Butterfly is back. Oho baba, you know na, that stupid si glam si character in London-based Pakistani writer Moni Mohsin's books. If you still don't get the reference, you have missed out too many laughs to count - and three fabulous books by one of the wittiest women writers in the subcontinent.
The Return of the Butterfly, the third installment in the Butterfly series, is out today. The three books in the series - The Diary of a Social Butterfly (2008), Tender Hooks (2011) and this one - are so many things in one. They're satire, humour, a concise timeline of events in 21st century Pakistan and, at a very base level, chick lit. Mohsin's been compared to Jane Austen and Helen Fielding (oho bhai - the writer of Bridget Jones) vaghera. The books follow Butterfly, a superficial Pakistani socialite, and her view of what's happening in Pakistan and the world. Butterfly is silly, self-absorbed and cannot spell to save her life. "But you know, she's a good person," says Mohsin.
By now, the series, which started as a column in a Pakistani weekly newspaper, The Friday Times that was serialised as the first book, has become more involved with its characters. The most recent isn't as satirical as the first, but it is hilarious!
Moni Mohsin spoke to us on the phone from London. Excerpts from an interview.
Of the three Butterfly books, which is your favourite?
Oh God! That's not a fair question!
Okay, so which one did you enjoy writing the most?
To be honest, I think, the middle one (Tender Hooks) was the most fun to write. The Diary of a Social Butterfly was serialised in the newspaper. I didn't set out to write the book. Tender Hooks was a project to write a novel. For the columns, I was reacting to what was happening in the news, what was happening to society in Pakistan and the world. It was a different sort of impulse to generate the column and very different sort of creative effort that produced Tender Hooks.
So writing the third must have been easy?
The thing is, I now know my characters very, very well. Having lived with them and developed them over several years, it becomes easier to write because you know what they would do, what they wouldn't do. But otherwise, you know, having written the column for so long, one worry I have is, I shouldn't repeat myself. After so many years, you tend to have forgotten what you have written about whom. And just to recall that while writing is a bit difficult.
Do you plan to write another serious novel, like your first, The End of Innocence (2006)?
Yes I do. But I'm working on some non-fiction at the moment. I wanted to give myself a break from writing Butterfly and fiction. This is something entirely new for me. And I have to draw a lot on my training as a journalist to write this book
What is it about?
I can't say. But it's not about the subcontinent.
How did you become a journalist?
It started [in the early Nineties] with The Friday Times. I was living in Pakistan after I'd come back from university [Cambridge]. I didn't know quite what to do. I was working with an environmental agency and my sister and brother-in-law had started the newspaper, The Friday Times, and asked me to work for them. I said, "You know, I'll come as a proof-reader because I don't know how to write." They said, "No. We don't want proof-readers, we need somebody to write features for us." And I said, "Well, in that case, I can't help because I've never written a feature in my life!" And they said, "You can learn, you've written essays at university, it's pretty much the same sort of thing. You start with that but you change your language a little bit." So I said, "Alright, I'll come and see if I can do one." So they gave me an article to write and I wrote it and it was a feature. And I loved doing it so much!
And novels followed.
Eventually, a writer came to Pakistan and said to me, "You have the makings of a novelist." And I just put the idea at the back of my mind. When I got married and moved to London, I still wrote for The Friday Times. When I had my daughter, I couldn't write with the same regularity because she was small and I was fully hands on with her.
I started writing little fragments here and there, you know, memories of my childhood. And slowly over the year, I realised they were promising to be a bigger story. It took me about five years to write and that was The End of Innocence.
And then after that, when an editor from India, at the Jaipur Literature Festival, suggested I compile the columns into a diary of a social butterfly and make it into a book, I did. And to my surprise, it worked.
Whose idea was the column?
Mine. I used to write a column for The Friday Times called By The Way. It was about the life of a single, young, working woman. It was all about the funny things that happened to me. You know, like while sitting on a plane, the woman sitting next to me once asked me, "Are you married?" and I said no, she said, "Well I have a brother who's a doctor…" [Laughs]
But I was writing about my life all the time. This was before Facebook and Twitter. And I felt too exposed. I wanted my privacy. So I told my editor, "I don't want to do this anymore." He said, "You've got a readership now. If you stop writing, your readers will be disappointed and they'll go to another newspaper. You have to continue writing something in the same sort of way." Then the idea of Butterfly came to me. [In a session with writer Anuja Chauhan at the Calcutta Literary Meet in 2012, Mohsin recounted the story: One day I was in a lunch party in Lahore in winter. And as is my habit, I was eavesdropping. There were these two ladies chatting. One was mummified in this vast shahtoosh and had diamonds the size of ice cubes. With her was this other lady, a slinky aunty. The one in shahtoosh told the other lady, "Yehs tumne dekha hai mera shahtoosh… I had two or three other shahtooshes but only three, three yards each. So, I thought I should buy a seven yard one also." The other lady said: "I toh don't wear shawls… bada maidswala effect aa jaata hai na". I realised this was the subject!] In the beginning my editor was in two minds about it. But it was an immediate success.
Does writing satire come naturally?
Writing satire in this particular format, I find very easy - writing with the Butterfly and this particular cast of characters is quite effortless. It's like learning a swimming stroke, once you learn, you don't forget it. If I were to do satire in any other form with other characters, it would be harder I think.
So how do you write satire?
You hear things, you see things, you watch things happening in the world. And you think, that's funny. Things strike me as being funny. A lot of satire comes not from genuine humour, but anger. You want to criticise it, but in a funny way. You ridicule it. That's how satire is born.
People in the subcontinent have become very sensitive though.
Yes, they have, haven't they?
Does it make things difficult, not offending people?
If I'm not offensive at all, it won't be satire. You have to offend somebody! I'm sure I offend a lot of people. The people I ridicule, I want them to get the message. This is not just to make people laugh, but also make people think. Earlier this year, in a session at the Emirates Literature Festival, you said your children hate going to Pakistan. No. They don't hate going to Pakistan. My daughter, in fact, adores Pakistan. They both like to go to Pakistan. The only thing they worry about is the violence and security - they don't like the danger that is involved with everything. The fact that when they go there they have to be more careful and more aware. My daughter also finds other things - common to all subcontinental countries. How men come up and jostle against you, stare at you or try and make you feel uncomfortable in a public space.
Do you like coming to India?
The last time I was in India was two years ago. I would love to go to India much, much more. But I can't because the visa problem is so enormous here! Pakistanis have to apply on their Pakistani passports and it takes a long, long, long time to get a visa. And a lot of hassle. But I love visiting India.
Any city in particular - which one did you like the most?
Delhi is lovely because it's a lot like Lahore - it's quite a Punjabi city. I went to Calcutta a few years ago. And thought it was wonderful. I really loved Calcutta. I'm sure it's a maddening city to live in. But the people are interesting and intellectual and the city is kind of falling around them - but it's so beautiful. I love the Hooghly and the food. One thing I really, really want to do is come and spend time in Indian Punjab. I really want to do that. I want to go to Ludhiana, I want to go to Amritsar. One of the readers of Butterfly got in touch with me on Twitter and said to me, you know these people that you write about, they are exactly the same in Ludhiana. Hopefully I'll be able to come next year.
Does Janoo love Butterfly?
Janoo loves her, yes. He knows despite all the frivolity and shallowness, she's a good person. That's why people love reading her.
Is your husband like Janoo? And is your son like Kulchoo?
My husband and son are both very serious people. They're both sort of very wonderful people [laughs]. They're a little bit like them. They're both very concerned about the world. But I don't think my husband is as one-sided as Janoo. Janoo's just always serious. He doesn't have a great sense of humour, I think. [Pauses] He must actually. Janoo must have a sense of humour to put up with her. And I think my husband must have a sense of humour to put up with me!
Is your life anything like Butterfly's?
No, I live in London. I don't have driver and two guards, three cooks and five maids. My life is not like hers. And you know, when you asked me about the book whether the book was doing well in the West… There are Butterflies in the West as well. But there are fewer Butterflies and they have to have a lot of money to be a Butterfly in England. But you don't need to be a billionaire to have a Butterfly sort of life in the subcontinent. Therefore it strikes a chord with people here.
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From HT Brunch, July 13
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