Publisher: Random House India
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Assassinations and mysterious deaths of political figures have always been a popular subject for novelists around the world. Mohammed Hanif in his debut novel, revisits the suspicious circumstances in which General Zia-ul-Haq was killed.
General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq was a four-star general who served as President of Pakistan from 1978 to 1988 after deposing Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. He is one of the most important figures in Pakistani history. He was mysteriously killed in an air crash near Bahawalpur, along with several of his top generals and two American diplomats, in 1988. There have been many conspiracy theories regarding his death, some even suggesting Indian and Soviet hands in the incident. His death however, remains one of Pakistan’s most intriguing political mysteries.
Mohammed Hanif seamlessly meshes fact and fiction to provide us with an exciting and fast-paced satirical novel. He uses the original historical characters and the established facts as the base to build up this novel and adds a whole lot of other fictional characters and incidents. The most notable of these fictional characters is Ali Shigri, an under-officer in the Pakistan Air Force who serves as the primary narrator in the novel. The novel constantly shifts between the first-person narrative (which is Shigri’s narration) and third-person narrative (which primarily gives us scenes from General Zia’s life months before the crash). Hanif gives us a huge and diverse list of suspects which includes Shigri who is convinced that General Zia is responsible for his father’s death, some of the generals in the army who are desperate for a promotion and even a crow and controls several sub-plots at the same time, all of which finally converge towards the air crash that claimed General Zia’s life.
Since Ali Shigri is a junior officer with the Air Force, a large part of the novel is set in the Pakistan Air Force Academy. Mohammed Hanif himself is a trained Pilot Officer who quit his job to pursue a career in journalism, so this part definitely seems to be a product of his own experience in the Academy. He does give us quite a bit of “insider” information into the workings of the Air Force and the Academy, and these portions of the novel are quite interesting to read. Another positive in the novel is General Zia’s characterization, which Hanif does with a tinge of satire. There are also quite a lot of political references, primary dealing with America’s alliance with Pakistan in supporting the Afghan mujahideen.
“A case of exploding mangoes” is a wonderful read, with some very interesting characters (even Osama Bin Laden makes a cameo) and glimpses into the workings of the military dictatorship in Pakistan. Just one thing: At the end of the novel, I am a little confused between fact and fiction. It is definitely to credit to Mohammed Hanif’s writing that he has merged the two so well, but I am left wondering as to where fact ends and fiction begins.