This may not be the best of times to hold forth on Pakistani humour, as the country reels from devastating floods and political mismanagement. But it also feels oddly fitting to do so, since it’s Moni Mohsin we are talking about here. It’s hard to think of many writers of South Asian origin who have used humour as potently as her to portray the miserable realities of society, especially the bubble in which the top 1% live.
Mohsin’s inimitable brand of wit is powered by a scathingly satirical streak. She can be facetious, comedic, ironic—often all at once. Her writing can inspire rip-roaring laughter and impotent rage. And her prose was binge-worthy long before Netflix (for the record, she has also written “serious” literary fiction, though personally I find her “frivolous” output much more appealing).
Having just raced through Mohsin’s new book, Between You, Me And The Four Walls, I re-read some of her earlier works featuring “Butterfly Khan”, her now iconic protagonist, who first appeared in a wildly popular newspaper column in Pakistan in the 1990s. Apart from being hysterically funny (or “historically” funny, as Butterfly would say), the columns (and later, the books) are a masterclass in mimicry as well as nuance.
Mohsin never meant her writing to be “a sociological treatise”. “Butterfly is a true expression of my Hello-reading, self-absorbed, frivolous side,” she wrote early on, “exaggerated manifold and unredeemed by any hint of self-doubt and unburdened by any desire for a more meaningful existence.” How many writers, let alone any out of South Asia, can you name who would make such a clear-eyed case for writing as pure fun?
The Diary Of A Social Butterfly (the name of the column and also of the first book in the series, published in 2008) holds up a mirror to Pakistan’s upper crust, the “khata-peeta khandani types”, in Butterfly’s words, a bit like what Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’ Diary did for a generation of young British women. Except, Mohsin has much more at stake.
Unlike obedient South Asian writers in English, who know better than to rock the boat of editors in the Global North, Mohsin brazenly subverts expectations in the Butterfly books. Instead of focusing on the plight of the wretched, she trains her hawk eye on the follies of the wealthy. Rather than chastising the moneyed class for its hedonistic excesses, she exposes its hypocrisies and self-obsession, but without quite dismantling the status quo. She isn’t morally sanctimonious, but can hit close to the bone with a stinging epiphany, or three. The embarrassment you feel for Butterfly’s obliviousness to the rest of the world may suddenly turn into pathos or, worse still, a pathetic moment of self-knowledge.
Narrated in Butterfly’s signature pidgin English, generously peppered with malapropisms and Urdu phrases (what Salman Rushdie called the “chutnification” of language), these books unfold in the familiar “Dear Diary” format. Butterfly is a home-maker in her 40s, married into landed gentry, excessively fond of shopping and the (obscenely) good life. Her days revolve around her Mummy, Aunty Pussy, much divorced cousin Jonkers, a closed circle of friends (Flopsy, Fluffy, Floozy and others), mother-in-law “The Old Bag”, sisters-in-law “Psycho” and “Cobra”, son Kulchoo and, of course, her husband, Janoo, who, she never tires of reminding us, has a degree from Oxford and is, therefore, an “Oxen”.
An inveterate socialite, Butterfly spends her days flitting among a closed circle of rich Pakistanis at home and abroad. “Everyone knows me. All of Lahore, all of Karachi, all of Isloo—oho, baba, Islamabad—half of Dubai, half of London and all of Khan Market and all the nice, nice bearers in Imperial Hotel also,” as she says in the first book. “No ball, no party, no dinner, no coffee morning, no funeral, no GT—Get-Together, baba—is complete without me.”
Mohsin plays up the bitter irony of Butterfly’s existence by framing her diary entries with (usually tragic) references to current affairs juxtaposed against Butterfly’s unshakeable self-absorption. Here’s a typical sample: “Pakistan’s worst ever earthquake devastates thousands/ Butterfly sacks her maid.”
Between You, Me And The Four Walls follows the same template, as Butterfly gives us her hot-takes on the highs and lows of the recent past: Islamophobia under former US president “Donald Duck”, Malala Yousafzai winning the “Noble Cup”, the “Mittu” movement, “Breaks It” in the UK, and, of course, the havoc wreaked by the “Karo na virus”.
At a glance, it seems Butterfly is still stuck in the same old purgatory of lit fests, art galas, Basant parties and wedding receptions, interspersed with heady shopping trips to London and Dubai. But readers who have loyally followed her adventures over the years are likely to notice a change.
For one, she demonstrates a degree of self-awareness that seems shockingly out of character. It’s true, Butterfly was never a fan of the mullahs and was always ambivalent about Imran Khan and his party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf. But with Khan becoming the prime minister, her suspicions about his intentions only deepen. And though still miles away from Janoo’s left-liberal politics, she is now a softer overlord of the serving classes.
Once Butterfly didn’t think twice before sacking her maid when the country was devastated by a natural disaster. Now her heart weeps for her “Christian sweepress” Martha, whose family falls victim to horrific sectarian violence. Hearing Martha’s ordeal, Butterfly fondly remembers her own Christian ayah and the kind missionaries at her convent school. It’s the wokest she has been in living memory.
There’s more. As the Delta wave destroys India, Butterfly is genuinely shaken. “India’s suffering has upset me more than America’s or Braazeel’s and I think so it is because whatever we might do to each other, we are still humsayas. Their saya is also our saya, na. What is happening to them today could be our fate tomorrow,” she bursts out in a rare fit of clarity. “Also, we watch the same movies, eat the same gol guppas, give the same gaalis, and speak same to same. We are also all lovers of Shahrukh Khan. That’s why.”
Thankfully, it’s not all “Aman ki Asha” for her. Butterfly is cannily alert to the rise of “Moody” and his divisive politics across the border. What’s more, she is in her element, bitingly caustic and cynical. “Some Indians I’ve seen on Facebook are saying kay haw, if we don’t watch out, we will also become like Pakistan,” she writes. “I think so they mean they will also start carrying leather kay Birkings and listening to Ghulam Ali’s ghazals and producing fast bowlers and thanking Gensaab. Chalo, it might make a pleasant change from thanking Moody all the time.”
Butterfly, circa 2022, has quite a few such irreverent quips up the sleeves of her designer joras. She is far more subdued, less impatient, and (gasp!) almost cool. As times change, even the most obdurately smug learn to keep up. As the sadder and wiser Butterfly puts it, “Zamana badal gaya hai.”
Somak Ghoshal is a Delhi-based writer.
Rereadings is a monthly column on backlisted books that have much to offer in contemporary times