How Moni Mohsin’s novels defy the rigid “chick-lit” label

As with Moni Mohsin’s novel Butterfly, her mission in The Impeccable Integrity of Ruby R is not to draw a realistic portrait of Pakistani politics.
21 April, 2021

Unsuspecting bookstore browsers are sure to be taken in by the cover of Moni Mohsin’s latest novel. Yellow stars jump off a cheerful purple background, suggesting that this is a light-hearted read. Yet, any Mohsin fan will immediately tell you that the title, The Impeccable Integrity of Ruby R, betrays the subject. Mohsin, who in Pakistan is best known for her column “Diary of a Social Butterfly,” would never describe anyone’s integrity as impeccable with a straight face. After all, many of her previous characters have boasted similar virtues, only to be taken to task by the obstacles thrown their way through the course of the novels. Instead, the novel follows a bright young woman named Ruby—who has an affair with her boss, the leader of a new political party called Integrity—and the subsequent chaos that ensues. Although many note this is a departure from Mohsin’s previous work, the novel has been well received by readers as a compulsively readable takedown of Pakistani politics, with plenty of romance thrown in. Critics have praised the novel both for its choice of protagonist and for its refusal to pass her off as a mere victim of her circumstances.

In Pakistan, women’s digests and drama serials often receive criticism for being obsessed with romance, brainwashing young girls into believing that finding an eligible match is the only goal worth pursuing. “Chick lit” written in English, though less popular than television and Urdu magazines, is often lumped into the same category. This is the kind of entertainment typically kept hidden from disapproving fathers and uncles, lest they tell you to read the newspaper instead. This “fluff” literature often details how women negotiate with patriarchy on an everyday basis. Saba Imtiaz’s Karachi You’re Killing Me, published by Random House India in 2014, is just one example of a romance novel that also portrays the bigotry many women striving for professional success must contend with in Pakistan. In it, Ayesha Khan, a journalist working in Karachi, wants to find love but shuns the attentions of men who do not see her as an intellectual equal. The Impeccable Integrity of Ruby R goes a step further, choosing to quash Ruby’s hopes of a workplace romance—a popular trope in chick lit—and instead highlighting how women are treated in spaces, such as Integrity, that purport to empower them. The novel retains the light tone and fast pace usually associated with chick lit, while demonstrating that novels written for and about young women are more complex than we give them credit for.

Mohsin herself is no stranger to the chick-lit label. Her most famous works, Diary of a Social Butterfly and Tender Hooks, are narrated by a Lahori socialite married into a landed family.  At first glance, Butterfly appears too susceptible to what other people may think of her, and could easily be dismissed as frivolous. However, despite all her privilege, she still deals with sexism and misogyny on a daily basis. Her husband, a bookish Oxford graduate, is condescending towards her, and the book reveals how frequently her labour is overlooked by her family. Butterfly also displays an ability to grow and change. When her cousin Jonkers refuses to marry into wealth, preferring instead to be with a girl who works an office job and lives in a middle-class area, she is against the match at first but eventually stands by him despite the rest of the family’s objections. In the end, she is the one who hosts their wedding and persuades everyone to celebrate their love. Written in Mohsin’s trademark wry style, sitting down with a Butterfly novel is like having tea with a gossipy aunt who also has some valuable life lessons up her sleeve. 

With Ruby R, Mohsin attempts to tackle the question of how much resistance women can display within prescribed social structures. This time, her main character is the straight-edged Ruby, who is hardworking and determined, and looks for a corporate job as soon as she gets her master’s degree so she and her mother can live a more comfortable life. However, with the setting up of Integrity, Ruby begins to question whether her future really lies in the corporate world. Saif Haq, the charismatic leader of the party, praises her intelligence and asks her to join his new campaign, stating that the party needs patriotic women such as Ruby to lead the way. When her mother’s car is rammed into by a powerful gangster, Ruby makes up her mind and decides to join the party, stating she needs to be part of the change.

Mohsin depicts the limits of a narrative propped up by many populists: that an empowered middle class has the power to bring about the change many countries in the Global South are desperate for. It is this same narrative that won Imran Khan, Pakistan’s current prime minister, his initial popularity, as he urged the Pakistani middle class to give him their vote to oust those who have grown rich off the corrupt political system. In Ruby R, Integrity echoes this same rhetoric. After her mother’s car accident, Ruby reflects on the current state of affairs in Pakistan.

It didn’t matter if your cause was just. Or that you were a respectable middle-class member of society with a decent job and untarnished reputation. When it came to claiming your rights in a lawless society, be it something as small as claiming your turn in a queue or receiving due recompense for a car accident, what mattered was whether you had status or power. After joining the party, she tells a sceptical taxi driver: “We need an honest man, a clean man. Who can punish the corrupt and tax the rich. Who can attract investment just on the strength of his reputation.”

Ruby’s belief that one man can save the nation is what compels her to join the party. However, as we have seen time and time again, in countries ranging from the United States to Brazil to Pakistan, politics that does not call for structural change, instead using the cult power of a single man to signal some kind of inherent change within the political system, often ends up replicating the same power structures it criticises. Mohsin, too, demonstrates that much of what is in Integrity’s manifesto is empty rhetoric. Within the first few pages of the novel it is quite clear the party is run, and funded, by the same powerful and corrupt people it claims to be ousting.

Similar to Butterfly, in which the main characters do little else except notice each other’s shoes and handbags, Mohsin’s mission in Ruby R is not to draw a realistic portrait of Pakistani politics. Instead, the novel creates a world that borders on the absurd, forcing readers to focus on the power dynamics at play. The setting up of Integrity is dubious from the get go and Ruby is made obviously gullible while the villains are obviously evil. The novel makes it abundantly clear that it is not asking whether mainstream politics can ever be clean, nor whether men in power can ever be good. But, because the plot leaves no room for ambiguity, serving only to highlight how an earnest young woman could be hoodwinked by a party such as Integrity, some plot points are a little reductive. For example, if Ruby is so level-headed then why would she fall so deeply in love with a man as overtly misogynistic and power-hungry as Saif Haq? But there are moments where the absurdities of the plot really bring out the nuances that Moshin wishes to draw attention to. A clever scene in which Ruby comes to Saif’s house to take pictures of him working out for the campaign—and is insulted by Saif’s wife, who knows they are having an affair—serves to highlight the banality that undercuts all this talk of change. Beneath all the progressive banter, everyone is still playing the same old game. Just like at any other political party, sexism, classism and opportunism are alive and well at Integrity.

Through the rise and fall of Ruby R, what Mohsin really wishes to question is whether women can ever hope for a seat at the table of political power. Should the novel have championed a kind of glass-ceiling feminism, the answer to this question would have been a resounding yes, and Ruby’s workplace romance would have worked out in the end. However, both the workplace and the romance are questionable from the outset. In her quest for power, Ruby must work with men who make her feel ashamed of her background, in order to keep Saif’s attentions she must obey him blindly, and is even put in a position where she is told to betray another woman. By the end of the novel, she broaches a more important question; is this a table worth having a seat at in the first place?

Despite all that befalls her, Ruby is neither a victim nor is she entirely likable as a character. She speaks up on behalf of women she is convinced are oppressed, but is much less kind to the women around her, such as her mother, Bilkees, her assistant, Uzma, and her best friend, Farah, whom she later betrays in an attempt to win Saif’s approval. It is only when Saif marries again that Ruby realises that she has made a grievous mistake and finally quits her job. As she deals with heartbreak, the same women she judged and abandoned look after her. Bilkees nurses her back to health and Farah helps her get another job. The novel emphasises the bonds of care generally considered less important than personal success for those with ambition. It is this care that allows Ruby to heal and find her feet in the world again.

Because Ruby R is written in the third person, it is easy to look at Ruby with some detachment and her downfall in the world of political campaigning becomes all too easy to predict. The affair with Saif holds up one huge red flag after another and is difficult to get through without cringing a little. In fact, there are many moments in the novel where it is easy to become frustrated with Ruby. A more empathetic depiction of the protagonist may have been possible if the novel was not written in the third person. First-person narration is where Mohsin is truly in her element. The fast pace and dramatic elements of Ruby R are enjoyable, yet the voice of Ruby herself is frequently lost in the constant chaos.

Ruby decides she wants retribution for the harassment and abuse she suffered, and plans to write an open letter online calling out Saif and others at Integrity. Farah tells her this is a losing game. 

“People are very cruel,” Farah sighed, “Saif, Faisal and the whole of Integrity, not to mention the trolls and the crazed fans and thousands of bastards on social media and TV. They’ll all go apeshit. They’ll make your life hell. You know better than anyone else how it works. They’ll tell lies about you, threaten you, abuse you, jeer at you. And all those women who never stand with each other, they will also join in. They will name you. Not just that, they’ll drag your name into the mud. You know how it is. Yeah, his reputation will be dented a little bit, but he will deny everything. But you, you they will destroy.”

“But if we want change,” cried Ruby, “we have to speak up, no?”

 “Aunty will also be finished. You want that?”

“So, I keep my mouth shut?”

Farah was silent.

Although Ruby heeds Farah’s advice and chooses not to write an open letter, this is far from the end of the story. Through Ruby’s own journey, and Mohsin’s deliberate choice not to grant her a happily-after-after, the novel hints towards alternative futures for women, away from patriarchal ideas of success and power. Ruby is saved because of the community of women who do not castigate her for her actions. She takes time off from working so she can reflect on the past and think about the future. After Saif Haq wins what is very obviously a rigged election, she uses her new Twitter account, PakFeminista, to voice her doubts over the veracity of the election. A troll replies instantly, calling her a “Westoxified bitch,” a statement that will sound familiar to many feminists both in Pakistan and across the border. It is clear that Integrity’s win is hardly revolutionary, but the shift within Ruby herself is palpable. Although she called herself a feminist long before joining Integrity, the death of her workplace romance only leads to a greater understanding of the insidiousness of patriarchy. The realisation that change can never come from the same old structures of power is a formidable one. Armed with this knowledge, what Ruby will do next will be the start of something new.