Moni Mohsin’s The Diary of a Social Butterfly, a column and soon-to-be released book is a hilarious take on Pakistani high society. We spoke to the author recently about the inspiration for her character Lady Butterfly, her choice of a ruler for Pakistan and some folksy international diplomacy. Edited excerpts:
What inspired your column?
It was a conversation I overheard in the early 1990s. I was at a lunch party in Lahore and two “ladies-who-lunch” were discussing shawls. An amply proportioned begum wearing diamond studs the size of rupee coins and huge designer sun glasses was holding forth on the particularities of her newly purchased shahtoosh (a kind of shawl). “Haan, so I got this one yesterday only. It is seven yards, na. I had two from before also but they were three yards only. So I thought, chalo, might as well get a big one also.” Her companion, a well-preserved auntie in a slinky sari and a miniscule blouse flicked back her long highlighted tresses and said: “I tau don’t wear shawls, baba. One looks too much like an ayah.”
The Diary of a Social Butterfly: Random House India, 352 pages, Rs295.
It dawned on me that this conversation contained the germ of a column. And so began The Diary of a Social Butterfly, in the lingo of the chattering class, lampooning their way of life.
Does Pakistan’s Page 3 have a sense of humour?
In the many years that I’ve been writing this column my target has remained a particular section of society, rather than individuals. So I have created fictitious characters—Aunty Pussy, Jonkers, The Gruesome Twosome, Mulloo and Tony—who serve as my punching bags. And I have found that people can laugh at themselves and their silliness as long as the column is not too personal.
How is it different from India’s high society?
My impression, culled mainly from my experience in London, is that the concerns of the “idle rich” in both countries are pretty similar. But there is a difference in scale. The westernized elite in Pakistan is smaller and therefore tends to be more incestuous and self-referential. Also because the Indian rich are much, much richer, their social ambitions and playgrounds are that much grander.
Who’s your favourite celebrity in Paksitan and why?
My favourite celebrity is Pakistan’s Malika-e-Tarranum (the Queen of Melody) the late Nur Jehan. She passed away a couple of years ago but by virtue of her legendary voice and her huge personality she remains, for me, immortal. She was a woman who lived on her own terms—always fearless, outspoken and utterly committed to her art. She rose from humble origins to become a powerful and respected, no adored, woman. For me, she remains an inspirational character.
Is it a myth that the people of both the countries can co-exist peacefully if given a chance?
While we do undoubtedly share common beliefs, common histories, common stories, the experiences of the last 60 years have shaped us differently. But that doesn’t mean we can’t co-exist peacefully. As long as we keep extremists from both sides at bay and leave all our ridiculous stereotypes about each other at the door, why ever not? After all, we can happily eat together and hang out together in London .
In the current scenario, who according to you is best suited to rule Pakistan?
Janoo, Butterfly’s husband! He is honest, upright, informed, intelligent, serious, pedantic, liberal, conscientious, boring, earnest, vaghera, vaghera. But Butterfly as First Lady? Aaaaargh!!
What would Lady Butterfly say to L.K. Advani and Manmohan Singh if she met them?
“Dekhain na, uncles, forget about all this fighting shighting, and all these suspensions you have of us (vaisay, your suspensions about my sisters-in-law are right—they tau are complete junglees—but about sophisty, khandani types like me and Mummy and Aunty Pussy tau they are bilkul wrong). Ub yeh reporting visa shisa is soooo last century. In rest of world no one does. So why we should, hain? You tau should be welcoming people like me who come to India with open wallets and open hearts with open arms. And in return, we’ll welcome you to Anarkali bazaar and Liberty market with open arms. So you can buy lawns and Bareeze and khussas (Punjabi shoes) and all our cheap pirates DVDs to your heart’s contempt. And I can buy all your Gem Palace diamonds and all your saris and all your everything to my hearts’ contempt. Hai keh nahin (Is it not so)?”
The Diary of a Social Butterfly will be released on 17 October.