock (yeah Bangkok). Each of her diary entries begins with two important headings, one, a political one that affects Janoo, her term for her husband and the other one that is important to her own self. She elaborates on both on parallel lines and the picture is crystal clear; of what Butterfly does and the hidden layer of politics, complete with a journalist’s perspective of the situation. Check out this extract of a day’s titles.
Mullah Omar flees Kabul
Why, asks Butterfly, did he not go to the mountains and become a ‘gorilla’
Yes, this is no chick lit or light comedy as it appears on the surface; but look beyond the laughter lines, and you will see the layers, a society of educated people worrying if the country is going to ruin, just like you and me do in India over our morning news paper. The major events that shake the world and Pakistan have no effect on Butterfly’s mind, except as a diary entry. So the bombings, the assassinations, the upheavals and the tsunamis are minor irritations that disturb her schedule.
Her wisecracks are side-splitting and Mohsin has a real ear for the hilarious cadence. There are real jewels of the chutney language like ‘what cheeks’, ‘proper-gainda’, ‘spoil spots’. In fact every sentence in the book is studded with such epithets. Irony and satire screams out of every line.
The book ends with Benazir’s assassination, the one point on which Janoo and Butterfly have a shared feeling of melancholy. The Bridget Jones of Pakistan signs off in low key but the political depths don’t miss you at all.
Read it for its entertainment as well as hidden depths. The book brought out by Random House is a great buy at Rs.195/-