"A Case of Exploding Mangoes"
(Reviewed by Sudheer Apte DEC 21, 2008)
A Case of Exploding Mangoes is a novel based on a real event in August 1988: an American-made C-130 airplane crashed soon after takeoff from a Pakistani air base, killing president Zia ul-Haq, along with several other VIPs including the U.S. ambassador Arnold Raphel. Foul play was immediately suspected, but the reasons for the crash are still unknown, and it is considered one of the great unsolved assassinations in history.
At the time, the author, Mohammed Hanif, was in the Pakistan air force, soon to quit and take up journalism. Today he lives in London where he heads the BBC's Urdu service.
Hanif is quoted in the Times of London: "I was trying to capture the period and at the same time tell a story which you want to keep reading. I aimed to write a thriller with jokes."
"A thriller with jokes" is an excellent summary, and he has succeeded in weaving three storylines that hook you in and keep you on the edge of your chair, while delivering laughs through biting satire of a very unhappy time period in Pakistan.
The main thread of the novel is a first-person account by an imaginary young air force officer-in-training, Ali Shigri. The training academy is its own world, with an American CIA agent acting as a drill instructor, Uncle Starchy, a laundry man who can supply you with stuff more potent than heroin, and "Baby O" Obaid, who is Shigri's fellow cadet, roommmate, and much more. This setup yields many Catch-22 moments, but the only similarity of this book to Joseph Heller's "Catch-22" is its sense of anger and distortion of justice, and that it is set in a military milieu. A Case of Exploding Mangoes is much more compact and focused, and its jokes work because they are authentic Pakistan military.
We gradually learn that Ali Shigri nurses a private grudge for the death of his father Colonel Shigri. He carefully plans an assassination with his sword as part of his drill routine. But suddenly, Shigri's friend Obaid goes AWOL, presumably with a very expensive airplane, and Shigri finds himself arrested and thrown into a dungeon under a Mughal-era fort by a sinister but funny ISI Major who "doesn't even wear a uniform."
The second storyline is the obvious, political one. In those days, Zia ul-Haq was a dictator with many enemies. An army chief who overthrew Zulfikar Bhutto and later hanged him, Zia ruled Pakistan with an iron hand. When he died, Bhutto's daughter Benazir told reporters, "I do not regret the death of Zia." Within his own military government, powerful disaffected generals included the head of the Inter-Services Intelligence directorate, or ISI. The country was crawling with Americans, and suitcases full of dollars were being funneled to the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan.
All of this material is mined for this novel, with most characters real, including a civil engineer named OBL from Bin Laden Constructions who is invited to the ambassador's July 4th party, and a few imagined.
Zia himself gets many scenes as a paranoid and increasingly superstitious ruler turning to excessive piety and using the Koran as a fortune cookie, now deciding to cloister himself in Army House, now giving out alms to poor widows on television. Zia finds himself attracted to a white woman reporter's cleavage, a source of considerable irritation to his wife the first lady, who throws him out of their bedroom.
The third strand, about a poor, blind woman who was raped and is sentenced to death for fornication, since she could not possibly identify her attackers as required by law, is also based on a true incident. While the blind woman is powerless, her heart-felt curses perhaps have the power to transmit themselves through a crow that can fly long distances, crossing borders and finding their target.
These three strands come together in the end where the exact causes for the airplane crash are explained, sort of.
The most attractive feature of the novel is an authentic portrayal of this time period in Pakistan's history. This was at the height of the Cold War, the Soviets were being driven out of Afghanistan by the Afghan jihad, and it was a period of triumph for the religious warriors in the United States and in Pakistan who were supplying them---see George Crile's book Charley Wilson's War, which is acknowledged by the author.
At the same time, the Pakistani state was increasingly dysfunctional. The military, which was running the country, regarded itself as a savior of the nation and was completely isolated from society. Thrown in a dark dungeon under Lahore Fort, Ali Shigri is unable to communicate with a fellow prisoner in the next cell, because, as he puts it:
"How the hell am I supposed to know about civilians or what they think? All I know about them is from television and newspapers. They never
tell you about the nutters who want to spit on you."
The author has found a rich seam to mine, one that keeps on giving. Last year, now ex-president Pervez Musharraf gave a televised speech imposing martial law on the country. The speech was in two parts: one in English, which was written by speechwriters, and the other in Urdu, which was his own. Mohammed Hanif commented on the speech, and he said of the second part:
And when he said, "Extremists have gone very extreme," it suddenly occurred to me why his speech pattern seemed so familiar. He was that uncle that you get stranded with at a family gathering when everybody else has gone to sleep but there is still some whisky left in the bottle. And uncle thinks he is about to say something very profound -- if you would only pour him one last one.
The most authentic fact about the novel, which raises it from being a good historical satire to also being a commentary on today's world, is that the jokes are still good in today's Pakistan.
- Amazon readers rating: from 33 reviews
Read a chapter excerpt from A Case of Exploding Mangoes at Random House
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- A Case of Exploding Mangoes (May 2008) Commonwealth Writers Prize
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- Wikipedia page on Mohammed Hanif
- Man Booker interview with Mohammed Hanif
- An article by Mohammed Hanif on Pakistan's coup
- BlogCritics review of A Case of Exploding Mangoes
- Complete Review A Case of Exploding Mangoes
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About the Author:
Mohammed Hanif was born in Okara, Pakistan. After leaving the Pakistan Air Force Academy to pursue a career in journalism, he worked for Newsline, India Today, and The Washington Post. He has written plays for the stage and screen, including a critically acclaimed BBC drama and the feature film The Long Night.
Hanif is a graduate of University of East Anglia’s creative writing program. His first novel, A Case of Exploding Mangoes, is longlisted for the 2008 Man Booker Prize. He is currently head of BBC’s Urdu Service and lived in London. He is in the process of moving back to Pakistan.