Book: A Case of Exploding Mangoes; Author: Mohammed Hanif; Publisher: Random House; Pages: 295.
Who killed General Zia-ul Haq, the redoubtable Pakistani dictator who mysteriously died in an air crash 20 summers ago? Conspiracy theories, ranging from the bizarre to purely farcical, have never ceased since. Mohammed Hanif thickens this stew further and spices it up with a dash of dark wit to spin a page-turning thriller and an exuberant satire of the triple clichés of Allah, America and Army that color popular perception of Pakistan.
"A Case of Exploding Mangoes" opens in the fateful summer of 1988 that finds the mustachioed and five-time-a-day Quran-reading Pakistani leader in the grip of paralyzing anxieties about an imagined assassination attempt on his life. Funnily enough, the man who led the Islamization drive in Pakistan and lorded over the faithful and feckless in his country for a decade, finds an intimation of his imminent death when he comes upon the familiar story of Jonah and the Whale in which he sees dark hints about his impending death or overthrow. The fear of a coup or assassination is a real, all-too-real anxiety of dictators who have themselves risen to power on the back of purges and summary execution of rivals. Zia, after all, hanged his one-time-benefactor-turned enemy Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in 1979, two years after he seized power in a bloodless coup.
The author, a former officer of the Pakistan Air Force, cleverly interweaves history, myths and fables to create a darkly comical portrait of the Pakistani leader who locks himself up in Army House, begins distrusting his top commanders and his closest aides except for the man in charge of his security and refuses to address any public function for fear of the assassin's bullets. Zia, "fattened, chubby-cheeked and marinating in his own paranoia" "broke into violent sobs" at morning prayers one day. "The other worshipers continued with their prayers; they were used to General Zia crying during his prayers. They were never sure if it was due to the intensity of his devotion, the matters of state that occupied his mind or another tongue-lashing from the first lady," Hanif writes.
Somebody is going to kill Zia, the novel gleefully hints, but leaves the identity of the assassins uncertain right till the end. The title of the novel comes from a fancy explanation of the cause of the crash of the C-130 Hercules aircraft carrying Zia, his top aides and US ambassador Arnold Raphael on Aug 17, 1988, that suggests one of the mango crates contained a canister of nerve gas, which, when dispersed by the plane's air-conditioning system, killed both pilots.
Funny, farcical and deadly serious and intense by turns, Hanif's maiden novel seduces the readers, not with a rehash of conspiracy theories about Zia's death, but with its clever orchestration of issues that are central to understanding Pakistan 20 years later, specially in the backdrop of the assassination of Benazir Bhutto last year. The context and the cast of characters may have changed, but as Pakistan grapples with a surge of radical militancy and the seemingly all-powerful role of the military establishment, regardless of whether a democrat or a dictator is in power, Hanif's novel holds a mirror to myriad contradictions that beset Pakistani society and politics.
Just before boarding his special aircraft that proves to be his last journey, Zia tries to brush off his near-death anxiety by comforting himself that with the American ambassador also on the same flight, he's got to be safe! The author lampoons Zia's peddling of the Islamic agenda with panache. The late dictator calls a nonagenarian cleric in Makkah, asking him for his expert advice on how best to stone to death a rape victim accused of adultery!
The satire is delightfully liberating as it puts American adventurism in Pakistan under its unflinching gaze. The American embassy in Islamabad hosts the 4th of July party with all guests, including Americans, dressed like mujahideens in flowing tribal gowns and turbans, to toast the US' success in the Afghan war against the Soviet Union. OBL, as Osama bin Laden is called in the novel, walks into this party with a self-congratulatory air and gets a pat on the back from the CIA boss. "Nice meeting you, OBL. Good work, Keep it up!" OBL, as everyone knows, is now America's enemy number one.
Redolent of Joseph Helller's classic satire of militarism, Catch-22, it is this blend of exuberant farce, dark jokes and iconoclastic asides that makes "A Case of Exploding Mangoes" is an utterly delightful novel and opens up new possibilities of writing political fiction, especially in a region that is bristling with unresolved assassinations of larger-than-life leaders and dynastic figures.