Chatto & Windus, £12.99, 249pp. £11.69 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
Tender Hooks, By Moni Mohsin
Friday 22 July 2011
It is not just outside political observers who take a censorious view of Pakistan's suicide bombers. The protagonist of Moni Mohsin's social satire finds the "beardo weirdos" pretty irksome too, especially when they get in the way of a shopping trip or a lunch date in downtown Lahore. Her irritation sums up the spirit of Tender Hooks, which takes its spoilt, wealthy anti-heroine and blends her voice with the hard social realities of the nation.
The narrator is a woman born into privilege with a love of designer labels – a mix of Bridget Jones and Carrie Bradshaw, post-singledom - relating her life in diary form, from her "bore" husband to her errant maidservant, her Prada heels and the overblown wedding parties she attends with her cluster of rich friends.
The plot has a Bollywood flavour with its preoccupation with love, social status and marriage-fixing. "Aunt Pussy" enlists the narrator into finding an eligible second wife for her son, Jonkers, after his first runs off with the family jewellery and another man. They hit the wedding circuit for contenders with a good "bagground", coming up against rich lesbian daughters, "fundo" (fundamentalist) parents, and drug-smuggling "powder pasha" families.
Mohsin's previous book, The Diary of a Social Butterfly, also written in journal form, showcased her adroitness for satirising a woman of a certain social class who sees herself as worldly, not vapid. Here she offers a variation on that theme: "I'm off to Mulloo's coffee party... I'm wearing my new cream Prada shoes I got from Dubai... I'm looking just like Angelina Jolly. But like her healthier, just slightly older sister."
Western readers may not be familiar with the social archetypes Mohsin sends up, nor some of the in-jokes and the "Urdish" (Urdu/English patois), but the picture she paints is universally sharp and funny. The voice has an Ali G kind of charm, filled with bad grammar and a naïve stupidity that exposes her bigotry. This naivity enables Mohsin to refer to contentious aspect of Pakistani society with levity and irreverence.
The voice also reveals that alongside the incendiary Pakistan of headline infamy lies another Pakistan that is liberal, metropolitan, and utterly averse to religious fundamentalism. The narrator notes: "I feel frightened myself going to the bazaar in case some mad weirdo arrives and shoots me for buying western food like chips or for wearing western clothes like pop-socks." At another moment: "Look at them! The terrorists attacking the Head-Quarters of the army itself... Janoo says it serves the army right. They were the ones who brought the beardo-weirds up in the first place, arming them and training them".
While characterisation and wit are its strengths, the book falls short with a sentimentality that takes away from the bite of the satire. Jonker's surprise romance and the narrator's sudden, Damascene conversion from a superficial character to a soulful one is formulaic. Mohsin has been likened to a modern Jane Austen in India. While her humour is observant and hugely enjoyable, Austen, one suspects, would take no prisoners in the upper echelons of Mohsin's Lahore.
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