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Book Talk: The humorous side of Pakistan's troubles

By Shilpa Jamkhandikar
/ Source: Reuters

By Shilpa Jamkhandikar

When Pakistani author Moni Mohsin was struck with a familiar case of writer's block, she turned to humour to cure it.

Rather than writing a serious novel about what ails Pakistan, she told the story of a nation in turmoil through the eyes of Butterfly Khan, a socialite whose social life suffers because of fundamentalists and terror threats.

"Tender Hooks" is her third novel, and is based on characters that were part of a column she used to write for a Pakistani newspaper, "The Friday Times."

Mohsin spoke to Reuters about her book and why she chose humour as a means to tell Pakistan's story.

Q: Your first novel was a totally different genre from the next two. How did you graduate to humour writing?

A: "It happened organically. I had been writing my column for 20 years. It predated my first book 'The End of Innocence'. I never thought the column would have a wider readership because it was so specific to what was happening in the country and how people were.

"I wrote my first novel purely as a novel, but when I went to the Jaipur Literary Festival in 2008, I was approached by an Indian publisher who had been reading my column and she wanted to know whether I could put it all in a book. I didn't realise until I came to India how much interest there was in Pakistani writing across the border. So I went back to London and thought about it.

"Also, I was writing another book at the time and I was a little stuck with it. So I thought to get over this temporary writer's block, I'd edit these columns and put them together. I put them together and sent them off to four Indian publishers and the response was immediate. I hadn't expected anything from it, but the response I got totally stunned me. It became a bestseller, and people talked about it, I was flooded with interview requests. I realised that people identified with the character.

"I was still trying to write my second novel, set in Pakistan, and the situation there at the moment. It was difficult to write it in the third person -- it became too bleak. When I showed 'The Diary of A Social Butterfly' to my agent in London, he said this is a character which Westerners will identify with as well. So I wrote the same book but in her voice and with her character."

Q: Through this book, what is it you want to say about Pakistan?

A: "I just want to talk about how difficult it is to live there at the moment. How things have deteriorated, both politically and socially. Schools are shut every other day because of terror threats. You worry about being stuck in a traffic jam because you don't know if it's going to be a bomb or not. I wanted to talk about how difficult it is to live in a situation like that and how the people there have survived. I didn't want to just criticise Pakistan. I wanted to talk about how normal people, outside of the privileged circle, manage. Not everyone is so well off they don't have to think about life."

Q: Why did you think humour would be an effective medium?

A: "Well, because I didn't want to write a rant. I didn't want to lecture people or say how awful things are. And people in Pakistan still have a great sense of humour, in spite of everything. Also satire has a great history in Pakistan -- it's greatly appreciated."

Q: Growing up in Pakistan, did you come across any characters like Butterfly?

A: "Yes, of course. I have come across characters like her not only in Pakistan but also in London. That is why most people identify with her so much because they have come across someone like that -- it has a greater resonance."

Q: What do you think of the current Pakistani writers?

A: "I'm very impressed with the output. I think writing comes from a place of hurting and in Pakistan things are up and down all the time, so it's bound to generate good writing, good art, good music. It's bound to happen."

Q: Your book looks at Pakistan from the point of view of the privileged classes. Do you think they are doing enough for the country?

A: "That's the thing really. In the book, Butterfly's husband wants to do something -- he sets up schools, he wants to engage, he doesn't want to run away and he's brought up his son to be aware. Not everybody is like that. But I do believe that the elite haven't done enough." (Reporting by Shilpa Jamkhandikar, editing by Paul Casciato)