This blog contains material I wrote and posted on between the years 2005 and 2011 only. It does not contain any new material. For newer writing, please check my main blog (Bill the Butcher).

Saturday, 24 November 2012

A Case Of Exploding Mangoes: Review

Genre:Literature & Fiction
Author:Mohammed Hanif
On a hot dusty summer day in 1988, the President of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, General Zia-ul-Haq, climbed into a C-130 aeroplane fitted with a luxury pod to convert it into a presidential transport, Pak One. Along with him was a bevy of Pakistani generals, including the former head of his intelligence services, and the American ambassador to Pakistan, Arnold Raphael. They were flying back to Islamabad after a tank demonstration in the desert.

Zia-ul-Haq was a man with a lot of enemies. One of the nastiest dictators ever to have ruled Pakistan, he was also both an ardent Islamist (it was he who Islamicised not just Pakistani society but also the previously secular and professional Pakistani army, a process that has perhaps become irreversible) and at the same time one of the darlings of the Reagan administration, which was conducting a brutal and not too covert war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. Washington just about owned Zia-ul-Haq, just as it owed him; but with the war in Afghanistan winding down, he might have been reaching his sell-by date.

Trying to make a list of the people who might have wanted to off this man would probably require a book in itself, so I won’t try; but among the various candidates one can readily imagine:

- The Afghan and Soviet intelligence agencies, Khad and KGB, in retaliation for his involvement in the Afghan war; not unlikely.
- The Indian intelligence agency, RAW, in retaliation for Zia’s training and arming of Sikh terrorists in Punjab; given RAW’s monumental incompetence, highly unlikely.
- His own intelligence chief, Mirza Aslam Beg, in order to secure power for himself.
- The CIA, in order to keep secrets secret.
- Zia’s domestic enemies, including the relatives and supporters of his predecessor, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, whom he had deposed and then hanged.
- Zia’s generals, desperate for promotion in a system where the top man was clinging on like a limpet, choking off everyone below him.

Yes, General Zia-ul-Haq was a marked man.

What happened after Pak One took off on that 17th day of August 1988 has never been seriously probed; but the bare facts are that almost as soon as it took off, the plane began flying erratically, turned turtle, and nosedived into the ground, exploding on impact. So little of the corpses of the occupants was recovered in identifiable shape that Pakistanis today satirically refer to Zia’s tomb as “Jabra (Jaw) Chowk”, on the premise that only his jaws are buried there.

Whether Zia was assassinated or whether it was an accident is a mystery to this day, but assuming that it was an assassination, just how many hands might be said to have been on the metaphorical knife?

That’s the topic of the debut novel of Pakistani writer (albeit now settled in London and working for the BBC’s Urdu Service), Mohammad Hanif. It’s a mix of history, satire and fantasy, and while patchy in parts is quite entertaining in others. I read it in the course of a single day.

Ali Shigri is a Pakistani Air Force underofficer whose father, an army colonel, was found hanging in his house one morning. Shigri is certain his dad was murdered on the orders of General Zia, because the colonel was involved in financing the mujahideen terrorist campaign in Afghanistan, and is determined to avenge himself on the dictator. At the same time, his roommate, Obaid, goes missing, presumed AWOL, and Shigri is blamed and arrested.

Through a series of surreal scenes set in the Pakistani airbase, we get to know Shigri, Obaid, their absurd commanding officer and his even more ludicrous second-in-command (anyone who’s read Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22” will recognise Colonels Cathcart and Korn in the persons of these two officers), the bizarre regulations (such as the imposition of starched uniforms on the trainees, who then develop skin rashes and are compulsorily sent to the base mosque since they can’t train and can’t be left sitting around in their barracks) and a Lieutenant Bannon, who seems to be a cross between a wannabe Rambo, a drill officer, an agent provocateur and a CIA agent.

Even as Shigri is arrested for Obaid’s disappearance and plunged into a dungeon below the historic fort of Lahore, the scene shifts to Zia himself, who keeps coming across a portent; his daily Koran reading keeps returning him to the same verse, about Jonah’s sojourn in the belly of the “whale” (it was actually a big fish, if I remember my religious mythology). He takes it as a warning that people are trying to kill him, and promptly shuts himself up in his official residence.

Zia is a man with problems. Quite apart from the Koranic verses, his wife has disowned him after she saw a picture of him ogling the breasts of an American reporter; he can trust nobody in his personal circle, except his bodyguard, a skydiver called Brigadier TM, and whose parachute mysteriously fails (he goes splat in front of Zia’s parade reviewing stand) right after he discovers a camera in a painting sent over by Zia’s intelligence chief (who is standing behind Zia composing the bodyguard’s eulogy even as the luckless man jumps from his plane). Zia’s also riddled with tapeworms (and more about that later), and desperate to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for “liberating” Afghanistan, even as he institutes laws under which a blind woman can be stoned to death because she has been raped. A man with a slightly questionable grip on sanity, perhaps.

The novel shifts back and forth between Shigri’s first-person account in the dungeon (which was ironically set up by his own father), where he meets a Communist trade unionist cum mango farmer (who was tortured by his own father); and Zia’s fly-on-the-wall's PoV story, with the general sinking deeper into paranoia even as his own Chief of General Staff begins making plans to announce the sad occasion of his death in a mysterious plane crash. Shigri, who’s training himself to murder Zia with a poisoned sword during a parade the latter is to inspect, is one of the hands on the knife, as is Zia’s former intelligence chief, Akhtar Abdur Rahman, who has smuggled nerve gas into the plane’s ventilation system. So is the blind incarcerated woman, who has formally cursed Zia, and a crow, who bears the curse with him; and then there is the Communist mango farmer, whose followers donate crates of mangoes to Zia just before his plane takes off, as a token of "love and respect". And, yes, there are those tapeworms, who apparently are eating the man alive from the inside (in contravention of all tapeworm biology, and no, I am not going to let that pass).

And in the end it all goes up in a mysterious orange boom. All that’s found of Zia is his moustache, his teeth, and a Koran opened to the fatal warning verse.

You can almost hear the author say, “...and good riddance, too.”

The problem with the book, basically, is that it tries too hard. It brings in utterly unnecessary characters, including the baffling Lt Bannon, the crow, who becomes a bird-strike statistic, a homosexual airman named Loadmaster Fayyaz, and a sadistic but otherwise completely pointless ISI officer called Major Kayani, who can’t seem to make up his mind on which side he is. It dabbles with plotlines that don’t go all the way, coyly suggesting that Obaid’s vanishing was set up by Bannon, but not explaining further. It even features a cameo by Osama bin Laden, whose appearance in the book is inexplicable unless the author was merely intent on pointing out that the Evil One was once on the “right side”.

And it’s far too heavily influenced by Salman Rushdie. Nobody who’s read the book can miss the fact that Hanif has read Rushdie, and has tried, somewhat timidly but still fatally, to copy him. From the curse-carrying crow and the flesh-eating tapeworms, to a sword poisoned with krait venom, the fantasy elements are uniformly Rushdiesque, and fall uniformly flat.

But hey, for a debut novel it could be worse.

Mine certainly was.

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