A Case of Exploding Mangoes

A plane crash near Bahawalpur in 1988 killed Mohammed Zia-ul-Haq, the president of Pakistan who had come to power a decade earlier by way of military coup, several top aids, and the American Ambassador to Pakistan. The official inquiry concluded that the plane was sabotaged, with fingers pointed toward India and other foreign agents, including the United States, and members of Pakistani intelligence suspected of conspiracy.

Mohammed Hanif’s A Case of Exploding Mangoes turns the circumstances of Zia’s death into a farce in the mode of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22.

The bulk of the narrative unfolds in alternating narratives that are doomed to collide. The first follows Junior Under Officer Ali Shigri, son of a recently-deceased war hero, commander of the academy’s silent drill squad, and a man in a pickle because his roommate Obaid has disappeared without leave. Ali Shigri finds himself first interrogated and then under arrest, allegedly because he was a co-conspirator in whatever Obaid was plotting, however he may protest.

In truth, though, Shigri’s suspicions about the death of his father have led him into the tangled nest of snakes that surrounds the president. Wherever he is, whether in the training academy, imprisoned beneath the Mughal fort in Lahore, or being interrogated by the intelligence services, Shigri looks to enlist allies to carry out his vendetta.

The second arc follows President Zia in his last days, largely holed up in in the Army House, pandered to by fearful soldiers and entirely isolated from the citizens who he is convinced love him. Zia, as Hanif characterizes him, was an imposing figure: a powerful general guided by his religious faith who, in the years after the coup that brought him to power, left a lasting Islamic imprint on the country and firmly believed that he deserved the Nobel Peace Prize for his role in defeating the Soviet army in Afghanistan.

But in 1988 Zia is pathetic. His chief advisors condescend to his demands for prayer in his presence and then plot for their own power over whiskey and even his wife is about ready to kick him out of his bed. Making matters worse, Zia is beset by worms that are tearing him apart from the inside. At least his people love him, he thinks.

There are easy––perhaps too easy––parallels between A Case of Exploding Mangoes and Joseph Heller’s classic World War Two novel, Catch-22. Both are military farces with a motley cast that trade on the absurd, but Hanif falls short of the high standard Heller set.

A Case of Exploding Mangoes does its best to speak truth to power, and in small ways offers a critique of Zia’s Pakistan. Shigri’s prison conspirators are a communist organizer trying to improve the plight of the working class, only to have been arrested, tortured and thrown into absolute blackness where he was forgotten for seven years and a blind women condemned to death for fornication after having been raped. In both cases Hanif is critical of these brutal and arbitrary punishments, but the hopelessness of both situations is only heightened because the only people with any agency are the soldiers.

In this sense, the most successful part of the novel was the portrait of Zia because it demonstrated the fundamental futility of the structures that he created. This arc also contained the funniest situations, including a memorable parachute jump and Osama bin Laden (OBL) showing up at a cocktail party. (During these sections of the novel I frequently recalled Ghost Wars, an account of the US involvement in Afghanistan in the 1980s and 1990s.)

By contrast, the main plot of A Case of Exploding Mangoes is an intermittently successful revenge fantasy that shrugs off any possibility of change.

Taking up the Catch-22 parallel, that novel is an absurdist critique of war and military bureaucracy from the perspective of self-preservation near the end of what is sometimes called “the last good war.” Self-preservation is easy to connect with and (military) bureaucracy is an ever-ripe subject for mockery, but the ancillary factors soften the totality of the war setting.

A Case of Exploding Mangoes is set apart from an actual war, but, published in 2008, is set to remind the reader of a post-9/11 world of constant warfare with no end in sight. Revenge is a fine motivation with a long literary history and it is admirable to poke at insular military governments like that of Zia or closer in time to the book’s publication, that of Pervez Musharraf. And yet, the fact that Hanif successfully takes aim at the larger social failings of Zia’s regime made the driving engine of the plot, the revenge plot, fall flat.

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I am between books for a moment, having just finished Anand Giridharadas’ Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World.

Basti – Intizar Husain

The more the turmoil increases outside, the more I sink into myself. Memories of so many times come to me. Ancient and long-ago stories, lost and scattered thoughts. Memories one after another, entangled in each other, like a forest to walk through. My memories are a forest. so where does the forest begin? No, where do I begin? And again he was in a forest…When he As he moved along in the darkness and encountered a bright patch, he paused, but again moved on, for he wanted to arrive at the moment when his consciousness had first opened its eyes. But he couldn’t grasp the moment. When he put his finger on the memory, dense crowds of other memories drifted along in its train.

Other people’s history can be read comfortably, the way a novel can be read comfortably. But my own history? I’m on the run from my own history, and catching my breath in the present. Escapist. But the merciless present pushes us back again toward our history.

Afzal, a friend of the narrator of Intizar Husain’s novel Basti, keeps a running list of virtuous men in the world inscribed on a sheet of paper. He laments that the number is small and is ever diminishing.

Basti, the title of which means “place,” is a chimerical tale that charts the creation of “modern” Pakistan and the evident dissolution of civil society. When the story opens, the earliest memories that Zakir reaches back for, his fictional hometown Rupnagar is peaceful, with Hindus and Muslims living side-by-side, the primal forest and old buildings dominating the town. South Asian mythology lives here. Zakir’s family holds a prominent position in the town, with his father a member of the religious elite. But, even before the trauma of the partition of India in 1947, there are signs of the world changing when electricity comes to Rupnagar, the wires kill monkeys. After the Partition, Zakir and his family move to Lahore.

The narrative takes place in two sequences, blended together in Zakir’s retelling. The “present” plot takes place in 1971 during the war between Pakistan and India that created an independent Bangledesh. Lahore is given over to protests and air raids that disrupt the schedule of the college where Zakir teaches history. Instead, he spends more time at cafes, which are increasingly depressing. The “past” plot are Zakir’s daydreams of Rupnagar and of earlier adventures with his friends in the heyday of Lahore’s cafe scene. The days are not perfect, but they are better—and can never be recaptured.

Basti is part of a genre that recounts the coming of modernity and upheavals within a community. Zakir is part of a younger generation that certainly makes the transition more easily than do their elders, but as one of his friends puts it, Zakir peddles a drug no less potent than the religion of their fathers:

“I’m telling you, you’re responsible for this defeat. And you, Zakir.

“How?” Zakir asked innocently.

Salamat said wrathfully, “You imperialist stooge, do you play innocent and ask how? Haven’t you thought about what you’re teaching to boys? The histories of kings. Opium pills! Yes, and your father is responsible, who every day feeds my father an opium pill of religion!…”

Zakir is a man out of time, but, interestingly, Husain implies that his backward-looking personality is a character trait rather than simply a consequence of the times he lives in. His memories, in particular, are infused with Hindu and Muslim, usually Shia, lore, for which there is a glossary in the back. However, though Salamat accuses him of teaching an overly optimistic version of history, one of the things Zakir’s daydreams make clear is that while the past might sometimes be easy to envision as a peaceful place free of responsibility, it is also filled with tragedy and suffering.

The only memories that escape this universal truth are those from his childhood and about the woman he loves. Contributing to Zakir’s pain and disillusionment, though is how his primary love interest is forcibly kept apart from him such that he goes years without knowing whether or not she is even alive. Other loves are foiled by his own naïveté, but the elusiveness of love, combined with the tenuousness of male friendships, forms a backdrop for the novel, as well as the actual human interactions between people who are powerless before faceless threats and changes.

I picked up Basti a few months ago because I like the New York Review of Books Classics editions and because the story looked interesting. It also had the advantage of being originally written in Urdu appealed to my interest in reading world literature. The book jumped to the front of my list because Husain just recently passed away (it was published in 1979, and the translation in 2012). It was one I was looking forward to reading and was not disappointed. Basti has its issues, but the prose is beautiful and there is always beauty within the desolation of the modern world. There is a simple solution to the problems, Basti implies: work hard, live simple, and be virtuous.

Three things debase a man: a woman when she is not faithful, a brother when he asks for more than is his right, knowledge when it comes without hard labor. And three things deprive the earth of peace: an ignoble man when he rises to high rank, a learned man when he begins to worship gold, a master when he becomes cruel.

Easier said than done.


Next up, I am currently reading Waguih Ghali’s 1964 novel Beer in the Snooker Club.

Assorted Links

  1. Scientists reconstruct genetic makeup of 50,000 year-old girl-An article in the Guardian about the gene sequencing of the ancient woman found in Siberia, with some particular emphasis on some of the genetic variations modern humans have.
  2. Is American atheism heading for a schism?-An article in the Guardian about Atheism+, a new atheism movement that has resulted in more secular fighting than exchange of ideas. The author’s opinion is clearly stated by a youtube clip from Monty Python’s The Life of Brian.
  3. Pakistani mullah ‘planted charred texts’ on girl accused of blasphemy-A new development in the blasphemy trial of a young christian girl in Pakistan. The latest is that a mullah who has been vocal in opposition to the christian families stands accused of planting burnt pages to strengthen the case against the girl.
  4. Bad Research and Information Heresies (Draft Syllabus)-A draft syllabus posted by Timothy Burke for a class on bad research and informational heresies. The course looks really amazing, and a propos of many of the current developments in academia and journalism–as well as the current needs and dangers of the internet.
  5. Wild Elks Return to GermanyA story in Spiegel about the return of wild elk, who have found the ir old tracks and paths covered by roads. The best line: “If you come across an elk while looking for mushrooms or walking in the forest, you should under no circumstances make the mistake of running after it because it could turn and attack.”
  6. Barack Obama and Bill Clinton’s Quasi-frienship-A story in the New Yorker about the rocky relationship between the once and current presidents and how they have come together to work towards Obama’s reelection in 2012.
  7. As always, comments encouraged. What else is out there?