We have no electricity,” writes Moni Mohsin’s unnamed narrator in her Lahore diary. “Oho, baba, I know the whole country has no electricity, but I mean we, us.”
The protagonist of Tender Hooks, whom we last met in Mohsin’s The Diary of a Social Butterfly, is increasingly suspicious of the new Pakistan she lives in, where “fundos” have come to stay, apparently for good, and weddings are now held in exclusive clubs and not five-star hotels (“Anyone can walk into a hotel and blow themselves up. Not like clubs where only members can blow themselves up”). Don’t even ask; the sich is bad.
At least there are some problems the Butterfly can confront directly, if not a little reluctantly. Her cousin Jehangir is 37 years of age, shy, unprepossessing and already divorced from a “cheapster type” who ran away with the family jewellery and a Toyota car. His family nickname, Jonkers, is almost the least distressing thing about his life. To marry him to a suitable bride before Muharram is not a task for the faint-hearted. Nonetheless, the Butterfly, who knows herself to be a “soft headed, charitable” soul, must wrangle with it.
So through various circles of Lahore high society—and its peripheries—she must go, a Virgil to Jonkers’ helpless Dante, eliminating the poor, the dark and the ill-bred from his path. The rich girl who’s “a gay”? Unthinkable, even if it’s just a phase. The mousy divorcee whose father is a powder pasha, as drug smugglers are known in polite society? Out of the question: Her mother serves them flat soda. And when it comes to a teenager whose mother just wants to break up her affair with the local DVD-wallah, it’s almost enough to make the Butterfly want to move to Dubai.
The malapropism-filled, self-satirizing style, which also marked the Butterfly’s first outing, may be the most irritating thing about this novel. Mohsin has a keen ear for the language of the social class she writes about, but the degree to which she chooses to replace conventional usage with spellings such as “bagground” and “stuppid” tips into an unpleasant sort of condescension for her characters. Still more puzzling is the narrator’s steadfast incompetence with brand names she loves. If a Social Butterfly can’t say “Miu Miu” correctly, what hope do the rest of us have?
Mohsin is otherwise a sympathetic writer, and many of her characters will be familiar to readers anywhere on the subcontinent. The fierce matriarchs, the desperate housewives and the hollow-eyed husbands of the business class are all imagined deftly; Mohsin infuses the novel with warmth even as she lampoons their political and social attitudes.
So the bride wars over Jonkers thunder towards resolution, but the most interesting relationship in the book is the Butterfly’s own. Years of married life have exposed the chasm of understanding between her and her thoughtful, morally serious husband. As she rushes about trying to fix up the lives of others, we are also allowed wry, tender glimpses into the way she and “Janoo” live together. Perhaps things might have turned out this way for Bridget Jones if Mark Darcy were a landowning Lahori.
Or perhaps not. Whatever the case may be with the Oxonian Janoo, Mohsin’s writing makes it clear that it would take more than just atrocious spelling and heirloom jewellery to make Bridget Jones a Pakistani. The Butterfly, as we are led to discover, could hardly be anything else.