Moni Mohsin on how her new book explores Pakistan's volatile politics through social media's lenses
The author, known for using satire to slice open the discrepancies in society, uses the protagonist in her new book — The Impeccable Integrity of Ruby R — and her hero worship of an aspiring prime minister to expose the ugly underbelly of social media.
A hero with clay feet, an army of trolls and a nation to win over — The Impeccable Integrity of Ruby R is a novel whose time has arrived. Though the story unravels in Pakistan, it could easily be India or any other country, for that matter, in which politicians use social media as a toxic tool to intimidate and bully those who disagree.
The author, known for using satire to slice open the discrepancies in society, uses the protagonist Ruby and her hero worship of an aspiring prime minister to expose the ugly underbelly of social media. Bringing themes of abuse (both online and offline), predatory behaviour, murky politics and corruption together, the novel is a brisk and compelling read.
In an email interaction from London, the author speaks to Firstpost on the inspiration for the book and why writers should write about what they know.
What was the trigger for this book? How did the idea of a woman who handles a social media account of a political party germinate?
The idea for The Impeccable Integrity of Ruby R came to me while I was reading the story of Harvey Weinstein’s sexual misconduct in The New Yorker. How, I asked myself, would such a public, high profile scandal unfold in the subcontinent? Would it be reported? What would the fallout be? Where would it occur? As soon as I began thinking along those lines, Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky came to my mind. I knew then that my novel would take place in the high stakes, risky world of power politics. But what kind of job could bring a young, ambitious but inexperienced woman into daily contact with the older, more worldly hero? What sort of expertise could a naïve young woman like that have to offer? It could only be social media.
From the matriarch in The End of Innocence, Butterfly in your columns (which were later converted to books) to Ruby Rauf and Farah Mujahid in your current book, you equip your women with agency. For a society (in which your stories are set) which is inherently patriarchal, is it a conscious decision to show women as independent people with autonomy of their own?
I may have been born into a patriarchal society, but I was raised in a family where empowered, vocal, proactive women were the norm. Neither of my two grandmothers were pushovers. My nani brought up her five daughters to speak their minds and hold their ground. My mother did the same with me and my sister, and my aunts with their daughters. So, it did not require a great leap of the imagination on my part to write characters like Sardar Begum, Farah Mujahid and Ruby Rauf. I merely followed the advice given to writers: write what you know!
How closely inspired are the events and characters in your book from real life? Saif Haq — one of the major characters in the book — talking of change, seems to be a mirror image of Imran Khan...
Saif Haq is a concoction. Bill Clinton was the original inspiration, but then I added to the mix, a dash of (Donald) Trump (the reality TV background), a bit of Amitabh Bachchan (the movie superstar's past), a smattering of Boris Johnson (the rascally charm and smooth talking) and yes, a sprinkling of Imran Khan with his tall promises of overnight tabdeeli (change) and war on corruption, and honour-based politics.
At the heart of your book lies the inimical environment of social media and its inherent toxicity. Why then do you think we are addicted to it?
Social media makes everyone feel empowered. You can be a total non-entity in real life but on social media, you can inhabit an alternate world in which you are a Marvel-style Avenger imbued with superpowers that allow you to take down prominent people whom you’d either never meet or feel too overawed by to address. Also, it’s non-stop theatre. Someone somewhere is forever making a scene and if you’re not the one who’s being targeted, it’s fun to watch.
You’ve shown how exactly social media operates without any checks and balances, spewing unlimited hate via an army of online trolls. Political parties in Pakistan (and India and elsewhere) use this to great effect. What is our defence against this?
I’m afraid I don’t know. For myself, when I receive objectionable messages, I block the senders. I almost never get into online fights because frankly, I have neither the time nor the patience to engage with trolls. But if any long-term solution is to be found it has to come from the people who run these platforms.
The Pakistan you speak of in The End of Innocence, which came out in 2006, seems to mirror the country in your current book set in 2020. Have things remained static in all the time that has gone by?
The End of Innocence was published in 2006 but it was set in 1971. The Pakistan of that era has undergone a sea change. You would not have found confident, professional women like Ruby and Farah working in the worlds of media and politics in that Pakistan. Today, there are many more working women in prominent positions, (with) much greater social mobility, more education, lesser noblesse obliges. Of course, great inequities still exist, but generally people are better traveled, more exposed, more aware, more demanding.
“Big People eat little people and that’s how it is. That’s how it’s always been and that’s how it will be”, says Bilkees, from the book. You have always explored the theme of inequality through your work — why is that?
Because I see so much of it around me. The levels of inequality that exist in the subcontinent are grotesque. And I don’t think I’m alone among desi novelists in tackling this subject. Almost every serious writer from this region has engaged with the subjects of inequality and injustice in some form or to some degree.
The country you speak of in the book can easily be India, where any contrarian opinion is dismissed as being traitorous. Is this now a standard playbook for politics everywhere? What future do you foresee for the Asian subcontinent?
It is much the same in the UK. Back in 2016, when four judges ruled in a legal case that the UK government would need the consent of parliament to forge ahead with Brexit, The Daily Mail branded them ‘Enemies of the People’ in a front-page headline. In the US, we have seen pitched battles between heavily armed Proud Boys and Antifa groups on the streets of Washington, each of whom thinks the other is anti-American. In South Asia, we call our dissenters not just traitors but either Pakistani agents or Indian spies and are forever ordering them to ‘pack their bags and leave forthwith’ for the neighbouring country. I’m not a political pundit and so can’t tell you what the future holds for us but I do know that our fates are linked. Air pollution, COVID-19 and climate change have laid both our countries low, and even if we manage to get our entire population vaccinated against COVID, we still face huge challenges ahead. We can’t prosper if we spend our time squabbling amongst each other while our glaciers melt, our rivers dry up and our air grows ever more toxic.
Your last books have been satires, which have been well-received. This book is different both in its tone and tenor. How difficult is it to switch from one mode of writing to another?
I greatly enjoy writing the Butterfly diaries and having done so for many years, the Butterfly’s voice comes very easily to me. But with this book, I wanted to step out of my fictional comfort zone and address some of the issues that I can’t do with the Butterfly. That said, I still think this is satire, maybe not as affectionate but still astringently funny in parts. While I was writing Butterfly, I also continued working as a freelance journalist. I was writing regularly in my own voice on a variety of issues from the hangover of colonialism in the UK to the murder of Qandeel Baloch, Pakistan’s first social media star. So ‘switching’ to a more serious register was not particularly difficult. What remained hard were the usual challenges posed by a novel: character arc, structure, dialogue, etc.
Based in London, how do you view events unfolding in Naya Pakistan?
Naya Pakistan is depressingly similar to purana Pakistan. The old power brokers remain very much in place and Imran Khan’s cabinet doesn’t look much different from General Musharraf’s. I’ve lived in the UK for 25 years but I’m still umbilically attached to Pakistan, maintain a home in Lahore, and visit four or five times a year to see my family and attend to my various obligations there. Though I didn’t believe the tall promises made before the election, it still angers me to see just how cynical and empty the rhetoric of transformation was, and how ill served the people are by this government.
In a year which has been unlike anything we’ve seen, you see it end with the launch of a book. What was your year like, and did it affect your writing?
I finished writing Ruby R in 2019, and thank god for that! Though I’ve been extremely fortunate in that I’ve kept good health (so far) and unlike millions of people around the globe, have not had to worry about food and shelter. I’ve been far too distracted with all the mental and physical adjustments we’ve had to make during these last few weird months to think up and write a novel. Editing this one was hard enough!
What is Moni Mohsin upto next?
Moni Mohsin hopes to start another novel in the new year. It will be set in London and will chart the growth of an unlikely friendship between a desi memsaab and a gori memsaab, who both think the other one is culturally unhinged. And in collaboration with friend and critic, Faiza Khan, she is launching a podcast called Browned Off in which they tackle racism and laugh a lot at their own jokes! Do tune in.
You can follow the author on Twitter: @moni_butterfly; Instagram: @monimohsinofficial; Website: www.monimohsin.com
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