Pakistan has always remained an area of fascination for writers and commoners alike, thanks to its undying list of dictators, coups, history of violence on women, bombs, controversies and so on. Mohammed Hanif fuels on such fascination and builds upon them in his debut novel, ‘A Case of Exploding Mangoes’. This book asks the question, who assassinated President Muhammed Zia-ul-Haq to put an end to his 11-year reign? And to be honest, doesn’t attempt to solve it.
It is set in the time period which is months and days before and after the death of the President. It is a time of political stability where the Afghani war has calmed down, with the Russians pulling out, and the Taliban has gained control of Kabul. Zia has organised a coup-de-feat and ousted President Bhutto. The book has an array of characters, ranging from the classics to the surprising, such as the American Lieutenant Bannon who loves his Dunhills and douses himself in Old Spice, a Marxist-Maoist street cleaner turned prisoner, a crow, a blind prisoner Zainab whose crime was committing adultery while in reality she was gang-raped.
The book opens in the voice of Under Officer, Ali Shigri, leader of “Silent Drill Squad”, at Pakistan Air Force Academy, Risalpur. He is the protagonist in the book. He believes, very firmly that his father, Col. Quli Shigri was murdered by Zia’s government, and not what the official reports claim, suicide. How he continues his act of revenge forms the crux of the story. He develops an intricate plot to assassinate the President, including his American Lieutenant Bannon or The Loot, Uncle Starchy’s venom and “Baby O” Obaid, his best friend. He ends up in a discreet prison where all those who dare to oppose the government are locked up and later forgotten about. When he learns that this prison was his dad’s idea, he can’t help but comment wryly, “Nice one dad.”
The book offers a brilliant and satirical view of the President’s private life, with hilarious details such as the reaction of the First Lady when she notices her husband ogling at the US journalist’s breasts. Zia’s frenzied attempts to be a pious and righteous Muslim, by reading the Quran multiple times are shown with sardonic disdain and his years of being in power have left him “fattened, chubby-cheeked and marinated in his own paranoia”. This section is easily the highlight of the book.
Hanif uses a sarcastic yet jovial tone throughout the book and spares none from his sardonic portraits. The jokes continue throughout the book, and never fail to amuse. But the book has its share of profanity, such as the stoning of Zainab, the screams of prisoners being branded by Philips irons and undergoing other unmentionable forms of torture. But these parts of shock and torture interlude with comedy, decreasing the shock of the same.
Another highlight of the book is the depiction of US-Pakistan ties. The Americans eagerly jump onto the Zia-ul-Haq ship and enthusiastically assist the Pakistanis in trade, finance and supply the Afghan Mujahidin in their insurgency against the Russians, all this while turning a blind eye to all the human right violations in the country. A notable scene in the book is during a Fourth of July party hosted by Arnold Raphel, in Islamabad. All the Americans are required to dress up in traditional clothes such as salwar kameez, flowing tunics and turbans as a part of some silly homage to the Pakistani and Afghani guests. Present in the group is OBL, a young bearded Afghani who is a worker in “Laden Constructions and Co.” He interacts with various Americans in the throng of people, including a CIA agent, who after exchanging various pleasantries with him, bids him adieu saying something to the effect of keeping up the good work. As scandalous as this maybe, the irony in the situation is unmistakable.
In terms of the portrayal of Pakistan, Hanif is conventional, with boring topographies of deserts, dry lands along with spies, secrets and controversies. This book attempts to seriously examine the death of the President but only manages to bring a satirical, comic side of the entire image while prodding into one of the conspiracy theories, while bringing up several more. He uses the devices of humour and slapstick to his greatest advantage. The historical context of this book is highly relevant; especially the role of US President Ronal Reagan in Afghanistan and its results.
Maybe because of the cultural blatancy and the humourous undertones, one cannot take it seriously. It maybe imprinted on the mind as a comic novel of Pakistan and its innumerable bad men. But the style and tone of Hanif’s writing makes the book an interesting read. And the most underplayed storyline of the book, the love story of two cadets, makes for its most compelling.
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Chaarvi is a mixture of sugar, spice and everything nice, with just a hint of Chemical X. Or maybe more. Unsure of what to focus on, she has a foot in everything – be it music, movies or books. Or even fashion. Or cooking. Or politics. Or Economics. Well, you get the drift. She is a hater of chick lit and all the riff-raff that comes along with it. Spends too much time on the internet researching on things that will come handy nowhere in life. But in reality, she’s a ninja and you better know it.