In Conversation with Pakistani Author Moni Mohsin

IMG_0698.jpgI recently had the opportunity to interview the elegant and erudite Pakistani author Moni Mohsin for my magazine. (The interview is available in the February 2011 issue of Marie Claire India.) But we also talked about other stuff that I couldn’t share in the magazine. Here it is:

Was it ‘understood’ that you’d write for your sister Jugnu Mohsin and brother-in-law Najam Sethi’s outspoken weekly Friday Times?
On the contrary, I thought one shouldn’t work with one’s family. And besides I didn’t think I could write. I had studied anthropology from Cambridge and was working at various NGOs when this paper was launched in the late 1980s. But Najam coerced me to work at the paper, and so I began as a proofreader.

How did the column ‘Diary of a Social Butterfly’ begin?
Najam suggested I write a column; “Think of it as an essay,” he said. He edited everything I wrote and helped my hand along. The column was first called ‘By the Way’ and I wrote about rediscovering Lahore, conservation, and people’s issues, especially minorities and women. I’d talk about living in a joint family, family planning, what it was to be a young, single woman in Lahore – of course, all in a humorous way. The column became a confessional, and soon, my life became public property. That bothered me, so I decided to stop it. But Najam said I’d disappoint readers, and asked me to replace it with something better. And so Butterfly, the character, was born.

How’d the column become a book?
In 2007, I attended the Jaipur Lit Fest, with the likes of Kamila Shamsie. That’s when I realised how interested people were in Pakistani literature. One editor said she’d been reading my column and wanted to publish it. But I wanted to give it some thought. I finally had offers from three publishers, and I went for Chiki Sarkar of Random House because she correctly understood this wasn’t chick-lit but rather social satire. She is also very passionate about the books she publishes, which impressed me.

I feel bad about Butterfly’s relationship with her husband in the book. They don’t seem happy…
Well, in Pakistan earlier, marriages were not about love or friendship. Even so-called “love marriages” were about the man liking the way a woman ‘looked’ and her giving in to his proposal. My case was different. I fell in love with a fellow student and married him. That too very late in life at the age of 32. Acquaintances would ask me, “Don’t you want to get married or what?” just like that – there is no sense of privacy in our culture.

Then what about attitudes towards divorce?
Let me tell you a story. A friend of mine sent us all emails and SMSs to say that she and her husband were parting ways and that she would appreciate if none of us probed or asked her about it as they wanted to keep it personal and not rake up garbage. At the next get-together, one of our mutual friends came in all mourning, “I am so miserable to hear of your divorce!” et cetera, but my friend cut her off saying, “Please, I request you not to talk about that.” The garrulous matron immediately changed tracks, saying, “Oh no, I have not come here to rub salt on your wounds, you are my life (jaan).” And they changed the topic. A while later, the guest said, “I have just one question to ask you, jaan; you are my best friend, aren’t you? Wouldn’t you just answer that one question?” My friend sighed and said, “Yes, go ahead.” And the woman immediately asked, “What happened exactly?”

There’s a sense of Pakistan becoming more and more conflicted over time. Being a political writer, how do you see the situation?
The media only reports one side of the situation; the reader only sees the conflicts and anarchy and religious intolerance. But there is another side of Pakistan you don’t see. You don’t see how a village school teacher opened up a school in her own home, and how girl students from villages far and wide came to attend it because their girls’ school was shut down by Islamists. You don’t hear stories of how people like my father run charitable schools for 2500 girl children, as a deliberate stance against the anarchists. The Mullahs and religious leaders know that they can’t come to power through popular vote and that’s why they use violence and threats. But people do what they can to move on, despite the subjugation.

You are a working mom of two. How do you manage work-life balance?
Well, I usually work from home, so that’s good for the kids (my daughter Laila is 12, son Faiz is 9). But it can also be bad for my writing because I am so distracted. For my latest book Tender Hooks, my husband suggested I take up a little space in his office, which I did. That’s how I managed to finish the book in four straight months. If I had been writing from home, this book would have never got done. And now I’m here in India for its release; it’s a 10-day trip which is the longest time I’ve been away from my kids. My sister-in-law is babysitting them in London in my absence.

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