Thursday, 9 July 2009

A Case of Exploding Mangoes

A Case of Exploding Mangoes by Mohammed Hanif

It is 17 August, 1988, a Hercules C130, the world’s sturdiest plane, carrying Pakistan’s military dictator Gen. Zia ul-Haq, several Pakistani army generals, Arnold Raphel, the US Ambassador to Pakistan and the head of the US military aid mission to Pakistan crashes and all of them perish. How did it happen? Why did it happen? Isn’t the scenario perfect, just like a deliciously ripe Alphanso mango, for conspiracy theories?

So here comes a book that probably does what no other book from the subcontinent has done better, explore all the possibilities ranging from the usual mechanical failure to the CIA’s impatience to a blind woman’s curse carried by a crow (remember how people shoo away the crow that sits on the rooftop and caws) to well, a case of exploding mangoes to present an outrageously funny look at what has become one of the most persistent riddles of our lifetime. I mean Gen. Zia’s death and not why the world keeps referring to Pakistan as a ‘failed state’. Though if one reads between the lines hidden beneath the satire is the tale of why politics in Pakistan is such a risky business.

But what the book really excels in is bringing to life the man who ruled Pakistan with an iron fist from 1978 till his mysterious death in 1988. Readers are warned you’ll never look at General Zia ul Haq, “…a much photographed man. The middle parting in his hair glints under the sun, his unnaturally white teeth flash, his mustache does its customary little dance for the camera,” in the same way ever again. Especially, after his little escapade on the bicycle and when he encounters a certain verse in the holy Quran.

But much like the usual suspects in the subcontinent’s conspiracy theories other character too put in an appearance. The US Ambassador to Pakistan, the army generals, the Arab Sheikhs, the famous female foreign correspondent, the Secretary General of the All Pakistan Sweepers Union, the oft ignored First Lady of Pakistan, the gentlemen who work for the Pakistani intelligence and of course Ali Shigri, an Air Force cadet, commanding the Silent Drill Squad and narrating this extraordinary tale. They all come together to produce a dark and acerbic recreation of the events that lead to 17 August 1988. And also shed light on the factors at play even today in what will go on to become another episode in Pakistan’s tragic history.

Read the book if like any other person born in the subcontinent you too accept it as a given fact that behind every small political move there is a giant conspiracy. For though you can blame the people of the subcontinent for a lot of things, political naivety isn’t one of them.

You can read Mohammed Hanif's article Ten Myths about Pakistan published in TOI here.

(Afterthoughts on books: part 11)


mayank said...

wonderful book. and an equally wonderful review. also thanks for the link to the mohd hanif article, very interesting.

Anvita Lakhera said...

Thanks Mayank. Mr Hanif does give a much needed new and fresh perspective to our subcontinent's jaded politics.

leo said...

I was reading this book and kept wondering how the author penned such an irreverent tale in light of what happened to Saleem Shahzad. On the back cover it was mentioned that the author lives in London and I thought aha! But then a few days later I saw in the newspaper that the author is now back in Pakistan and thought wow!

Anvita Lakhera said...

Mohammed Hanif moved back to Pakistan after a decade in London about the time this book was published. He was in the Pakistan Air Force Academy (which explains the details about the cadet's life in the book) before working as a journalist in Pakistan and London.

He wrote an article in The Guardian on his move back home. It is worth a read:

Sometimes, especially when we lack a first hand view of a situation, we amplify the worst and disregard the rest.