Published on Chowk.com on March 2nd 2011
How you meet a book is important. I was in a leading Karachi bookstore browsing the new books session when an attendant stacked new plastic clad books of Moni Mohsin’s Tender Hooks. I was reading Faiz Ahmed Faiz at the time, a relevant reading since Governor Salman Taseer’s murder. I picked Tender Hooks and judging from its cover, decided it was a teen romance and fashion blend. I turned to a random page and read more, only to confirm my suspicion: Socialites obsessed with status and a fake sense of prestige. Someone wanted to get someone married. How can there be a book on that?
When I returned home to Lahore a week later than I planned to because PIA workers were on strike, I received in the mail a review copy from Random House India. This wasn’t a sign, but I did push myself to read the first page, and that was enough.
I couldn’t put the book down. Once you get over the malapropism of the social butterfly on whom the book is based, you begin to notice her intelligently juxtaposed musings with the terror filled mismanaged state of Pakistan. A parallel universe is attempted by the life of a character one grows to disregard and yet eventually love, but this universe clashes with the stark reality of living in Pakistan. Ms. Mohsin makes you realize living in Pakistan is nothing short of good art.
Characters are multi dimensional and diverse, and not everyone possesses the shallow world view of the narrator. The nuances and astute observations that appear as taglines to every chapter are deeply political. Underneath the social chatter of a branded shoes and bags, designer saris from India and Bollywood morality there remains a sense of the economics that operate in Pakistan.
Moni Mohsin’s prose is refreshingly new, unshackled by the traditional high culture English and hence better able to convey the absurdities of an elitist society. A glimpse into a world that is not only judgmental but also realistic in terms of its classism – The servants are depended on yet opportunist and scavengers by nature, the elite are dependable and consistent and as the narrator sees it , the only respectable class – often referred to as “good background.” The middle class, growing steadily in Pakistan, is voiceless in the book until the last few pages are turned.
Nothing works to put the perks of these classes to the forefront like weddings do. The pursuit of which starts with the character of Aunty Pussy. She is matriarch despite her name, who makes the protagonist swear on her child to get her thirty-something son married off before the fast approaching holy month of Muharrum. The terrain of searching for a suitable girl in Lahore is nothing less than running a path of broken glass barefoot – especially for the groom- to-be who is helpless and without opinion – having lost his right to choose his wife after a failed fling with a woman of questionable “background.”
The most refreshing thing about Ms. Mohsin’s novel is that it paints Lahore as a city that is interesting, a city in transition, adapting to the fear of suicide bombers, but also to an increasing gay community, independent and liberated girls and growing drugs and party culture. The city’s pendulum swings between the hypocrisy of the religious right wing, new rich and corrupt and the straight talking social drinkers that form a landholding elite educated at the West’s most prestigious institutes.
Both groups, Ms. Mohsin identifies are highly superstitious, afraid of the evil eye that their wealth and prosperity draws, warding it by either offering food at the altar primitively and by overt religiosity and rituals. Both come a full circle – as similar to each other as different. As they act out in fear they commit the most ironic compulsions.
It is possible to miss out on the Marx perspective all together, but what is left then is an excellent read, a book guaranteed to get you to laugh out loud at least thrice, and characters you think about long after – Tender Hooks lingers.