The Return of the Butterfly

….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 ‘calls Mummy “Anti”…..
It’s enough to make Mummy want to leave,
till Butterfly reminds her: ‘with your passport you have only two
choices….Afghanistan or else, Upstairs to Him’. One
of Mohsin’s many masterstrokes….

Hilarious stuff about how South Asian elites think and talk, kind of like an extended article from the Onion….

It is a shame that for a long. long time we have not had a single, decent brown humorist. It is all high drama, betrayal, politics, …and we are sick of it. Our best wishes to Moni Mohsin and we look forward to many such installments.
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 free-falling 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

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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