A delayed flight, an almost two-hour ride from airport to hotel because of traffic, a v-e-r-y careful examination of her passport – because it’s Pakistani – that made check-in painful, and nothing to eat since dinner last night (it’s now 2.30 pm). After all this, you’d expect Moni Mohsin, the London-based Pakistani author of The End of Innocence, a novel, and The Diary of a Social Butterfly, a collection of her satirical columns for the newspaperFriday Times, to not like Mumbai much. This is, after all, her first visit to the city and she’s only here for a day to release her new novel, Tender Hooks.
But once lunch has been ordered – Goan prawn curry with rice (“You decide please, I don’t want North Indian food”), a roomali paratha (“You don’t get it in London and I miss it”) and green chillies on the side (“I hate it when people assume I don’t eat spicy food”) – Mohsin surprises you.
“I always thought Mumbai must be beautiful, but I never imagined it would be this beautiful,” she says, settling into her seat at Indus Cocktail Bar and Tandoor at Colaba’s Hotel Diplomat. “I was told I’d see appalling slums, but I saw nothing like that on the drive from the airport. What was really interesting was the trees. Lovely trees.”
Trees? Trees? Can Mohsin really be the creator of Butterfly, a Lahori lady who lunches, who thinks her husband’s farm is bore and who only worries about terrorists and fundamentalists because they get in the way of her parties and GTs (oho baba, get togethers, don’t you know anything?).
Was it difficult transferring Butterfly to a novel when she continues to turn up in your Friday Timescolumn?
Not at all. The column responds to what is happening in Pakistan. That’s journalism. Tender Hooks is not Like Butterfly, I’m a Punjabi girl. I know my character thoroughly. Once you know your character, you can, well, read her like a book. I know what Butterfly will do in any situation. For instance, while I was driving here from the airport, I knew what Butterfly would think about Mumbai.
Did you wonder, when Diary… was published in India, how it would be received?
People kept telling me I should publish the columns as a book, and I kept resisting. But then I attended the Jaipur Literature Festival and found that the halls where Pakistani writers spoke were as full as the hall where Ian McEwan spoke. I was writing a novel at the time, which wasn’t going well, so I compiled the columns. Since it took only a month, it was no skin off my nose if it didn’t do well, but I was told by a friend one day to check the Indian bestseller lists, and there it was! Tender Hooks is also being published in the UK now. I didn’t want to publish there before because there’s a lot of Urdu in the book, but we’re doing it now.
Why shouldn’t books with words in Urdu be published in the UK? I mean, we read books written in Irish and Scottish dialects.
I suppose they’re just not used to it coming back to them. But that’s changing now in the UK. They’ve been exposed to quite a lot of South Asian lingo recently, with TV shows like Goodness Gracious Me and movies like East is East. So Tender Hooks is being published in the UK, though it is in an English version – some of the phrases have been translated. For instance, ‘the bhookha-nangas’ has been translated to ‘the hungry-nakeds’ and ‘khandaani’ is ‘old family’ and so on. I don’t mind. I don’t like books that have, for instance, too much French.
Every chapter of Tender Hooks begins with a headline. The picture we get of Lahore is distressing. Bomb blasts, shootouts, schools threatened by fundamentalists… Is it really like that?
Yes. On a daily basis, it’s bad. If someone were to write a novel about it, it would be very grim. But people have become resilient, and that’s what I wanted to show by using those headlines in every chapter. People just carry on. That’s the sad part of it.
Your novel, The End of Innocence, didn’t do as well as Diary… Does that hurt?
I feel bad that something I slaved over wasn’t well received, but… it’s like children. Some do well, some don’t. But it did hurt because I’d put a lot of myself in it, which I hadn’t with Butterfly. Actually, no. No. Butterfly is me really. Exaggerated, but me. I notice things like brand names and labels. But that doesn’t mean this is all there is to my existence. If that was entirely true, I wouldn’t have had the distance and irony to write the book. But if I’d been Mother Teresa, I couldn’t have written it either.
For an extract from Tender Hooks, go to http://randomhouseindia.wordpress.com/2011/01/12/moni-mohsin-tender-hooks/
This book is available at Liberty books.