I’m excited to live in a world where a new Moni Mohsin book is out, alliteratively titled The Impeccable Integrity of Ruby R. In it, Mohsin melds the humour of her Butterfly novels with the serious attention to social injustice and gender issues that distinguished her debut, The End of Innocence.
Not surprisingly, her nose for the zeitgeist has led Mohsin to select a topic of prime interest and importance. She scrutinises the backstabbing world of contemporary Pakistani politics. Here, Saif Haq is a celebrity-turned-politician now leading a party called Integrity. Attracting millennial voters in their droves, the party’s stated mission is to combat injustice, exploitation and corruption. Saif also claims to protect the honour of the nation’s mothers and daughters with reverence and religiosity.
But the Integrity name proves ironic as readers learn of the movement’s shady donors, ruthless online activities and narcotic and sexual abuses of its famous figurehead.
So far, so PTI. But, in an email interview, Mohsin reminded me that this is no straightforward roman-à-clef about Kaptaan and his Burger Army. Unlike the Aitchison and Oxford alumnus cricketing legend Imran Khan, Saif’s story is one of rags to riches. He had climbed out of poverty to become a film actor and television presenter before entering politics. And, as the title makes plain, this novel is more concerned with the entirely fictional social media maven Ruby R than her recognisably slimy boss at Integrity.
Ruby is a member of Pakistan’s precarious bourgeoisie with little family money or clout to draw on. Having won a scholarship to study for a masters in media and social media at a London university, she gives it all up to join Integrity just a few months before she would have completed her degree.
Usually cautious and independent, she is swept up by Saif’s magnetism and apparent sincerity when she attends a talk he gives in Britain’s capital. Admiring her political passion, technological adroitness and, above all, her “neat figure”, Saif offers her a job. Ruby returns home to Lahore qualification-less, to her widowed mother’s initial dismay.
However, the young woman is determined to vault the humiliations of her humble past by aligning herself with an emergent political elite. Her mother starts to come around as she sees how well Ruby seems to be doing in her career.
Social media is one of the weapons in this ingénue’s rise to the top. The cover and frontispiece for the Indian edition, brought out by Penguin Random House in December 2020, cleverly rendered the title and Mohsin’s name within iPhone-style text bubbles. Indeed, phones are omnipresent in this novel, “glued” as they are to characters’ ears and in their hands at all times. These devices are used for flirting, fighting and fomenting rebellion.
Ruby becomes as addicted to “the siren call of social media” as to the benzodiazepines she craves to still her nerves. She suffers panic attacks as a consequence of the online battles she fights alongside Saif’s other Rottweilers: his army of electronic provocateurs. Clearly, the digital world, along with the political party she belongs to, does much to undermine the impeccability of Ruby’s integrity.
Having been a journalist for many years, Mohsin told me that she is interested in the difference that social media has made to the gathering and consumption of news. She is intrigued to see how the shrill online realm has removed nuance, privileging opinion over fact. At the same time, Big Tech has “destroyed the middle ground and forced people to retreat into mutually hostile echo chambers.”
Mohsin does not deny that social media provides a democratic platform, “giving voice to the voiceless, particularly in countries [such as] Pakistan where people are not always free to express their views.” However, she notes that the internet can also be used to silence dissent and muzzle criticism through the deployment of trolls. It is this paradox that she finds endlessly fascinating.
The book also focuses on sexual exploitation and the gender power imbalance. Despite the disparities of age, wealth and power that separate them, Ruby becomes romantically entangled with her leader. Mohsin told me that her novel is interested in power generally — who has it, who doesn’t, how to get it, how to use it and eventually how to lose it.
To me, the book also illuminates the “fog” that can descend on even the smartest, most feminist woman where love, romance and celebrity are involved. One spends much of the narrative feeling impatient with Ruby over her choices. Yet, things get really interesting when that fog lifts and she can see her lover for the woefully inadequate man that he is.
Although #MeToo is only mentioned once in The Impeccable Integrity of Ruby R, clearly that movement has had a great impact on the novel, just as it has influenced Pakistan and the wider world. The idea for her plot first came to Mohsin when she learned of the Harvey Weinstein scandal. She asked herself how something like this would unfold were it to happen in the Subcontinent. Would anyone be held accountable, or would the patriarchy punish the victims?
The #MeToo Movement has had an undeniably positive effect in liberal democracies. By contrast, in more authoritarian states where unreformed, unfettered patriarchy remains the norm (notwithstanding important resistance movements against it), #MeToo still has a long way to go.
“In Pakistan,” the author observed, “Meesha Shafi’s case has been instructive. A young woman has spoken out publicly against sexual harassment and named her [alleged] harasser.” She refers here to the first female star from Pakistan’s entertainment industry to come forward, as part of the #MaiBhi [Me Too] campaign, with a story of sexual assault by an equally high-profile colleague.
Shafi accused famous Pakistani musician Ali Zafar of sexually harassing her on several occasions. In our interview, Mohsin was critical of many members of the Pakistani establishment, who she said fell far short of “considering her allegation with any measure of objectivity, let alone sympathy.” Shafi’s accusation has resulted in legal cases which are ongoing. It has also led to a social media backlash against the singer and other women who have come forward to accuse Zafar. Mohsin describes the whole situation as “very depressing.”
As depressing or even suffocating as much of its subject matter is, this novel sparkles like a ruby choker. Studded with wordplay, repartee and closely observed detail, this is a funny, thoughtful and resolutely modern piece of writing.
The columnist is Professor of Global Literature at the University of York, and author of three books, including Rivers of Ink: Selected Essayswa
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, May 16th, 2021