fter the international success of her satirical columns, TFT’s very own Moni Mohsin has returned with her Diary of a Social Butterfly. But this time it’s a novel. She talks exclusively to TFT about the journey that became ‘Tender Hooks’.
When did you start writing The Diary of a Social Butterfly? How did the idea come to you?
I started writing the Dairy of a Social Butterfly in the early 90s. At the time I was writing a column for the The Friday Times called By The Way which was aimed at women and largely chronicled my own life as a single working woman in Pakistan. Having done the column for 2 years I felt as if I’d turned my life inside out. There was nothing left to say. So I asked my editor if I could stop. He said yes, but only if I replaced it with something else aimed at the same readership. I tried to do another sort of column but no matter how hard I tried it morphed back into By The Way. I knew that I had to do something radically different to depart from the old format. Around then I was invited to a lunch party where I overhead two Lahori begums chatting. A short squat begum swathed mummy-like in a seven yard shatoosh was extolling its virtues to a slinky aunty in a chiffon sari and a barely there blouse. ‘Bhai I tau don’t wear shawls,’ declared the slinky one, flicking back a swathe of blow dried, bleached hair. ‘Bohat ayahs wallah effect aa jaata hai.’ I knew immediately that these were the characters, this was the voice and this was to be the content for my new column. The Butterfly was born.
Butterfly is a Convent-educated, superficial-seeming Lahori begum. Her husband Janoo is something of an Oxbridge intellectual. How did you think up this couple?
From the start I conceived of this column as social satire. I wanted to make some hard hitting points about society. And though Butterfly occasionally, unwittingly hits the nail on the head, she is not a reliable or consistent vehicle for serious thought. I needed a counter point to her. Enter Janoo. But they are not an outlandish couple. I know plenty of intelligent, serious men married to frivolous women. Somehow serious men seem to be intellectually less demanding of their spouses than serious women.
The narrative alternates between first-person and second-person, so that it sounds like Butterfly’s side of a telephone conversation. Who’s on the line?
For more than a decade now you’ve written this as a series of columns. This time you’ve written a novel. What were the main challenges you faced when making that leap?
I wondered whether I’d be able to sustain her voice for 200 pages without it grating on the reader. I eventually got around the problem I think, I hope! but alternating, as you say, between first person and second person narrative. And by restricting it to 200 pages.
Much of the comedy in Tender Hooks (including the title itself) plays with malapropisms and mispronunciations of English words, and so is readily available only to a postcolonial, English-speaking, presumably South Asian audience. Would you agree?
That was another worry. The Diary had been published only in the Subcontinent where it had found a ready audience. But I wanted to enlarge my readership. So I showed The Diary to my agent in London and while he thought the character was universal we’d find her kind in Cairo, Moscow, London, Rio and the malapropisms etc would be no problem, I’d have to tone down the use of Urdu to make it accessible to western readers. And then I had the great good fortune of finding an editor in the UK who thinks we have to educate lazy western readers and make them listen to different voices and different vocabularies. So Tender Hooks UK and Tender Hooks US are going to be almost the same as Tender Hooks Pak and India. But to be honest my task was made easier by the recent plethora of Brit-Asian comedy in the UK. Films like East is East and TV programmes like Goodness Gracious Me have attuned British ears to our English. So they know now that when we say ‘What you are talking?’ we mean, ‘What rubbish!’ The greater test will be whether American readers will get it. I guess I’ll find out in Sep.
Your books are wildly popular in India. Tell us about the kinds of responses you’ve had from Indian readers.
They totally got The Diary. They thought it was funny and satirical etc. But the reactions to Tender Hooks across the border have been different. The more discerning readers among them focused not so much on the foreground story of Jonkers’ quest for a suitable girl, but the background story of an unravelling society and a fracturing country. They told me they found the litany of daily suicide bombs, violent burglaries, kidnappings, threats, killings and fatwas horrifying. ‘How do people carry on living there?’ was the question I was asked most often. Their verdict on Tender Hooks was that despite the laughs and the jokes, it was a bleak book. So I guess they got Tender Hooks too.
In Tender Hooks you show Butterfly to be a mix of seemingly contradictory traits: superficial but deep, silly but clever, prejudiced but open-minded, contemptible but sympathetic. In what ways are such characters shaped by the societies in which they live?
All of us are an amalgam of different traits and sometimes these traits can be contradictory. For instance, huge philanthropists will do their damndest not to put a single extra coin into a parking meter. Courageous activists who fight for equal rights publicly will treat their families appallingly. In my experience few people act consistently, which is why reading biographies is such fun. But I guess the contradictions become more numerous and glaring when otherwise perfectly smart, kind, funny women such as Butterfly are born into societies which value them only as decorative, fertile and biddable wives. Their problems are compounded by a combination of wealth and privilege which allows them only very limited exposure to and knowledge of the rest of the world. Hence their prejudices, their silliness, their frivolity, their ignorance. Usually such societies have to be deeply divided inequitable places, where entire universes can exist side by side while hardly ever colliding. But as my agent pointed out such trophy wives can exist in London and New York as well.
Who are your own favourite heroes and heroines of fiction?
There’s a woman called Claudia Hampton in Penelope Lively’s novel Moon Tiger who is a huge favourite of mine. She is a journalist, a sharp, independent, courageous and proud woman who moves with supreme assurance and self belief in a man’s world. She was everything I wanted to be as a twenty two year old when I first encountered her. Then there’s V S Naipaul’s Mr Biswas a small, bandy-legged, bossy, dyspeptic, ridiculous character whom I love for his rebellious spirit and questing nature. Another person I adore is Mrs Rupa Mehra, The Suitable Boy’s mother in law. I’d absolutely hate to have her as a mother. She is prim, priggish, self pitying, sentimental and calculating but so beautifully drawn and so unintentionally comical, that that she leaps off the page. And finally Cromwell from Hilary Mantle’s Wolf Hall sophisticated and brutal, compassionate and cunning, secular and pious I still can’t decide what I really think of him. Surely the hallmark of a great fictional character?
Best new book you’ve read?
The Music Room by Namita Devidayal. Read it, read it, read it!
Are you thinking of your next book?