Book Review: A Case of Exploding Mangoes

Hamza Waqas

Mohammad Hannif is a critically acclaimed Pakistani author and journalist. His first novel, A Case of Exploding Mangoes (2008), was followed by Our Lady of Alice Bhatti (2011) and Red Birds (2018). All three novels were well received by both local and international audiences, and are testament to the author’s ability to address various controversial socio-political issues in an entertaining and thought provoking manner. For his contribution to Pakistani literary fiction, he received the ‘Sitara-e-Imtiaz’ in 2018; the third highest civilian honour in Pakistan. Although “A Case of Exploding Mangoes” deals with subject matter that is rather dated, the book has undoubtedly aged well in the past ten years. The issues it addresses are arguably relevant to this day.

When I decided to look for a hardback of A Case of Exploding Mangoes, I couldn’t find one, and had to settle for a pirated digital copy. Earlier this year, the office of Mohammad Hannif’s Urdu publisher was allegedly raided by the all too familiar yet paradoxically anonymous members of one of Pakistan’s notorious intelligence agencies. After concluding their raid, they took the liberty to confiscate all the copies of the book that were there. Why would they be inclined to do such a thing nearly 10 years after the original book was published? Perhaps the book is just far more impactful and entertaining in Urdu? Perhaps they enjoyed it as much as I did and wanted it all for themselves? Whatever their immediate motivations were, it is safe to say that tradition of political satire has always been frowned upon by the ruling elite, in Pakistan and beyond. Understandably, those in power do not appreciate it when someone points out that the emperor has no clothes. A single reading of Hannif’s work has the potential to embolden its readers, and encourages them to explore creative ways of expressing dissent, in a country where censorship and political repression is still prevalent.

Mohammad Hannif spent the early days of his youth in the Air Force, before retiring and becoming a journalist. In a recent interview, the author claimed that Joseph Heller was one of his inspirations, which is evident through the parallels that can be drawn between his work and Heller’s Catch 22. The controversial novel offers an insider’s perspective on the armed forces of Pakistan through the eyes of a young recruit. In the beginning of the novel and nearly throughout its entirety the protagonist Ali Shigiri guides us through his experience as a member of the armed forces, a journey littered with sarcastic jibes and comedic undertones. His observations always seem to hint at something beyond what meets the eye. For instance in the beginning of chapter seven, the description of Major Kyani’s actions and demeanour run parallel with the kind of impunity that the intelligence agency he represents functions with. This view is masterfully expressed in the phrase “Major Kiyani’s Corolla seems like an extension of his powers, unblinking, unlimited and needing no justification” spoken after Kyani refused to give way to an oncoming vehicle forcing it to swerve off the road. The insinuation is not subtle, but is clever in its own right. The tone of the book is exactly that; blunt, bold, and uncompromising. The authors work also demonstrates a firm command over the English language, and his consistent use of colorful similes is a testament to the author’s creativity. While describing General Zia’s troubled appearance one night, the author writes “His hair, always oiled and parted down the middle, was in a state of disarray, like a parade squad on tea break”.

The most admirable quality of Mohammad Hannif’s work is how the humour is often of a dual nature and tends to takes you by surprise. In a rather heated conversation with an imprisoned Marxist from the cell next to his own, the protagonist is accused of being implicit in the crimes of the institution he represents. The Marxist prisoner insists on how the army is to blame for their current predicament to which the protagonist responds with, “’But I am from the air force,’ I say, trying to create a wedge between the nation’s firmly united armed forces.” It is not just his response, but also the inner monologue that immediately follows most of what the protagonist says throughout the novel that seems to be consistently entertaining. Considering how regular members of the armed forces are often insulated from political civilian life, Ali Shigri’s level-headed innocent indifference, in contrast with his Marxist neighbours’ political fervour fuelled by idealism and experience, makes for an amusing yet insightful conversation. The Marxist prisoner claims that both soldiers and sweepers are victims of oppression as they both are forms of exploitative labour that the system thrives on. The suggestion pleases the protagonist as he finds a sense of affinity with his neighbour after being referred to as a worker. The inner monologues  serve not only as a means of enriching conversations and observations, it also humanizes the protagonist, as it offers insight into the inner workings of the protagonist’s mind, who is often finding himself wanting to express something that the situation won’t allow.

A central character in the novel is military dictator General Zia-ul-Haq himself, arguably one of the most well-known as well as the most controversial  public figure in Pakistan’s political history. In the novel Zia is aptly described as “a mullah with the instincts of a corrupt tax inspector.” To describe the act of tastefully ridiculing a former head of state in a country like Pakistan as bold, would be an understatement. Through the powers of well-articulated omniscient narration, Hannif shows Zia not as the firm, disciplined and professional man that his carefully crafted public image might suggest, but as a paranoid, self-absorbed individual, perceived as irritating by nearly all those around him. Hannif allows us to take a peek inside the Generals’ most private thoughts, exposing his insecurities and revealing contradictions. The diverse crowd of onlookers that Hannif describes towards the end of chapter six speaks volumes. It shows us how the desire for social and cultural uniformity on a national level, one of the defining features of General Zia-ul-Haqs dictatorship, is not entirely feasible nor is it grounded in reality.

This brief review may not do justice to Mohammad Hannifs work, as the book has so much more to offer. It is an insightful yet entertaining work of historical fiction that will probably continue to stand out for many years to come. The story is told in a way that keeps the reader glued, unable to overcome the urge to read on. I would go as far as to say that Hannif unapologetically ridicules and simultaneously criticizes powerful institutions throughout the text, in a manner similar to Major Kyani’s driving. I think it goes without saying, that it is a book definitely worth reading.

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