Last year, I emailed a Pakistani journalist whose work I have long admired but whom I have never met. I introduced myself and complimented him on a recent piece I’d enjoyed greatly. He wrote back to say that though we had never met he was familiar with my work. In fact, he’d presented my collected columns, The Diary of a Social Butterfly, to his Australian girlfriend by way of an introduction to Pakistani society. Their relationship had ended soon after. He was too polite to say whether the book had contributed to their breakup.
In the 20-odd years that I’ve been writing the aforementioned column I have received a multitude of delightful responses from my readers. A reader emailed from Canada to say she had enjoyed my book so much that she had made 10 photocopies and distributed them among all her close desi friends in Toronto. (Luckily, she had only 10 close desi friends.) Another dedicated reader wrote to say that while he had found my book funny, he was sorry to say he had noticed several spelling errors. ‘Sarajevo’, he pointed out, was not spelt ‘Sara Yeh Voh’ and it was ‘business magnates’ not ‘business magnets’. He hoped in future I would be more vigilant.
Two decades, you will accept, is a long time in column years. One of the reasons I have continued to write The Diary of a Social Butterfly is the unalloyed pleasure of communication, which I suppose is why any writer puts pen to paper in the first place. In addition, I have genuinely enjoyed writing it for reasons concerning the nature of the column itself: linked to events in real time, it has an immediacy that I relish; its idiosyncratic language has alerted me to our linguistic inventiveness and stretched me creatively. And I have genuinely loved creating the cast of characters that people this crazy little world. Aunty Pussy, the Old Bag, Janoo, Mummy have become as close to me as my own family. Above all, there is a challenge to extracting humour from everyday situations, and pleasure in exposing hypocrisy and small-mindedness in self-serving, sanctimonious cant that I find hugely appealing.
That said, over the last few years it has become harder and harder to write my beloved column. Not because I am bored of the characters or language or format but because events have overtaken my creative faculties. I used to pride myself on my ability to write about a whole raft of serious topics — global warming, the credit crunch, gay rights, political corruption — without ever breaking character. I could write convincingly about all these things in the Butterfly’s ditzy patter and still make my point.
But just over a year ago I had to write the column in a week when an appalling event had taken place in Pakistan. A crazed mob had burnt alive a young Christian couple accused of committing blasphemy. In front of the terrified gaze of their small children. I couldn’t ignore the atrocity without seeming callous but how was I to write about so ghastly an incident in the light-hearted, satirical voice that is the imprimatur of the column?
At a subsequent book reading in Delhi, I was asked by a member of the audience whether I had found it difficult writing that particular column. ‘For the first time, I heard in that column not the Butterfly’s voice but yours,’ she said to me. I had to confess that as a creative endeavour that piece had been a failure. I had been too anguished to stay in character. The despair she’d divined in that column was not the Butterfly’s. It was mine.
I know, intellectually, that humour is a defence against despair, a reassertion of resilience, of optimism in troubled times. But as the horror mounts with each passing year, I am finding it increasingly harder to grasp this truth emotionally. How do you find the lighter side of Benazir’s assassination? Of the massacre of Ahmadis in a Lahore mosque? Of Christians in a church in Peshawar? Of Hazaras in Quetta? Of schoolboys in Peshawar? And, this week, of the murder of 72 Lahori citizens — 39 of whom were children — out enjoying Easter Sunday in a public park? A newly wed couple were among the casualties. The bride’s bouquet is still fresh. A brother and sister, both under 10, were killed on the swings. Their bodies weren’t recovered for they’d been blown to bits. A five-year-old boy, grievously injured, but fighting on, died two days ago. I could go on. To some things there is no lighter side.
Last year, at a literary festival, Ben Okri, the Nigerian writer, asked, ‘How do you respond as a writer when the enormity of events overwhelms the imagination?’ I don’t know. I really don’t.
DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.