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The Voice in the Diary: Moni Mohsin’s Butterfly Diaries

Rizia Begum Laskar


Moni Mohsin’s Butterfly Diaries (2008, 2011, 2014) present the character of Butterfly who is immersed in her own luxurious world with hardly a thought about the actual world in which sweeping social and political changes are taking place. Her lopsided, privileged view of the world is balanced by the voice of her husband Janoo who represents the voice of sanity. Yet Butterfly’s vantage point also allows for sporadic self-retrospection and analysis, and these are moments of surprise not only for the reader but also for her immediate family members. This paper argues that Butterfly’s voice which finds itself portrayed through the diary in the series is an insistent one which despite glossing over certain things still allows her to position herself in the changing society. It is this voice which can be posited as the voice of new Pakistan.

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1Moni Mohsin’s The End of Innocence (2006) begins and ends in 2001 but primarily depicts events set in the past, in 1971. Both years are significant in Pakistani history, in defining Pakistan as a nation and a reconfiguration of the concept of nation within the national and international arena. The overarching plot structure of the novel deals with the relationship between Rani, a 15-year-old girl belonging to the lower class of society, and Laila, a child belonging to the upper classes of society. The division of East Pakistan and West Pakistan into Bangladesh and Pakistan respectively forms the background to Rani’s murder because of her illicit pregnancy at the hands of Mashooq, her stepfather, and Mashooq’s later acquittal as her murder was considered an honour killing. Laila’s role in the novel is one who remains in the margins in the unfurling of this tragedy but eventually loses her innocence considering the overall decay of society and the nation. The bleak scenario that Mohsin paints in the work is completely subsumed in her other substantial work which is, coincidentally, again set in 2001. Diary of a Social Butterfly (2008) starts in January 2001 as a series of diary entries and spans some of the most turbulent years in Pakistani history, ending in January 2008. The disparity between the two works is reflected not only in the tone but also more importantly in the context in which the latter work is set. The upwardly mobile character of Butterfly belongs to the same privileged social class as Laila, although it is her husband rather than her father who belongs to the landed gentry, which is the case of Laila’s father Tariq. However Butterfly’s character is scripted in completely different times in the history of Pakistan as a nation, with changes in its social and economic structures, although politically the nation still remains volatile. The silencing of Rani and the marginalization of Laila in a patriarchal and overtly religious society is in stark contrast to the world of Butterfly: she is vociferous to the extent of being ludicrous. At the same time, Mohsin uses the format of diary writing to give space to a female voice often denied within a patriarchal setup. This article analyses Mohsin’s Butterfly diary series to locate the freedom provided for a woman’s voice to be heard and interrogates the format of diary writing within the perspectives of Pakistani society.

The World of Butterfly

2The Butterfly series consists of three works: The Diary of a Social Butterfly (2008; hereafter referred as DSB), Tender Hooks (2011; hereafter referred as TH) and The Return of the Butterfly (2014; hereafter referred as RB). The first book in the series was actually a column in the newspaper The Friday Times which was later published in a book form. The other two books were conceptualised in book form. The world of Butterfly is populated by Butterfly, an upper-class socialite, her husband Janoo, an Oxford graduate conscious of the social and political malady of Pakistan and desirous for change, and their son Kulchoo who shares the same sentiments as his father. Along with these characters are a host of other characters including Butterfly’s immediate family, her friends and her in-laws whom she detests. The urbane life of Butterfly is one long string of party-hopping and designer clothes along with summer holidays in the UK or the USA. It is also a world of one-upmanship in the struggle to acquire the latest fashion or to be seen in the most happening dos in the city. Butterfly represents the extremely shallow upper-class socialites whose concerns remain restricted within the social bubbles of their luxurious lives. The first work, The Diary of a Social Butterfly, is a loosely structured record of Butterfly’s life from January 2001 until Benazir Bhutto’s assassination in January 2008. Each entry in her diary is headed by references to two important events – one of national or international importance, and one referring to her own social circle. The first entry is headlined: “Taliban threatens to destroy all statues/ Floozie runs off with her best friend’s husband” (DSB 1). The apparent incongruity of the headline notwithstanding, the diary entry clinically refuses to engage with anything regarding the Taliban but focuses more on the elopement. Read in conjunction with Rani’s pregnancy in The End of Innocence and the rise of Taliban, such a situation would have actually entailed harsh consequences for her friend Floozie. However, Butterfly renders the situation hilarious with her description of the “decrepid” [sic] (DSB 1) husbands and her ultimate realisation that in this world one cannot trust anyone else than one’s plastic surgeon and darzi (tailor). The diary entries progress in a similar manner with skirmishes between Butterfly and her husband on basic ideological differences forming the basis of many entries. With her signature flair to just ignore events, Butterfly flits from one party to another get together, and, in the midst of it, Pakistan faces the heat of international pressure after 9/11, teeters on the brink of a nuclear war with India, experiences one of the worst earthquakes in the history of the nation, and confronts a steady growth of Islamic fundamentalism. Interestingly, all these events along with others of significance find a place in her diary headlines but, except for a handful, most never find any more attention in her life. The only thing that puts a halt on her fluttering life is the assassination of Benazir Bhutto in January 2008 which ends the first diary.

3Butterfly returns in Tender Hooks. Here the time period is much shorter, comprising roughly three months from 27 September 2009 to 18 December 2009. The plot structure is more tightly knit with the main plot focusing on finding a bride for Butterfly’s cousin Jonkers. Jonkers, also known as Jehangir, is twice divorced, and the onus of finding a bride who matches his “bagground” [sic] (TH 19) falls upon Butterfly. The diary format has undergone an interesting and positive development: the headlines of Butterfly’s entries no longer refer to her personal problems and tribulations. They are absolutely about the situations prevalent in a national or international level, and some of them have a bearing on Butterfly’s own daily events. At the same time, Butterfly develops a more humane outlook towards marriage and its importance even in her glittering world leading to the more toned-down wedding of her cousin Jonkers.

4The third book in the series, The Return of the Butterfly, is problematic in terms of time frame: it returns to January 2008 as its starting point and continues up to December 2013. Like the first book, here too the headline entries of Butterfly’s diary mix social and political events with events from her personal life. The changes in Butterfly’s character are more profound here than in any of the other works as she develops a better relationship with Janoo, along with an interest in politics. Her tastes in soap operas and movies also improve, but. more importantly. Butterfly faces the same problems as other commoners. The more the country deteriorates the better Butterfly’s character develops along with her rootedness to the country.

Satire and Tragedy

5M.H. Abrams defines satire as the “literary art of diminishing or derogating a subject by making it ridiculous and evoking toward it attitudes of amusement, contempt, scorn or indignation” (Abrams 2005: 284). Conal Condren (2012), in a detailed study of the definition of satire, finds it difficult to put forward an exact definition which fits all criteria. However, he does highlight a definite characteristic of satire that in some sense alludes to Abram’s definition: censoriousness. Despite the connection between censoriousness and satire not being completely straightforward, Condren says that satirists have conventionally asserted moral seriousness as one of the more specific features of satire which even overrides the exposition of humour (Condren 2012: 391). This moral seriousness again stems from a genuine understanding of the complexity and often the hopelessness of the situation that the satire addresses, which is why Northrop Frye famously contends that the “satire at its most concentrated […] is tragedy robbed of all its dignity”(Frye 1994: 86). Satire as a genre, despite its overt comic implications, has a deeper connection with tragedy in its ability to highlight the absurdity of human existence in the face of the horrors of the world. Ihab Hassan (1964) argues that satire and also irony serve a few of the purposes of classical tragedy in the present world where authentic tragedy is out of place. The farce of the present scenario “shocks and shames us into ironic laughter” (Hassan 1964: 638). Hayden White posits the view that satire arose out of the necessity to direct human understanding towards the fact that the attempt by other genres of literature to provide resolution are inadequate given the chaotic situation of the world. Satire emerged out of the awareness of humanity in general, and literature in particular, of the tiredness and exhaustion of a “world (that) has grown old” (White 2014: 10), a world incapable of making sense in itself.

6Salman Rushdie’s Shame(first published in 1983), set in turbulent Pakistan, uses this same concept of tragedy to satirise the epic nature of the trials and tribulations of a fledgling nation. Rushdie thus says:

And it seemed to me that what one should do is to write a story which in its shape is tragic, because there’s no doubt that what is happening in Pakistan is a tragedy, it’s a tragedy on a national scale. So it was correct to write a story whose form was tragic, but then to write it with all the language of comedy and farce you could muster, because that was what the people merited, and that would be the way of creating a description of the world as it really was. (Rushdie 1985: 15)

7This concept of satire being used to reflect upon tragedy is reiterated by Lisa Colletta in the context of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. Colletta says that Woolf’s use of humour does not give rise to “deep laughter” but rather a wince at the irony of the situation because “the ironies touch upon things of such penetrating humanness that one laughs at the quirky twists of humanity while being at the same time aware of sadness, tragedy, or great seriousness” (Colletta 2003: 54). While Woolf in her fiction contemplated the tragedy of World War I along with a questioning of the core values of Western culture, Mohsin questions, more in the lines of Rushdie, the apparent farce that Pakistan as a nation is experiencing and the shamelessness of people like Butterfly unwilling to take responsibility for their actions (Knight 2004: 113). The author’s satire is directed at the narrator as part of a particular apathetic societal group while at the same time displaying an understanding of the wrongs in Pakistani society and nation at large. On the other hand, the narrator, in retaliation, directs her own guileless satire against a world which hardly makes sense in a post-9/11 scenario.

Satire, Apathy and Diaries

8Dorothy Parker, a famous satirist of her time, used the genre of diary writing to portray the monologue of a society lady during the Great Depression of the 1930s in “From the Diary of a New York Lady” (1933). The unnamed lady who writes her diary chronicles a week in her busy social life amidst the turmoil of her personal life. Her personal life is also very much a reflection of her social life and many upheavals occur within just one week. The absolute dissociation of the lady from the stark reality of the despair of the working class during the Great Depression is what cuts off the reader’s sympathy for the society lady. Despite her gripe against the injustices that she faces in her personal or social life, the author directs the sympathy of the reader at the cost of the narrator. The very fact that the lady diarist does not reflect on the horror of the times she is living not only highlights the disparity between social classes but also cuttingly emphasises the desperate situation. The lady therefore becomes a caricature of everything that is wrong in New York during the Great Depression. Mohsin uses a similar technique in her Butterfly Diaries series where the unnamed narrator (despite the series being named the Butterfly series, the actual name of the narrator is never mentioned anywhere and the term Butterfly is rather used to depict someone who flits around parties) engages in a monologue to make the reader aware of her high society problems that make life so difficult for her in spite of, or rather because of, the huge political changes in international relationships amongst countries, and especially Pakistan, and the rest of the world. In Parker, her anger against the world in general has made her create a world where her anger is not just “against a philistine world that closes its eyes to freshness and joy, but loathing for the inhabitants of that world” (Janeway 1970: 31). This anger is reflective of Rushdie’s concept of shamelessness and the utter apathy of a class of people. The absurd scenario effectively satirises and reflects on the tragedy of life during the Great Depression.

9Mohsin also makes use of satire as an efficient tool to direct the attention of the readers towards the malady of society through a character who categorically refuses to engage with the same problems. While Mohsin’s Butterfly Diaries are obvious social and political satires which go beyond their initial scope as a column in a newspaper to uphold the chaos in Pakistani society, they can more importantly be read as the conscience of a nation on the verge of social change. Though the character of Butterfly remains unabashedly herself throughout the series and what changes in the process is the society around her, the nation as a whole does affect her in significant ways. Mohsin’s satiric representation of Pakistani society through the form of diary writing is an attempt to highlight the tragedy of a nation riddled with problems and the apathy of people like Butterfly unwilling to change according to circumstances. The Butterfly Diaries therefore present a microcosm of a society and a nation caught between the diverse ideologies of the likes of Janoo, Kulchu, and Jonkers, and Butterfly’s circle of family and friends. While Butterfly’s upwardly mobile social class and her idiosyncrasies represent the apathy of societal figures who have the capacity to bring about change, Janoo and other characters like him represent the other part of the nation who are quietly engaged in changing it. Mohsin’s work therefore reflects on a fast changing social and political scenario where the diary acts as the monologue of the nation and voices the unsaid which can only be voiced within the pages of the diary. The very act of writing the diary is an act of chronicling the mundane and the frivolous nature of daily lives in a nation where the lower classes are only seen but never heard. The diary therefore is a record-keeper of Pakistani society and the dated entries in the diary are also a record of the direction in which the nation is progressing. The conjoining of the events of national or international importance with the frivolous events of Butterfly’s life in the diary headlines is a means through which Mohsin correlates the humdrum of daily existence with the newspaper headlines. Life as it is lived on a daily basis is not necessarily connected to media sensationalism and while Mohsin does emphasise that the headlines events have an impact on the ordinary lives of people, it is also true that a large number of people are hardly affected more than by momentary dismay. It is when the public events affect the private sphere that private citizens decide for change and therefore the Butterfly Diaries series acts as a medium where the private and the public intermingle.

Writing the Diary

10A diary in itself is personal in nature and meant for the perusal of the person writing it. However, there are various instances in literary history of famous diaries being published where the life of the chronicler is held for public view. In fact, until the 19thcentury, diary writing, especially for women, was in many ways a collaborative process meant for the public eye as a means for collective understanding and analysis of individual lives (Culley 1989; Huff 1989; Bunkers 1990). It was only the mid-19thcentury Romantic emphasis on the self that gave rise to the concept of diary writing as a private experience and an opportunity for self-analysis (Gannett 1992: 141). The notion of writing for the private experience is debunked by Butterfly at the very beginning of the series when she addresses the implied readers of her diary by asking them how come they do not know about her. Accepting grudgingly that they might not know about her, she embarks on a long description of herself, her family members and her friends. The introduction not only sets the tone for the rest of the diary but also makes the reader aware that here is a diary writer who writes for the public eye and whatever she describes is meant for public approval rather than criticism. This self-congratulatory tone along with her flair for malapropisms presents before the reader a figure who is very comfortable, even proud, in being herself.

11Mohsin also pokes fun at the concept of writing, reflecting on the Self, caught amidst the patriarchal setup of Pakistani society. The book that Butterfly thinks she will write is to be named My Urban Fraud, a pun on the internationally acclaimed My Feudal Lord (first published in 1991) by Tehmina Durrani. Durrani’s work is a stark mirror of the ways in which the social, political, and patriarchal are enmeshed in a society which is still feudal in many ways. While Durrani is a victim of circumstances and often indulges in self-pity and self-loathing but remains fundamentally compliant, Mohsin’s sly take on Durrani’s work reflects Butterfly’s refusal to be a victim and to take her destiny in her own hands despite societal disapproval. At the same time, Mohsin portrays Butterfly attempting to take up writing seriously and thus she takes advice from a friend of her mother’s who is a writer. The writer friend gives her advice by telling her, “Write about something you know” (DSB 17). Butterfly takes this advice to heart as she feels that her mother’s friend thinks she knows nothing, but she does know many things, including the underbelly of sophisticated, high society, only she is “too khandani to say” (i.e. well bred) (DSB 17). Butterfly therefore, in her own way, divulges what she knows not in the form of a book but in the form of a diary where she records her innermost thoughts about everything and everyone in her immediate society.

12Butterfly’s endeavour to write brings forth some important questions regarding writing and, more importantly, diary writing. Firstly, what function does the category of fictional diary serve in the overall concept of satire that Mohsin uses in her works? Does the genre of fictional diary allow the ordinary self to be revealed? Despite the apparent ‘real´ nature of her diaries, the diaries are fictional in nature and fall within the genre of novels rather than non-fictional diaries. Secondly, one can wonder whether diary writing is an essentially feminine genre which allows space for the woman to speak, whether it provides a space which is otherwise denied to her. Thirdly, and most importantly, whether the ‘self’ created through the use of language in the diary is a socially constructed one or an individual entity not necessarily connected to society.

The Fictional and the Real

13One of the primary distinguishing qualities between a diary and a fictional diary or novel written in the form of a diary is the author’s ability to control the narrative and mould it in the fictional form. Valerie Raoul, speaking in the context of Sartre’s La Nausée (1938) says that an actual personal diary begins in medias res. While the doubts and conflicts (the ‘representations’) that the diarist goes through while writing

are unconscious and in conflict with the purpose of the text (sincerity, authenticity, self-knowledge), in a fictional diary (the representation of a representation) the double negation produces an affirmative, the self-conscious mimesis of a process reveals its structure and mechanisms. (Roul 1983: 704)

14Lorna Martens (1985) argues along the same lines that real diaries record events from daily life while fictional diaries have a general plot in place which the author develops through the use of various literary techniques. Another important characteristic of the fictional diary is the concept of the mirror, a recurrent motif in the fictional diary genre. The mirror acts as the image of the self and is “symptomatic of the attempt at self-exteriorization and self-contemplation in the diary” (Raoul 1983: 704). Similarly, H. Porter Abbott argues that one of the primary objectives of the diarist in fictional diaries is to find reflection within the diary. The subject of the diary becomes the object of scrutiny and the technique used is the mundane mirror in the room of the diarist. Abbott goes on to point out that this attention to the mirror remains the primary difference between the fictional diary and 19th-century diaries where the diarist is mostly confined to the room. The diarist in the fictional format is directed by the author to look into the mirror at least once throughout the narrative (Abbott 1984: 18).

15In the context of the Butterfly Diaries, the concept of a structure imposed by the author does not exist for the first book. It only appears through the sense of events in the life of Butterfly suggested by the headline in each of her entry which highlight an international or national problem. As mentioned earlier, the novel was originally conceived of as a newspaper column, which corresponds to the loose structure of an actual diary. The second book has a more focussed plot construction, but the third book returns to the informal structure of the first book, with unrelated entries describing sundry events of her life. Thus, Mohsin’s works do not exactly fall into the characterisation of a fictional diary. They also do not follow the definition of a fictional diary by Lorna Martens: “a fictional prose narrative written from day to day by a single first-person narrator who does not address himself to a fictive addressee or recipient” (Martens 1985: 4). Butterfly does away with this definition at the very beginning by asking the implied reader if they have heard about her and if not why? She very much assumes a fictitious reader through such self-aggrandisement. Lastly, the mirror motif is missing in the three works. Instead, the mirror appears in Mohsin’s constant use of satire to reflect on the tragedy of the country and for Butterfly to reflect on herself and society. Instead of the tangible physical object of the mirror, satire is the mirror that Mohsin uses to reflect on the follies, foibles and idiosyncrasies of the world. Butterfly’s diaries are therefore in many ways the product of an ordinary person reflecting on the circumstances that she finds herself in. Thus, both the author’s and the narrator’s satire are means of reflection of an ordinary self.

The “Ordinary” Writing the Diary

16Philippe Lejeune delves into the question of ordinary people writing diaries and their importance in society. He points out that the ordinariness of a text is transformed through the act of publishing and, more importantly, that the originality of a diary or journal is somewhat lost in the act of publishing as it is nearly impossible to publish such works unedited. Lejeune did publish ordinary diaries, but the question remains for unpublished diaries. As exemplified earlier with Butterfly, the authorial stance through the narrator implies in the introduction that the diaries have been published as there is an implied reader. However, the implied reader is the reader of a fictionalised account of diary writing rather than ‘real’ diaries written by ‘real’ people. On the other hand, despite their publication is there anything in the diaries which make them important enough to be read by the implied reader? Butterfly, by her very ordinariness, her social status notwithstanding, is actually a representative, an Everyman, of the Pakistani society that she both criticises and indulges in. Her reflection on the condition of Pakistan is also a reflection of the common man even if the rose-tinted glass of Butterfly glosses over many social evils.

17On hindsight, however, this attempt to gloss over circumstances and people who are unpleasant for her does highlight the ability of a society or a nation to turn a blind eye and remain self-satisfied within cocoons of luxury houses, cars, and foreign holidays. Butterfly’s complete disassociation with the real world, except when it hurts her own lifestyle, is emphasised in her reaction to the Twin Towers being demolished on 9/11. She was planning a trip to New York and the timing could not have been worse. She has no problem with the destruction of the Twin Towers but is miffed by the awkward timing. Her anguish is reflected in her retort to her husband who has been glued to the TV since the event, “Kya tha if they’d waited for another two weeks? Main ho hi aati New York” (DSB27). While her husband represents the majority of the population of the world who has been driven to a frenzy by the event, Butterfly represents the select few whose life is hardly affected by such events of international importance. At the same time, she muses about the possibilities of who else might have been involved other than Al-Qaeda and her thoughts reflect many of the conspiracy theories at the time claiming George W. Bush and Mossad, the Israeli Intelligence Agency, were responsible. She is clever enough to realise the implications of the attack on a Muslim country like Pakistan with close ties to Afghanistan, and her diary entry which discusses the attack the most highlights that she is not totally immune to circumstances of such powerful implications on the world. However, Butterfly’s initial response to the crisis which has directly affected her travel plans to New York also reflects on the common man’s reaction to situations and circumstances beyond the control of ordinary human beings. Neither her husband’s uninterrupted viewing of TV nor her insensitive reaction is going to change the situation. Mohsin’s ability lies in directing the reader’s attention to the fact that, in society, the male interest and reaction to political situation is prioritised while the female interest in fashion or other such things are considered banal in nature. Butterfly’s own unique take on circumstances, despite her ‘ordinary’ stature, is reminiscent of Nirad Chaudhuri’s The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian (1964). The autobiography charts the life of an unknown Indian, a very ordinary person like Chaudhuri and his take on the sweeping changes in India, and particularly in Bengal, during his lifetime. Chaudhuri is able to look at the social, political, and economic changes in Bengal from the perspective of a common man and how these changes affect his own life. It was a very turbulent period in Indian history and Chaudhuri successfully merges the personal and the political in erudite English to posit his own take on history. In the process, Chaudhuri charts his individual growth from a small village in Bengal to the man of the world that he later became because he felt that it was important to understand history from an intellectual standpoint rather than only the political implications of it. Chaudhuri’s attempt therefore answers Lejeune’s question regarding the necessity to write one’s life history in autobiography or in diaries. Lejeune asks, “Does one write out of a situation of need or crisis, out of a situation of well being? And does writing lead to a deterioration, or to an improvement, or perhaps something in between these two, of the writer’s existential situation?” (Lejeune 2009: 36).

18Why does Butterfly write in her diary? She writes because it is her prerogative to voice her opinions. Unlike Chaudhuri who takes an intellectual point of view, Butterfly brings to the fore the inane, the mundane and the ordinary who also have a stake on history in the process of its making. While Chaudhuri’s intellectual outlook can be one way of looking at present history, Butterfly’s diametrically opposite standpoint verging on the ludicrous is also another way of looking at things which themselves are incongruous, particularly because of their ludicrous nature. What is more, her outlook changes as she progresses in the process of diary writing. While in the first book she records her obtuseness to the destruction of the Twin Towers and her free association with the conspiracy theories, in the third book she categorically refuses to look at Islamic terrorism as only the fruit of a Western conspiracy. When one of her friends suggests that America is behind one of the recent bombings, her biting sarcasm comes to the fore when she asks if the bombers were blonde and blue-eyed. The diary where she records such interactions and musings thereby becomes also a repository of the change that Pakistan, as a nation, and particularly the likes of Butterfly are experiencing. The second book also brings about a social change in Butterfly as on Janoo’s suggestion she decides to leave aside her obsession with background and rather search for a girl who is mutually compatible with Jonkers. The small but considerable changes in Butterfly’s character is reflective of the fact that through her, or rather because of people like her, there is a possibility of change.

A Space to Speak

19The reason why Mohsin chose the form of diary writing rather than something more self-obsessed like the fictional autobiography for her character remains an open question. Is it because diary writing is an intrinsically feminine form of writing in which Mohsin is able to lend a voice to Butterfly? Rebecca Hogan elaborates on diary writing as a feminine form in “Engendered autobiographies: The diary as a feminine form” (1991). Hogan writes that the attention to details in the diaries written by women makes it a feminine form of writing if details are considered to be feminine. At the same time, she posits the same question regarding the choice of diary writing over autobiographical writing asked here with respect to Butterfly. Hogan contends that women write diaries while men write autobiographies. For the feminine figure who is secluded from the public sphere and finds expression only within the confines of home, diaries provide a space to be oneself, away from the prying eyes of society. In such forms of diary writing, the diary is a private artefact not meant for public consumption. Having posited that diary writing is in many ways essentially feminine in nature, Hogan analyses the apparent loose structure of diaries and the disparate nature of entries in diaries: the discontinuity between events recorded in diaries stems from the fact that the diarist treats small or big events, events which are recorded as they occur to the memory. In such a perspective, diaries “are not so much inclusive because they contain everything from a given day, as they are inclusive in the sense that they do not privilege ‘amazing’ over ‘ordinary’ events, in terms of scope, space, or selection” (Hogan 1991: 103). This explanation makes Butterfly’s apparent mixing of the events of national or international importance along with her own petty incidents of life an illustration of the way in which women write diaries. There is nothing inherently wrong in her doing so, as she is describing events in a manner which she deems to be important. While the reader might not agree with her viewpoint, her description prioritises events which she feels affects her life more than others. The disassociation that Butterfly brings about between her own self-centred world and the outside world is positioned at the core of diary writing.

20Moreover, despite her social standing and perceptible freedom, her individual voice can be heard only within the confines of the diary, and it is the narratorial voice which displays her stance in society. The authorial stance is one of caricature and this dichotomy between the authorial voice and the narratorial voice runs throughout the series. Having said that, the objective here is not to project Butterfly as a victim but rather a product of the society in which she lives. The Pakistan inhabited by her is still very much a patriarchal nation, and the likes of Janoo are an aberration rather than a commonality. Her disregard for things which do not matter to her is symptomatic of the society in which she has been moulded and at the same time it is the same society which inhibits her in many ways. The diary therefore provides her a space for her to be her blatant self without the possibility of societal censure. Sara Suleri’s Meatless Days(1989) does in fact highlight that Pakistan was “a place where the concept of woman was not really part of the available vocabulary” (1). In a society where women do not find representation within the established male-dominated language, they can only seek recourse to a private activity like writing a diary to find a voice. It needs to be reiterated here that neither the author nor Butterfly herself present her as a victim, but the circumstances that prevail compel even women like Butterfly to exert their voices. These voices can be heard within the private domains of diaries but they at least go against “received stereotypical image of Asian women upheld generally by the rest of the world as passive, impoverished or anaemic” (Kumar and Lal 2009: xxiii).

The Self in the Diary

21This brings us to another important question regarding the necessity of writing diaries and the outcome of it. Who is the self that evolves through the process of writing: is it just a disjointed process with no end in sight? Who is it that we find in the Butterfly Diaries? An evolved individual or a Self represented through the use of language, in this case a particular usage of malapropism? The reader gets to know Butterfly and her world through her diaries, a written expression of herself in which the usage of language plays a crucial role. Is Butterfly then only an individual who expresses herself through her idiosyncratic mannerisms, notably her language, or is she part of the larger community of individuals who determine how she acts and speaks?

22Butterfly describes herself through a plurality of existence. She is a Lahori without a landed background but her marriage has positioned her as one. Her social status is that of “the khandani, khaata-peeta types”( well-bred and wealthy) but she is also convent-educated. She is “very sophisty, smart and socialist” and then she goes on to define the community to which she belongs which includes her husband and son, her in-laws, her mother, aunts and uncles. It is this community which determines how she speaks and what she says. Butterfly therefore, through the course of the three books, speaks first with conviction regarding her own immersion in her exclusive bubble but gradually, as the community from which she draws inspiration from changes, her speech act also changes. She goes to a rally against religious fundamentalism and says:

(T)he fundos are not prepared to live and let us live. They tau are control freaks, yaar. Like class monitors they want to tell us when we can talk and when we can’t […] Today they are saying that I can’t wear sleeveless and must wear dupatta on my head. Tomorrow they will say I must wear chaadar. The day after that I must cover my face […] Then they will say I can’t go in mixed company. (DSB199)

23Just before the wedding of her cousin Jonkers, Butterfly again reflects on the situation of Pakistan and her own uncertainty in the comfortable bubble that she usually finds herself in. She says, “Between you, me, and the four walls, I was a little bit edgy about the security. More bombs burst last week. One in DG Khan that killed twenty-four. Another in Peshawar that I don’t know killed how many. And more shootings in Karachi” (TH246).

24While the outside space denies her voice, the space within the confines of her home — where her voice was never denied — moulds her to reflect better on the usage of her voice. So far as actual language usage is concerned, her malapropisms and neologisms are a means to get back to the very world from which she has derived her literal language. Butterfly’s use of language is hilarious because her malapropisms make the reader attentive in anticipation of her distortions. In other words, the reader tries to not only decipher her distortions but also anticipates her distortion of words of perfectly meaningful words which, in the process, lend them a completely new meaning. Examples include her mother-in-law having a “vagina attack” (DSB 12), “jump cues” (TH 8), “one of the most illegible girls” (TH 20), “self-defecating sense of humour” (RB 38). Malapropisms like these are used along with words in Urdu like “khaata-peeta”, “khandani” and colloquial words like “uff”, “hain”, “bhai”, “tau” etc. The colloquial words are peculiar to the Indian subcontinent and native speakers can immediately understand the context; a literal translation would make the diaries even stranger for a non-native speaker. Butterfly is oblivious to her infelicities and, through her, Mohsin satirises the linguistic idiosyncrasies of Pakistanis and even Indians where English words are liberally interspersed in daily speech but often are either wrongly pronounced or used. At the same time, English has become so much a part of the subcontinent’s diverse languages that Butterfly’s speech hardly seems surprising to the readers from India and Pakistan. Butterfly, therefore, appropriates the English language without hesitation. As postcolonial Pakistan is steeped in English but also indigenous languages like Urdu and Punjabi, this has an effect on how language is used. Mohsin’s and, through Mohsin’s, Butterfly’s seamless enmeshing of the English language with Punjabi and Urdu, requires a glossary for foreign readers and exhibits her comfort and confidence in using the languages she knows. Kamila Shamsie remarks that the work, “is so steeped in bilingual wordplay and untranslated Urdu expressions that it simply wouldn’t make sense to most anglophone audiences” (Shamsie 2010: 111).


25The attempt to read the Butterfly Diaries as satire as well as from the perspective of diary writing stems from the understanding that, consciously or unconsciously, Mohsin projects a new way of understanding Pakistan. The diary is a restrictive and personal space but it is also a space of freedom: the development of Butterfly is also the development of Pakistan. When Janoo suffers from clinical depression in RB, it is Butterfly who takes him to a psychiatrist and also cares and understands him during this period. Janoo’s depression, he who is a representative of the educated and conscious Pakistani, reflects on the predicament of this section of the population who feel hopeless in the face of the changes, particularly political, the country has undergone. The history of post-independence Pakistan has been mired in military coups and attacks at democratic forms of government. This remains one of the major differences between the twin nations of India and Pakistan born out of British colonialism. The rise of Islamic fundamentalism is another issue which has sucked Pakistan into a quagmire of depravity and violence. Janoo’s wholehearted opposition to such circumstances ultimately, within the framework of the diaries, remains inconsequential, as the narrative prioritises Butterfly’s apparent indifference along with a covert understanding of the underlying issues. Throughout the diaries, Butterfly refers again and again to the sweeping changes across the region despite them not affecting her personal life significantly. At the same time, this awareness is symptomatic of the fact that it is not so much ignorance but indifference which maligns Butterfly. However, the narratorial voice within the diaries does highlight that the ludicrous and the incongruous can be faced with an equally if not more preposterous voice. The voices of the likes of Janoo and Kulchoo are necessary because they steer Butterfly towards the path of reason, but her insistent voice within the pages of the diaries reflect that she is a Pakistani woman who refuses to be silenced. Despite her fondness for foreign fashion, she never harbours the intention of staying abroad permanently, which would strip her of her luxurious lifestyle. In TH, when she is attacked by a terrorist-looking fellow, Butterfly requests Janoo to move away to a safer place abroad, to which he replies that their move would make her miss what is their home. Without Pakistan they would be homeless. While Butterfly says that she hardly cares about it, Janoo insists that she would. This remains the most redemptive feature of Butterfly. She remains within the violent space and consistently raises her voice against Islamic fundamentalism and political excesses which often determine what women should wear, how they should behave, whether they should receive an education or not. Her voice might not be the voice heard in rallies and protests but it is a voice which insists and asks to be heard, and makes itself heard in an unapologetic manner. In the light of the recent Talibani takeover of Afghanistan and its implications on Pakistan, Butterfly’s insistent voice acquires even deeper significance. This forms the base of Naya Pakistan if there ever can be one.

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Electronic reference

Rizia Begum Laskar, The Voice in the Diary: Moni Mohsin’s Butterfly DiariesAngles [Online], 14 | 2022, Online since 01 April 2022, connection on 09 August 2022. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Rizia Begum Laskar

Rizia Begum Laskar is an Assistant Professor in the Department of English at Manohari Devi Kanoi Girls’ College in Dibrugarh, Assam, India. Her areas of interest include children’s literature, detective fiction, graphic fiction and comics studies. Her doctoral thesis was on the problem of defining and finding home in children’s literature. Contact: rizia.laskar [at]

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