On 17 August 1988, a plane carrying General Zia ul-Haq, the military ruler of Pakistan since 1977 and America’s staunchest ally in the first Afghan war, went down in flames, killing everybody on board, including American ambassador Arnold Raphel. Zia was accompanied by some of his senior generals, the US ambassador to Pakistan and the head of the US military aid mission to Pakistan, all of whom died. There was no real investigation and no culprit was ever identified or, at any rate, announced. Conspiracy theories abound, implicating the CIA, the Bhutto family, Indian intelligence, rogue elements within the Pakistan Army or the Soviet Union. In this novel, Mohammed Hanif, a former Pakistan Air Force officer, now head of the BBC’s Urdu Service, imagines what might have happened and why. It begins with Junior Under Officer Ali Shigri being hauled for interrogation. Shigri’s room-mate, the poetry-loving cadet Obaid, has gone Awol and, reportedly, tried to fly off using Shigri’s call-sign. When the local bosses fail to get anything out of Shigri, the under officer is put in a dungeon under Lahore Fort and threatened with torture.
Meanwhile, General Zia, suspecting that Allah had sent him a message through the Qur’an that his life is in danger, raises his security level to red. The Afghan war is almost over and Zia, dreaming of the Nobel Peace Prize, knows he is surrounded by enemies. He also inflicted with an itch, which isn’t improving his temper. General Akhtar Abdur Rehman, the ambitious head of Inter-Services Intelligence, is happy to enhance the general’s already heavy security.
There is plenty of political satire of sycophantic ministers, mindlessly efficient security chiefs, filthy prison cells, erudite communist prisoners, the novel is highly charged with testosterone, artillery and military anecdotes. Similar to Catch-22 by Joseph Heller which couldn’t quite draw my attention at the beginning of the book. Zia’s limited intelligence and unlimited paranoia are portrayed with great glee. The only women of any significance are Zia’s wife and my most liked humorous piece when she join the long queues of widows, after seeing a picture of her husband gazing into the cleavage of an American journalist, to face her husband at the end of the queue and declares him dead to her.
Although framed as a mystery with a complimentary review by John Le Carr, the book is aptly classified as political satire. It provides a steady dose of humour which sort of wane after awhile. It brought a few smile, the conclusion is tidy, some tensions on parachute that won’t open in a nail biting sort of way.
What I like the least: Corny jokes overkill. Long sentences. All characters are idiotic including General Zia. Depends on your sense of humour, you may or may not find this funny.
What I like the most: It is funny and entertaining. Not many good political satires at this scale, any attempt for writers’ to write one is most anticipated by me. The novel contains enough acidic humour to keep me reading.
Paperback. Publisher: Vintage 2009; Length: 295 pages; Setting:Pakistan. Source: Reading Library copy. Finished reading at: 17 March 2011.
Other reviews (mostly positive):
Bina @ if you can read this: “I enjoyed this book immensely and was in turns amused and shocked but always occupied with keeping track of all the plot strands.”
Page Turner : “If you are looking for something fun, unique and thoughtful, the A Case of Exploding Mangoes is for you.”
Winnowed: I was reminded of Joseph Heller’s Catch 22 even before I finished the first fifty pages.
Anocturne: There are far too many pages where I was snorting and cackling and laughing till my sides ached.
Book Lovers Book review: I would highly recommend this book! A must read.
About the writer:
Mohammed Hanif (born 1964) is a Pakistani writer and journalist. He was born in Okara. He graduated from Pakistan Air Force Academy as a pilot officer but subsequently left to pursue a career in journalism. He initially worked for Newsline, The Washington Post and India Today. In 1996, he moved to London to work for the BBC. Later, he became the head of the BBC’s Urdu service in London. He graduated from the University of East Anglia in 2005, and moved back to Pakistan in 2008.
His first novel A Case of Exploding Mangoes (2008) was shortlisted for the 2008 Guardian First Book Award. It has been also shortlisted for 2009 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize in the Best First Book category as a winner from Europe and South Asia region. He has also written plays for the stage and screen, including a BBC drama and the movie, The Long Night.
Some major characters of the book:
General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq (Punjabi, Urdu: محمد ضیاء الحق ; 12 August 1924 – 17 August 1988) was the sixth President of Pakistan from July 1977 to his death in August 1988. Distinguished by his role in the Black September in Jordan military operation in 1970, he was appointed Chief of Army Staff in 1976. After widespread civil disorder, he overthrew ruling Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in a bloodless coup d’état on 5 July 1977 and became the state’s third ruler to impose martial law. He initially ruled as Chief Martial Law Administrator, but later installed himself as the President of Pakistan in September 1978.
Zia’s major domestic initiatives included the consolidation of the fledgling nuclear program, which was initiated by Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto,denationalization and deregulation and the state’s Islamization. His tenure saw the disbanding of the Baloch insurgency. His endorsement of the Pakistan Muslim League (the founding party of Pakistan) initiated its mainstream revival. However, he is most remembered for his foreign policy; the subsidizing of the Mujahideen movement during the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan which led to the Soviet Russian withdrawal from Afghanistan. He was described by some as a “fundamentalist Sunni dictator”.
Zia died along with several of his top generals and then-United States Ambassador to Pakistan Arnold Lewis Raphel in a suspicious aircraft crash near Bahawalpur (Punjab) on 17 August 1988.
General Akhtar Abdur Rahman (Urdu: اختر عبد الرحمن) (b. 11 June 1924 – 17 August 1988) in Rampur, U.P. present day India. He was a 4 star general in the Pakistan Army. He served as Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee from 1987–1988 and as Director-General Inter-Services Intelligence from 1980-1987. As DG ISI A close aide of General Zia-ul-Haq, General Akhtar was widely known as the second most powerful man in the country during Zia’s eleven-year dictatorship. He died in a mysterious plane crash that also killed Zia and many other top Pakistani generals heading the Soviet War in Aghanistan, as well as the US Ambassador to Pakistan, Arnold Lewis Raphel. In the novel, he was seen as the man behind a possible coup d’etat to usurp Zia.