If there’s one thing Moni Mohsin’s novels do, it is remind you that Punjabis on either side of the border are very alike, Delhi and Lahore being almost twin cities at heart. She mentions in an interview that a reader mailed her, saying her depiction of the high life in the last book could have been straight out of Ludhiana. Or Delhi. Big brands, big bucks and bags of bling.
Butterfly is a Pakistani socialist, err, socialite and her concerns rarely go beyond ‘Dunya kya kahegi’, her Ramadan ‘wardrope’ in pastel shades of swiss voile, her J Brand jeans and Prada sunglasses that come almost down to her lips. Her life is a trial that she courageously bears, from worrying about her mother-in-law’s (the Old Bag) visits, her son Kulchoo’s girlfriend’s lack of ‘bagground’, her sisters-in-law (Gruesome Twosome) and of course keeping up with the Joneses or in her case, Sunny, Mullo and Fluffy, her frenemies. Not to forget Aunty Pussy and Uncle CockUp.
Chock full of Butterfly’s malapropisms, misspelling, mispronunciations, and liberally laced with Urdu phrases, the language takes a little getting used to. And it probably wouldn’t be the easiest read for readers south of the Vindhyas or East of the Ganga or West of the Vindhyas... you get the picture. But the effort put in is worth it as you grow comfortable with her writing and come across gems like—‘You know the problem with Janoo, na? All his get up and go has got up and gone.’
The self-centred and vain Butterfly sails through political calamity after calamity, focused only on how it affects her and her place in society. She is concerned about her husband Janoo’s depression but ensures that she covers her face while taking him to a counsellor, worried about being recognised in such a socially unacceptable setting. The idea is to portray her as someone who is good beneath under all that superficiality. Unfortunately she doesn’t endear herself even after digging really deep. We’ve all known people like Butterfly, and we rarely like them.
What she does in her own frivolous way however, is expose the hypocrisy of Pakistani high society. For instance, she curses her husband for being the last remaining soul with ghairat, asking him why he can’t be more like Imran Khan who exhorts Pakistanis to educate their children locally while sending his kids abroad. And in her casual references to how safe her frequent London shopping trips are, brings out the daily tension of living in a Pakistan where bombs, kidnappings and daylight robbery are the norm. A reminder of how the Westernised, liberal Pakistani is as horrified by the wave of conservatism as the next person.
On the other hand it is easy to fall in love with Janoo and wonder what he sees in someone so superficial. Created as a liberal and left-leaning foil to her frivolousness with his Queen’s English, his Oxford education, his calm demeanour, his depth of character and his social conscience, he is every inch a hero.
If you’re looking for a story or a plot, this is not the book for you. The series began as a newspaper column and probably works best in that format, reading more like a commentary on current affairs. Mohsin bravely takes a stand on everything from sectarian violence to fundamentalism to the discrimination against Ahmadis, the Talibanisation and of course Pakistan’s favourite whipping boy, the US. My personal favourite is the way she addresses the increasing Arabisation of Pakistan with the simple change in name from the Urdu Ramzan to the Arabic Ramadan. She deals with these ‘bore’ topics, as Butterfly would dub them, in the only possible way one can without courting controversy—light, satirical, free of confrontation or moralising. It is definitely not a book to be read in one sitting—even so, I tau enjoyed it.