The Diary of a Social Butterfly by Moni Mohsin

26/01/09, Time Magazine Asia

Moni Mohsin’s first novel, The End of Innocence, was a sensitive, measured and shocking coming of age story set in West Punjab in that crucial year for Pakistan, 1971. She has been writing a column, narrated in the first-person voice of a pathologically shallow airhead socialite called Butterfly, in The Friday Times of Lahore since the early nineties. For her new book, The Diary of a Social Butterfly, she has culled the columns spanning seven critical years, January 2001 to January 2008, bookended by the Taliban flexing its muscles in Afghanistan and the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, and produced a roof-raisingly hilarious social commentary.

At first glance, it would seem paradoxical that the seven years which saw a momentous realignment of the geopolitical order, with Pakistan as one of the most vital components in the unstable equilibrium, would lend itself to uproarious comedy. This is the period that saw, among other things, 9/11, a very real threat of nuclear war between India and Pakistan, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the steady religious militisation of Pakistan, a president caught between the demands of the USA and a refractory Islamic fundamentalism at home, the worst earthquake in the country’s history in October 2005, and imposition of emergency rule. But as Pakistan and the world outside go to rack and ruin, all these register as noises off, if they register at all, in the consciousness of Butterfly, saturated as it is with brand names (‘MAC ki lipsticks and D&G ka sent and La Prarry ki face cream and Landscomb ka mascara’), social status, parties, manic socializing, GTs (‘Get Togethers’).

There is a narrative of sorts that emerges from the solipsistic accounts of Butterfly but the book’s greatest triumph is Butterfly’s voice, a pitch-perfect mixture of malapropistic, subcontinental English and colloquial Urdu spoken by her class, perhaps the most authentic example of what Salman Rushdie has term the ‘chutneyfication’ of the English language. Mohsin’s ear is preternaturally tuned to the exactness of its hilarious cadences, idiosyncracies and reinventions. So we get inspired locutions such as ‘Thanks God’, ‘proper-gainda’, ‘bore-bore countries’, ‘thousand-thousand times’, ‘spoil spots’, ‘What cheeks!’ ‘principaled stand’, ‘sweepress’; there’s hardly a sentence in the book that does not contain similar gems. On her husband’s dismay at Bush’s election to a second term: ‘… I was also disappointed. Itna mein hope kar rahi thi, na, keh Carry would win and then we’d get that shweeto-sa, young-sa Edwards with his glossy hairs and Tom Cruise smile. But instead we have to stare at that sarha hua buddha sanda, Chainy.’ The book is being talked of as a kind of subcontinental Bridget Jones’s Diary but Mohsin’s extraordinary achievement in exploiting the contrapuntal irony in the gap between the private and the public gives it a political depth that aligns it more to Rushdie’s Shame. This is a wildly entertaining book but, beware, it also bites.