In its very first chapter, Mohammad Hanif’s narrator urges the reader to look closely at the scene of Mohammad Zia-ul-Huq’s final farewell before he boards his final fatal airplane flight. And that is something that the reader must keep doing throughout the rest of the book, as Mohammad Hanif draws out the stories of potential suspects – the narrator himself, a sidelined general, his trusted deputy, an angry blind woman with a death sentence on her head, a crow, a group of tapeworms, even a crate of mangoes – to account for Huq’s assassination.
The book – the first by the BBC Urdu Service chief – is a delightful political and historical satire that examines the last few days of the life of the influential Pakistani leader. Following in the mighty footsteps of Mohsin Hamid, this latest page-turner from Pakistan explores an important time in the history of Pakistan, when the rapid Islamicization, coupled with the war in Afghanistan, gave rise to the greatest evils in our world today, fundamentalism and terrorism.
Nowhere is Hanif’s satire more potent than in a scene from a Fourth of July party at the American Ambassador’s residence, where, amongst the Marines and CIA spooks, a lonely bearded man by the name “OBL”, from Laden and Co. Construction, appears, and is generally avoided by all, other than receiving some words of congratulations from American intelligence officials. OBL, hungry and at a loss for people to talk to, finally ventures into the kitchen tent for some food, but finds it all ravaged by the rest of the exuberantly intoxicated guests.
The majority of the book deals with the story of the narrator, Junior Under Officer Ali Shighri, and how he seeks to avenge the apparent suicide of his father, which he blames on Gen. Huq. Along the way, Shighri meets Obaidullah, a young fellow cadet at the Air Force Academy, who proceeds to quickly fall in love with him. The love manifests itself most when Obaid, upon realizing Shighri’s plot to assassinate Zia, attempts to steal a plane from the Academy and crash it into the General’s residence. Shighri is promptly arrested by the ISI, who subject him to rigorous psychological torture, below the premises of Lahore Fort. Eerily, Hanif’s descriptions of Lahore Fort bring to mind the premises of something much closer to home – our very own Lalbagh Fort.
The rest of the book shows the lives of the narrator and Gen. Huq on a collision course (pardon the pun) with each other. Up to this point, each character gets his own dueling chapter to tell the tale of their activities on the last few weeks before the assassination, but then they all merge into a confusing tangle of events that culminates in the fatal plane crash.
Along the way, Shighri’s motive – to avenge his father’s death – becomes clearer. However, the greatest character development in the book happens to the soon-to-be-dead General Huq, who undergoes a rapid transformation in the face of a death that he foretells from a passage in the Quran. The book very clearly elucidates the rapid Islamicization that grips the General’s brain, as well as the fear and paranoia of impending death that grips him from the beginning of the book. The fear of death, coupled with the death of his most trusted bodyguard, drives him into a frenzy of mistrust, as a result of which he sidelines his most senior general, the head of the ISI, who then hatches a plot to kill Huq himself. Along the way, Huq learns what his people really think of him, from a policeman who meets him during a brief escapade, and realizes that none of his sycophants are worth trusting anymore.
Bangladeshi readers will recognize one line in particular – “the last time someone tried to steal a plane, the country was split in two”, referencing the final journey of our very own Birshreshtho Matiur Rahman.
The book leaves the reader with more questions than answers. First off, how many people conspired to murder the General? There are a host of suspects, both human and animal, but there seems to be no end of potential suspects. Even General Beg, Huq’s eventual successor as Chief of Army Staff, seems to be have knowledge of the plot as well, as do many of the other characters who make an appearance in the book. But then the reader must remember that Hanif set out to write a piece of historical fiction, not to rewrite the history books nor spawn more conspiracy theories.
Overall, the book is an exciting and interesting read, and is hard to put down. However, compared to Mohsin Hamid’s darker tales of betrayal and deception, Hanif’s book seems to fall short, and lack some of the dynamism that Hamid is able to infuse into his own writing. That said, A Case of Exploding Mangoes is still a fantastic tale in itself, and is definitely worth the read.