Books

The truth behind the laughter

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The hilarious diary of a Pakistani socialite returns in its third sortie to cause a flutter yet again
The Return of the Butterfly | Moni Mohsin | Penguin Books India | Pages 240 | Rs 299
Some of my favourite moments in The Return of the Butterfly—the third in Pakistani journalist Moni Mohsin’s immensely popular series chronicling the life and times of Butterfly, a malapropism-spouting Lahori socialite—remind me of the Four Yorkshiremen sketch in which four men, comfortably off, try to outdo each other’s accounts of humble beginnings. One says, “We lived in one room, all 26 of us, no furniture, half the floor was missing.” Another responds, “Eh, you were lucky to have a room! We used to have to live in the corridor!” The Pakistani equivalents of this (admitting to humble origins, make no mistake, is tantamount to social suicide) are seemingly fantastical descriptions of how wonderful things were. You can’t escape it in drawing rooms: stories of cabarets at Karachi’s grand Metropole hotel, people insisting their grandmothers cycled to college in shorts, the ghastly socialite I once found myself seated next to on a Karachi-Lahore connection who took one look at the other passengers and conspiratorially told me: “In the good old days, we used to know everyone on these flights.” Or, as Butterfly says of her mother’s youth: ‘when both of them wore saris and beehives and meat was ten rupees a ton and only the deserving had cars and even those who took their six children to school on a bicycle had happy smiles and only nice prayers for their car-driving betters’.

Indeed, if anecdotal evidence is to be believed, Pakistan’s finest hour was one in which it was so utopian that pesky irritants like social mobility simply didn’t exist. Now it’s so bad her mother’s new ‘phone wallah’, who replaced the guy who called her ‘Huzoor’ and ‘always did jhuk ke salam’, ‘barges into her sitting room and stands on her carpet without even removing his shoes’ and ‘calls Mummy “Anti”, as if, God forbid, he was related to us’. It’s enough to make Mummy want to leave, till Butterfly reminds her: ‘with your passport you have only two choices; either you can go to Afghanistan or else, Upstairs to Him’. One of Mohsin’s many masterstrokes.

Starting in 2009 with Benazir’s assassination when Butterfly’s husband Janoo—the very model of rectitude and foil to Butterfly’s frivolity—heads to his ancestral lands to campaign for Benazir’s party, lest her death be in vain, The Return of the Butterfly takes us through the worst of times. In doing so, Mohsin provides a timely reminder that even in countries freefalling into chaos and despair, life, in all its sublime and ridiculous forms, still goes on. And so, while Janoo starts exhibiting signs of clinical depression watching everything he loved about Pakistan slip away, Butterfly buys Birkins, attends and critiques lavish weddings, plans summer holidays in London and trades ‘Ramzan’ for ‘Ramadan al Kareem’—succumbing to the Arabisation of Pakistan (which the press describes as ‘creeping’, whereas it’s making a mad dash at one in the manner of a bull to a matador).

Mohsin hits the target every time. Butterfly goes to ‘the pools’ to vote after Benazir’s death, saying ‘Thanks God we live in Gulberg and not some slump type area where we would have to vote alongside all the bhooka nangas’. She is shaken by former governor of Punjab Salman Taseer’s murder and much of the country’s grotesque reaction: ‘Even friends of ours whose kids are in college in the US and who serve drink in their home and would sell their grandmothers for a green card, even they are saying that he wasn’t a good Muslim.’ She attends candlelight vigils but only the ones for ‘khaata peeta types’. In 2011, she goes the way of her more vapid friends and ‘feels a deep connection with Imran Khan’ because ‘Imran is also a PLU, na’ and ‘he will do sullah with the Taliban so they will aik dum drop their weapons and become all lovey dovey with us’. But even Butterfly can’t swallow the theory that ‘Amreekans’ shot Malala because they ‘want to give Pakistan a bad name’.

While Butterfly’s concerns are still her wardrobe, her horror of upstarts, and the distress caused by the local supermarket running out of avocadoes, the book is at moments just too horribly true to even laugh along with. You can tell the country’s really gone down the tubes when even Butterfly’s diary saddens as much as it entertains.

(Faiza S Khan is a critic and editor based in New Delhi)

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