I have been officially a ‘working woman’ for nearly 40 years, meaning I have woken up in the morning and gone to ‘office’. Most days, my handbag would hold, among other necessities, a book. Still, after all these years, I can count on the fingers of my hand the number of times I read the book at work. Until my friend Tirna gave me as a present, The Return of the Social Butterfly by Moni Mohsin. “Hmm!” I thought to myself, looking at the cover. “Chick lit! Not my cup of tea!” But I smiled in thanks. Besides, Tirna has great taste in books.
Coming from one who claims to love books, I confess that that unspoken comment reeks of prejudice. A book is not just a book: it’s a miracle. You may bask more effortlessly in the glory of one miracle than that of another. Or, the miracle may not be meant for you at all, it may have been misdirected. But at the heart of that miracle is a book, and book is never to be scoffed at, certainly not by one who loves books. That said…
The cover sporting the picture of a single, pink, stiletto-heeled sandal, displayed a quote from India Today: “Glamorous girly fiction evolves into Chanel-clad satire”. Get the picture? Clearly chick lit. Clearly not my cup of tea, never mind the confession. However, the reader in me overcame the misgivings so one day, during a break at work, I pulled the book out of my handbag, sat back in my swivel chair, and opened to the first page. I was intrigued by the opening lines, though not entirely spellbound. By page 14, I was dissolved in unstoppable giggles, unmindful of the looks I got from those walking past my workstation. Those unlucky enough to catch my eye as they went by found themselves captive as I read aloud to them from the book. I was completely entangled in the nuances of the interminable difficulties of being a gossipy, well-heeled member of the Pakistani upper class, with servant problems and kitty parties and the ever-changing political landscape where no one knows whether they’re going or coming.
But, be warned. Finding something funny reading also has a lot to do with whether your funny bone has been tickled. That day, my funny bone was in overdrive. So, when I came to the following passage, there were tears running down my cheeks: “Apparently inside game is this: Nawaz wants to get rid of Musharraf who is obviously still President because despite of elections, his Presidential term doesn’t finish till August. So until then Mush is going to be our gullay ka haar.” Here, I must interject. My funny bone’s pretty dormant at the moment, but imagining Musharraf as “gullay ka haar” (garland) brings on the giggles every time.
A book is not just a book: it’s a miracle. It may not be meant for you at all, it may have been misdirected. But at the heart of that miracle is a book.
It doesn’t end there: “So Nawaz is thinking if he can bring back the Chief Justess, Iftikhar Chaudhry, who Mush threw out, then as soon as Chief Justess is back he will do tit for tit and he will immediately throw Musharraf out. Then Nawaz will urge the Chief Justess to get rid off the PPP government so that he, Nawaz, can become King of Pakistan again. But what’s wrong with that, Janoo (Janoo being the Butterfly’s other half)? I asked. I think so Nawaz has seen after his time in Saudi Arab that being king is sub say best. Na koi elections, na koi referendums, na koi Parliaments, na koi motions. Bus just you and you only.”
This is truly delicious. Hats off, Moni Mohsin. Not only for the delightful writing but for the sharp boldness of the political satire: the ‘diary’ entries that constitute the content of The Return of the Butterfly originally appeared in the Lahore-based newsweekly, The Friday Times. The use of the word ‘return’ in the book’s title implies a precursor, so I went online and got hold of the first collection of a selection of Moni Mohsin’s columns, compiled as The Diary of a Social Butterfly.
In that one, the Butterfly introduces herself: “What? What do you mean, ‘who am I’? If you don’t know me than all I can say, baba, is that you must be some loser from outer space. Everyone knows me. All of Lahore, all of Karachi, all of Isloo — oho, baba, Islamabad — half of Dubai, half of London, all of Khan Market, and all the nice-nice bearers at Imperial Hotel also…
I live in Lahore. In a big, fat kothi with a big, fat garden in Gulberg, which is where all the khandani, khaata-peeta types live… I am very sophisty, smart and socialist. No ball, no party, no dinner, no coffee morning, no funeral, no GT — uff, now I have to explain GT to you also? Get Together, baba — is complete without me. Naturally, if you are going to be so socialist, you also need the right wardrope and the right looks. So I have to get my designer joras and visit my beauty therapists and my jewelers, vaghera, na. Just my selfless little way of supporting Pakistan ki economy. Unlike Janoo, who is a zinda laash, I am very gay.”
I love this Madam Butterfly who is so gay and who believes everyone is jay of her — arrey baba, jay for jealous, na — and who has her own take on the world around her. Like, for instance, from the third book, Tender Hooks: “Every day threats are coming to his (referring to her son, Kulchoo) school from beardo weirdos saying they will bomb it. Girls’ schools’ head teachers are being threated night and day that they’ll burn down their buildings and throw acid in the girls’ faces because their uniform is unIslamic. Just look at them! What can be more Islamic than a kameez that comes down to your ankles and a shulloo that has more cloth in it than a three-seater sofa? Cracks.”
Poor Butterfly. With all the beardo weirdos and suicide bombers looking funnily fat on top floating around, she can’t even go to her favourite five-star salon for her facials. She has to have someone home to ‘do’ her: “And also she has b.o. Honestly, what the Talibans have put us through! So when people say Americans are behind all this killing shilling, I say baba, I tau use Ester Louder products for my facial. And Ester Lauder, as everyone knows, is American. So why would Americans put axe in their own foot by causing all the kiiling in Pakistan so no one could even leave their houses any more to get Ester Louder facials, haan? In any case who is against facials? Is it Americans? No. Is it Indians? No. Is it Talibans? Yes. Yes. Yes. No one but the Talibans.” Perfect logic.
Yes. There’s no one quite like Moni Mohsin for hoysting us on our oven petals. And you better be on tender hooks because you could be on her hit the list. Then you will surely die laughing.
The columnist is a children’s writer and senior journalist.