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Thursday, 2 June 2011

Moni Mohsin

Tender Hooks, by Moni Mohsin, Random House India, 2011, pp. 250, Rs 199.
Moni Mohsin walks into the Lounge of the India International Centre looking poles apart from the amply-proportioned, malapropism-sprouting, diamond-dripping Begum who teeters on impossibly high heels. Moni turns out to be tall and lanky and is dressed in jeans and moccasins. Evidently, the Begum or the Social Butterfly is not an alter ego. Why then did she choose a voice and persona so different from her own? She laughs and tells she has a little bit of the Butterfly in her, just as every woman does.  ‘The Butterfly is a type,’ she tells me; ‘she has a sisterhood spread all over the globe. You will find her in Lahore and London. You will find women in cities all across the globe who practically live in a spa and their day revolves from one get-together with like-minded friends to the next. I like clothes, gossip, lunching with friends, 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. My kind of writing 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 one’s own, and to adopt a persona very different from one’s own? After a while, do the malapropisms and mannerism fall into place and become second nature, or do they still need effort, I want to know. Moni tells me she has been writing the Butterfly columns since 1992. After all these years, she finds it very easy to slip into the Butterfly’s persona and to speak in her voice. In fact, she tells me, while she might take a long time to mull over her column, now after her many years of practice, she can churn out a column in 20 minutes flat! Evidently, the Butterfly’s mannerisms and malapropisms if not second nature, have certainly got easier with time.
My curiosity still not satisfied by her uncanny ability to slip into a voice so different from her own, I probe further. Why, for instance, did she choose to adopt the first person singular to write in the Butterfly’s voice? Moni says she experimented with the third person but found that grim and distancing. In contrast, the first person singular seemed easier, less judgemental, more humorous. ‘I chose humour and satire precisely because it is easier to break bad news in satire; it is less painful, too,’ Moni laughs at she squints at me in the light of  late afternoon sun streaming in through the windows of the IIC lounge.
I ask her about her weekly column – The Diary of a Social Butterfly -- which is showing every appearance of becoming a densely political piece of writing.  Is the Butterfly transforming into a political creature? Moni doesn’t think so. ‘At least, I haven’t thought of the Butterfly in those terms,’ she says. Though, she admits, there is no denying that the butterfly is political insofar as she responds to the world around her. And the world around her is not cut off from politics. In fact, with politics permeating every facet of life in Pakistan there is no getting away from politics, not even it seems for the Butterflies who teeter in their high heels as they traipse through a world which is protected but no means insulated. With life getting harder even for privileged people like the Butterfly who live in safe bubbles, the murder of a man such as Salman Taseer does impinge upon this otherwise unreal world. Moreover, someone like Salman Taseer Shaheed, being one of the most well-known Lahoris, was known, both socially and personally, to the class that the Butterfly belongs to. His murder, then, is far too close to the bone for comfort.
Coming to her latest work, Tender Hooks, the Butterfly has moved from the column to the pages of her new novel. She still wears diamond studs weighing several ‘carrots’,  However, her concern in the book 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? Moni is not so sure about the Vikram Seth bit but she admits to having read and liked Jane Austen enormously. The right background, whether it is Pride and Prejudice or Tender Hooks, invariably 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 Tender Hooks, 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.
Tender Hooks turns out to be not merely an extended enjoyable yarn and atake-off from the columns; instead, it presents you with several very interesting insights into some very topical issues. What happens when a social butterfly stops thinking of weighty issues such as kitty parties, spas and diamond studs and instead takes on the onerous task of finding a suitable wife for a die-vorced cousin? When a Lahori begum, tricked into making a promise to her Aunty Pussy (her Mummy’s twice-removed cousin sister), is forced into taking a breather from fashion and gossip and parties and lends a helping hand in ‘girl hunting’? First, she establishes the ground rules: the right girl must have the right ‘bagground’, i.e. ‘have same to same money and know the same people and went to same places’ as her cousin Jonkers. Just as she does with her Oxen husband – her Oxford-educated Janoo.
Having established the ground rules, the Butterfly sets off on Wodehousian romp – with Jonkers in tow – through Pakistani high society. Having run the gamut of corrupt politician’s weddings, dens of drug smugglers and all manner of GTs (get-togethers), meeting girls who are gay or rude or both, evading scheming mummies and gold-digging daughters, the Butterfly finds herself on the horns of a dilemma. Un-aided and un-abetted, Jonkers has found a girl for himself. Brave and feisty and loving, Jonker’s choice is far cry from the rich-fair-beautiful society girl from a ‘good’ family they have been scouting for. Initially, the Butterfly doesn’t quite know what to make of this middle-class, independent working girl who, to make matters worse, is neither fair-skinned nor pretty in the conventional sense. However, faced with Jonker’s love and respect for his working-class lady love, the Butterfly surprises us with her wisdom and courage. The air-head, it turns out, has a heart of gold.
Moreover, the politics in Tender Hooks is no longer lurking on the margins of the Butterfly’s consciousness; it is, in fact, centre stage. The novel has a self-consciously diary-like format. Every ‘entry’ is appended with a headline and each headline provides the context to the diary jottings as well as a chronological mooring to the events as they unfold. Taken together, they serve to illustrate how, nearly every day, something terrible is happening in Pakistan, something so terrible that it penetrates even the Butterfly’s bubble and affects her. So when bombs go off and she can’t visit the salon for her facials and is forced to call the beautician home for the much-needed facial she is deprived of her spa and all that it entails. Her life is affected. One might think that is terribly frivolous and of little consequence when bombs are going off and killing people in the city. On the other hand, it might serve to present yet another way of presenting the reality. Just as the incident when the Butterfly and her friend are held up at gun point in a daylight mugging. Interespersed with the Butterfly’s hunt for a suitable wife for Jonkers there are headlines such as the President asking the nation to stand firm in the face of terror, police to monitor madrassas, security threats leading to 50 per cent plunge in foreign investments, terrorist strikes, people getting killed…
In Mohsin’s hands, the story of Jonker’s search for a bride becomes a modern-day bildungsroman. And the Butterfly – for all her ‘tabahi’ costumes, her coloured contact lenses, her malapropisms, her Gucci bags and Prada shoes -- an unlikely heroine of our times.
--Rakhshanda Jalil
(Rakhshanda Jalil has edited Neither Night Nor Day, Harper Collins, 2007, a collection of short stories by Pakistani women writers.)

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