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Mohammed Hanif: A Case of Exploding Mangoes

In 1988, General Zia ul-Haq, president and dictator of Pakistan, US Ambassador Arnold Raphel, Pakistani General Akhtar and other senior Pakistani generals were killed in a plane crash. The cause of the crash is not known but there numerous conspiracy theories as to who was to blame for the crash. This novel purports to give the answer.

The hero/narrator is Ali Shigri. He is a junior under officer at the Pakistan Air Force Academy (where Hanif also served). Apart from minor peccadilloes, such as smoking marijuana and a brief homosexual fling with a fellow cadet, he is generally considered a good cadet. His father was Colonel Shigri, a tough and well-respected officer who had made many missions to Afghanistan to help the Muhadijeen fight the Soviets, with the help of the United States. The colonel had, apparently, hanged himself (for no apparent reason) but Ali has become convinced that it was no suicide and he thinks that he knows who is to blame. Meanwhile, Ali is striving to become a good cadet, leading a squad in silent drilling, which will shortly appear before the president on National Day. One day, however, he wakes up to find his room-mate and occasional homosexual partner, Obaid, but known to all as Baby O, has disappeared. Ali has no idea where Obaid has gone or, indeed, why. What he does know is that he is going to be blamed for Obaid’s disappearance. He is soon picked up by Major Kiyani, an intelligence officer, and taken to the Fort at Lahore, where is he flung into a dark and foul cell.

While we have been following the adventures of Ali, we have also been following the increasing paranoia of Zia al-Huq. Hanif mocks al-Huq, for his paranoia, his stupidity, his hypocrisy, his incompetence and anything else he can find. Al-Huq is scared of his wife, his chief of intelligence and the Americans (on whom he depends for his corrupt earnings). While, in the West we have the sortes virgilianae and sortes biblicae, al-Huq uses what we might call sortes koranicae, selecting a random phrase in the Koran and using that to guide him. When he twice selects the phrase I was wrong, he is very worried. Unbeknownst to him, General Akhtar is monitoring his every move and even has a camera in his private room which even Brigadier TM, his personal security chief, has failed to spot. Akhtar wants to replace al-Huq as president.

Ali is mildly tortured and, as he learns, Obaid is more severely tortured. Ali gets to meet the Secretary General of the Mango Growers, who has been in prison for nine years, and Blind Zainab, a blind woman who has been gang-raped and is in prison for adultery for this, as she naturally cannot identify her rapists. It is she who curses the crow, who will play a key role, after eating his fill of mangoes. As Ali tells us at the beginning, the final film of al-Zuq shows him entering the plane, apparently in some discomfort. Ali is there, in the clip which was soon pulled, and has a role in the president’s discomfort, though other players are more instrumental in his death.

This is a joyful conspiracy theory novel. Hanif clearly had no love for al-Zuq and was clearly happy to show how he was brought down and how all the other players – Pakistani and American – were equally corrupt and rotten. It is a very funny novel as Hanif keeps his satire just the right side of mocking, without too much exaggeration, and Ali, a man on a mission (though we do not really learn that for a while) is a well-drawn character. Hanif returned to Pakistan after this novel became successful. I wonder how well it (and he) was received over there.

Publishing history

First published 2008 by Knopf