Stock characters, based on a nearly universally understood stereotypical personalities, actions or manner of speech, can suddenly emerge in the most unlikely of places and being too well known for any original use, find their merit in satire. Like this Mrs. Malaprop incarnated in modern-day Lahore, whose exploits and sentiments are a skewering indictment of her class not only in her country, but are as easily transferable to a similar segment in its eastern neighbour, or with some changes, across the globe.
Pakistani journalist-turned-author Moni Mohsin (b.1963) is the progenitor of the well-off, but shallow and vacuous “Butterfly” who only wants a good time and expects everyone recognises her. We can imagine her indignant squeal at being asked to introduce herself: “What? What do you mean, ‘who am I?’ If you don’t know me than all I can say, baba, you must be some loser from outer space. Everyone knows me. All of Lahore, all of Karachi, all of Isloo – oho, baba, Islamabad – half of Dubai, half of London and all of Khan Market and all the nice, nice bearers in Imperial Hotel also…”
Derived from Mohsin’s newspaper column, “The Diary of a Social Butterfly” (2008) introduces Butterfly who lives in Lahore in “a big, fat kothi with a big, fat garden in Gulberg, which is where all the khandani, khaata-peeta types live”, is married to Janoo from a landed family but “very bore” for liking “bore things like reading-sheading” and who can be very “sarhial” (literally burnt, figuratively spoil-sport) at times – for her. They have a teenaged son Kulchoo, whose voice is getting “horse”.
Proud that her “bagground is not landed”, she went to Kinnaird College, “where all the rich illegible girls go while they are waiting to be snapped up” and is “very sophisty, smart and socialist”. So are her friends Mulloo, Flopsy, Furry and Twinkle, most of whose husbands are “bank defaulters but they are all very religious and upright otherwise”.
But Butterfly is not only a Pakistani version of Mrs. Malaprop, who ambled onstage in 1775 in Irish playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s “The Rivals” and had her misuse of words to comic effect (“He is the very pine-apple of politeness!”; “…she’s as headstrong as an allegory on the banks of Nile”) immortalised as “malapropisms”.
In her mix of English, mangled English, and anglicised Urdu, Butterfly also offers a satirical view of Pakistan in the first dozen-odd years of the 21st century through an upper crust woman’s prism – though the brand of satire is the Horatian gentle, mild mockery, not the Juvenalian abrasive method.
It is achieved partly, by starting every monthly entry (from January 2001 to December 2007) with a serious national development, juxtapositioned with Butterfly’s activities – eg. February 2001: “Restoration of assemblies in March likely/Butterfly attends six parties in two days”. This is normally the practice till the ending when the assassination of Benazir Bhutto leaves our blithe spirit depressed too.
Butterfly flits back in “Tender Hooks” (2011) which has a different structure – daily entries and a specific plot – finding a suitable bride for her divorced cousin Jonkers after being emotionally blackmailed into the task by her maternal aunt. But Butterfly is not at her best with strains in her own marriage while her cousin has his own ideas. The headings of this account, beginning in end September 2009, give a flavour of what Pakistan is going through, without the parallel activity of our heroine, who ultimately proves that she does have a conscience and a good heart.
“The Return of the Butterfly” (2014) goes back to the original format – eg. March 2008: “Asif Zardari and Nawaz Sharif agree to form coalition government/Butterfly discovers Janoo’s favourite colour”). This shows her at the most hilariously dense – her husband wants a ‘green’ car and she proposes others before her son suggests the most environmentally viable way would be to retain the old car but use it less – leaving her aghast. “Father tau was already crack, now son is also following in his footsteps. It’s all to do with hereditary and jeans, I’m told… Some people inherit lands, some inherit Swiss bank accounts, some inherit kothis, others inherit factories and firms and political parties…. and what does my son inherit from his father? A cracked head.”
The Butterfly series, published by Random House India, are a wickedly comic satire but should not be let go at that only. It is satire’s unerring attribute that its target is far wider from what it appears to be. But do we have the courage to ascertain how much it concerns us?
(06.09.2015 – Vikas Datta is an Associate Editor at IANS. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)