While recent years have seen an explosion of fiction from Indian authors being published in the West, the same can’t be said for the other country that was born out of Partition; Pakistan. Pakistan remains something of a mystery for most people in North America, occasionally gaining notoriety for acts of violence against women, political assassinations, and insinuations about its ties with the Taliban and the insurgency in Afghanistan.
Ironically, it was its ties to the very same Taliban in the 1980s that gave it favoured nation status with Ronald Regan’s administration in Washington. Pakistan was the conduit for American money and military aid to those resisting the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
In those days Pakistan was ruled by General Zia, who had led the military in the coup that had ousted the elected government of Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, (father of recently assassinated former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto), and was responsible for his execution. Zia was America’s “tame” Muslim, and they turned a blind eye to his introduction of laws that allowed for women to be stoned to death for adultery.
General Zia’s career and life came to an abrupt end when his presidential plane crashed on takeoff, killing all on board. There has never been an official explanation as to what caused the crash that ended Zia’s 11-year reign, but now, some 20-odd years later, an unofficial explanation has been put forward.
Mohammed Hanif’s new novel, A Case Of Exploding Mangos, published by Random House Canada, plunks us down in Pakistan for the last month of President Zia’s life and takes us behind the scenes – from the American Embassy in Islamabad, the First Lady of Pakistan’s private chambers, to a military prison.
The war in Afghanistan is winding down, the Taliban are closing in on Kabul, and the Russians are pulling out. For their role in allowing the Americans to use Pakistan as their staging ground for funding the insurrection, President Zia and his chief of staff have gone to the top of the charts as the top ten bulwarks against Communist expansion in the free world. The fact that they run a despotic military dictatorship where the prisons are full of those who might not agree with them is conveniently ignored.
Junior Under Officer Ali Shigri is in trouble. He somehow managed to miss the fact that one of the men in his squadron at the Pakistan Airforce Academy was not present during roll call that morning. The man had not only gone AWOL, but had also stolen a small plane. His seniors aren’t buying his story of the series of coincidences that prevented him from noticing Cadet Obaid-ul-llah was missing, and then not reporting the same. The fact that the two young men were known to be close friends probably has a lot to do with that, and they can’t believe Ali knew nothing about his buddy’s plans in advance.
Ali knows he’s in trouble when the ISI are called in and a Major in the intelligence service shows up in car without license plates to take him for a drive into the mountains. He doesn’t realize how much trouble, though, until he’s locked up in the prison where they keep the rest of the political prisoners. If he thinks he’s having a bad time of it, it’s nothing compared to what President Zia is going through.
The First Lady found a picture of him ogling a Western journalist’s breasts and has declared him dead to her, and for three days running he’s opened his Koran to the story of Jonah trapped in the belly of the whale and is begging to think there’s a message there he’s missing. On top of that he’s suffering from worms, his general staff are spying on each other, and he’s so sure that someone wants to kill him that he’s locked himself in his armed force’s residence and refuses to move into the new Presidential Palace. Sometimes paranoia is justified, and in this case, the president is right: there is a plot in motion to have him assassinated.
In point of fact, there is more than one plot underway to bring Zia’s life and rule to an end. When his personal head of security has an unfortunate accident (his parachute inexplicably fails to open during a ceremonial jump for the Nation Day parade and he splatters on the pavement in front of the President), Zia is obviously distraught. He would probably be even more distraught if he knew that during the parade the head of his intelligence service was standing behind the president rehearsing his spontaneous words of regret about the death of the aforementioned bodyguard. Although, probably not nearly as distraught if he knew the same man was also rehearsing his first address to the nation after the bitter blow of losing our beloved President Zia.
A Case Of Exploding Mangoes takes no prisoners when it comes to selecting targets for its satire. From its depiction of Saudi Princes with private doctors dedicated to the care of their privates, the marriage of convenience between the US and Pakistan, how to adjudicate rape cases under supposed Muslim law (the woman must be a virgin, there has to be at least four men involved for it to be rape, the woman must be able to identify all four men involved, and she must supply four male witnesses attesting to her status as a virtuous woman), to the petty jealousies and infighting among the men surrounding Zia in the upper echelons of power, nobody and nothing escapes unscathed.
While Mohammed Hanif has written a novel that is mainly light in tone and is at times quite funny, the humour is more than a little dark and bitter. Through the character of Ali Shigri we learn how to survive in this political climate with his ability to play dumb when needed, kiss ass when appropriate, and how to avoid the knife in the back while twisting your own blade in deeper. We don’t see everything through his eyes, but his narrative is the one that leads us into the dark heart beating beneath the surface of this seemingly light story.
Hanif is playing on dangerous ground with this novel, as there is much in here that could be interpreted by people without senses of humour as offensive. The real trouble is that people don’t like having their hypocrisy displayed quite as publicly as A Case Of Exploding Mangoes makes a point of doing. Nobody is safe, not even OBL of Laden and co. Construction from Saudi Arabia, who just wants people to pay attention to him at the American Ambassador’s Fourth of July party celebrating victory in Afghanistan in 1988.
While A Case Of Exploding Mangoes won’t give you any real insights into what life in Pakistan is like, it does lift the veil on a period of history that neither the folks in Washington, Pakistan, or the Taliban would like anyone to remember. Its dark humour and merciless depiction of the politics of convenience make it a refreshing antidote to today’s omnipresent War On Terror rhetoric.