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Stinging butterfly

Of politics, parodies and prejudices: Moni Mohsin. Photo: Special Arrangement  

Muhammad Ali, it is said, could float like a butterfly and sting like a bee. So can Moni Mohsin's Lahori Begum! When she is not traipsing through High Society, the Begum - aka the Butterfly - can make some stinging observations about her world and its ways. In this interview, The Butterfly's creator, Moni Mohsin, talks about Pakistan, politics, parodies and prejudices and the continuing saga of the Social Butterfly in Mohsin's new novel, Tender Hooks.

Let's begin by talking about your weekly column “The Diary of a Social Butterfly”, which appears in The Friday Times (Lahore). In the latest issue your column is a densely political one. Is the Butterfly becoming a political creature?

I don't think so… At least, I haven't thought of the Butterfly in those terms; though she is political insofar as she responds to the world around her. And the world around her is not cut off from politics. In fact, politics permeates every facet of life in Pakistan. Life is getting harder even for privileged people like the Butterfly who live in a safe bubble. Social creatures like her cannot remain immune to two of the most grisly events in recent times: the murder of Benazir Bhutto, and recently of Salman Taseer. Also, someone like Taseer was one of the most well-known Lahoris; he was known, both socially and personally, to the class that the Butterfly belongs to.

Evidently, the Begum or the Butterfly is not an alter ego. In fact, going by appearances, she is poles apart from you. Why then did you choose such a voice and person?

(Laughs) I have a little bit of her in me, just as every woman does in every part of the world. The Butterfly is a ‘type'; she has a sisterhood spread all over the globe. I like clothes, gossip, etc. I simply exaggerate those parts manifold when I speak in the Butterfly's voice. It is a device; it helps me say many things. The exaggeration is part of the spoof. The column is meant to both amuse and educate, to raise consciousness and to create a space for a liberal voice to be heard in an increasingly illiberal society where a toxic brew of religion and terrorism is corroding the few liberal spaces we had left. I want the satire to set off alarm bells.

How difficult is it to write in a voice not your own, and to adopt a persona very different from your own? After a while, do the malapropisms and mannerisms fall into place and become second nature, or do they still need effort?

I have been writing the Butterfly columns since 1992. After all these years, I find it very easy to slip into the Butterfly's persona and to speak in her voice. In fact, while I mull over my columns for a long time, I find I can churn out a column in 20 minutes flat. So in that sense, yes, the Butterfly's mannerisms and malapropisms — if not second nature — have certainly got easier with time. I chose to adopt the first person singular and to write in the Butterfly's voice. I experimented with the third person but found that grim and distancing. I found the first person easier, less judgmental, more humorous. I chose humour and satire precisely because it is easier to break bad news in satire; it is less painful, too.

To come to your latest novel, Tender Hooks , the Butterfly is back but her concern is not Janoo, her husband, but finding a suitable girl for her Aunty Pussy's son, Jonkers? Do we see shades of Jane Austen and Vikram Seth viewed from a kaleidoscope gone crazy?

Pride and Prejudice, yes, definitely… I have read and liked Jane Austen enormously. The right background, whether it is Pride and Prejudice or Tender Hooks, means a wealthy background and a suitable boy/girl is ‘right' or ‘wrong' in terms of family alliance or ‘bagground' as the Butterfly would say. In my book, Jonkers, though he is a member of the small elite that is Lahori ‘high society' doesn't think so; he wants to marry for love.

We see a lot more politics in Tender Hooks . We have scenes such as the President asking the nation to stand firm in the face of terror, police to monitor madrasas, security threats leading to 50 per cent plunge in foreign investments, terrorist strikes, people getting killed…

I wanted to retain the diary-like format for this novel; it allows me to speak in the first person and make comments and observations I ordinarily would not. The headlines provide the context to the diary jottings as well as a chronological mooring to the events as they unfold. I also wanted to say that nearly everyday something terrible is happening in Pakistan, something so terrible that it penetrates the Butterfly's bubble and affects her. So when bombs go off, she can't visit the salon for her facials and is forced to call the beautician home, she is deprived of her spa and all that it entails. Her life is affected. You might think that is terribly frivolous and of little consequence when bombs are going off and killing people in the city. I try and show the reality through the frivolity.

You divide your time between London and Lahore. Can we expect something similar about London…a Bridget Jones meets the Lahori Diaspora, or something that explores the encounter between the East and West?

I have been living in London for 15 years and yes, I am thinking of writing something on the Pakistanis I meet in London. I don't know whether it will be my next novel but, yes, I have had a diaspora novel on my mind for a long time. For the present, I think it is important to write about Pakistan as that is a far more urgent situation.

RakhshandaJalil has edited Neither Night Nor Day , Harper Collins, 2007, a collection of short stories by Pakistani women writers.

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Printable version | Mar 2, 2021 1:03:43 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/magazine/Stinging-butterfly/article15128957.ece

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