Saturday, 2 August 2008

Book review: Mohammed Hanif's A Case of Exploding Mangoes

What happens when you mix an air crash, a few VIPs, half a dozen conspiracy theories, a good dose of irreverence, satire and anarchy and whip them up thoroughly? If your blending is done in the Pakistan of the late 1980s, you get A Case of Exploding Mangoes, that’s what you get. Just as the Kennedy assassination brought in its wake a number of conspiracy theories, the air crash which killed Zia-ul-Haq threw up a number of dark possibilities, all of which and a few more, figure in Hanif’s story.

Hanif treads a fine line between wreaking havoc with his anarchist, irreverent satire that dismembers military discipline, authority, religion and telling the story of the air crash which killed President Zia. Hanif’s success lies not only in putting together a story which keeps the reader captivated till the end, but also in making observations and providing descriptions which are extremely funny. For example, this description of Zia-ul-Haq’s right hand man is..............

“The only person who voiced his thoughts was General Akhtar, a former middle-weight boxer, a clean shaven man of tribal origins, who was packed with so much dignity that he could have been born in any country in any of the five continents and he still would have become a general. His ability to carry himself with martial grace and his talent for sucking up to superiors was so legendary that according to a joke popular in the trenches, he could wipe out a whole enemy unit by kissing their asses.”

..............a text book example of a put-down.

The characters in the novel are unique and exceptional. Ali Shigri the narrator is not your average Pakistani military hero. Not only is Ali shown to be having a more than friendly-relationship with fellow cadet Obaid-ul-llah (Baby O), Ali is also convinced that his father Colonel Shigri, a decorated military hero, was murdered on the orders of President Zia. There’s Lieut Bannon, an Amercian drill instructor who lives in the Pakistani air force base drenched with Old Spice. Starchy the laundryman needs snake venom to get high, a feat he accomplishes by using a live krait to bite him.

Some of the characters are people you may have heard of. For example, there’s a very amoral Major Kiyani from the ISI. Ali is in awe of him. For those who don’t follow Pakistani politics on a daily basis, the current head of the Pakistani military is one Gen. Ashfaq Kiyani who used to be with the ISI. There’s the American ambassador to Pakistan, Arnold Raphael, who gets killed along with Zia. There’s a scene where Arnold gives his entire staff the evening off so that he can cook dinner for his wife in their eighteen bedroom house in Islamabad (as if they are back in the US), but President Zia summons him at the last minute and ruins his plans. When the Americans throw a theme party for the 4th of July, a nice gentleman who introduces himself as OBL turns up from Laden and Co. Constructions. The Americans thank him for the good work he did against the soviets. ‘Keep it up,’ they tell him.

Hanif’s humour can be dark and bitter at times, such as when Ali Shigri is imprisoned and is threatened with torture in a prison designed by his own father, Colonel Shigri. While in the prison, he meets a man who was tortured by his own Dad.

I was reminded of Joseph Heller’s Catch 22 even before I finished the first fifty pages. I think the resemblance is not only because Hanif’s irreverent narration is very similar to Heller’s, but also because both Yossarian and Ali Shigri are in the air force.

The author of this novel Mohammed Hanif is an ex-Pakistan Air Force pilot who later became a journalist. Hanif has lived in London these last 12 years, working at the BBC where he heads the BBC’s Urdu Service. I understand from this article that Hanif is on the verge of moving back to Pakistan (Karachi).

1 comment:

irfan said...

The review captures the essence of Hanif's satirical novel which is now on the Booker Award long list. Clearly, the author has made a splash with his debut story. More power to his pen!
Irfan Husain