A Case of Exploding Mangoes
336 pp., $24.00
Reviewed by Elissa Elliott
Little Things Add Up
With the December 2007 assassination of two–time Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in the back of our minds, it is fitting that Mohammed Hanif's first novel, A Case of Exploding Mangoes, arrives on bookshelves now.
But first, in order to understand how witty the novel is, allow me to offer a crash course in Pakistani history. In 1977, Benazir Bhutto's father, the Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, was ousted in a military coup d'état led by General Muhammad Zia–ul–Haq, the Chief of Army Staff. Two years later, General Zia assumed power as the President of Pakistan, and the former Prime Minister was executed on fabricated charges. During General Zia's rule, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, while—as you well know—on this side of the Atlantic, President Reagan (and clandestinely, Democratic Congressman of Texas Charlie Wilson) backed General Zia and his mujahideen.
Fast–forward to May of 1988. After numerous disagreements with the Prime Minister Junejo, a figurehead in any case, General Zia dissolved the National Assembly and removed the Prime Minister, promising the Pakistani people that they would have the opportunity to elect someone new within ninety days. The political atmosphere was strained, to say the least.
In August, General Zia was killed in a plane crash after attending a perfectly normal, standard–protocol tank parade. And he wasn't alone in his demise. Several of his army generals were onboard, as was the U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan, Arnold Raphel, and the senior Pentagon official in Pakistan, Brigadier General Herbert M. Wassom. Despite multiple and swift investigations, the cause of the crash—was it in fact the result of an elaborate assassination plot?—was never definitively established.
This is where A Case of Exploding Mangoes comes in. Mohammed Hanif, a former pilot officer at the Pakistan Air Force Academy and currently the Editor at BBC Urdu, has written an ingenious fictionalized account of what could have happened on the road to General Zia's death.
The protagonist is Ali Shigri, Junior Under Officer and Leader of the Silent Drill Squad—a rifle drill team trained to respond to heel clicks, hand slaps, and eye blinks—who lives in the mysterious shadow of his late father, Colonel Shigri, who allegedly hanged himself from his ceiling fan with a bed sheet. One morning, young Shigri wakes to discover that his friend Obaid, lover of poetry and Poison perfume, has gone AWOL with one of the army's planes, and despite Shigri's protests that he knows nothing, he's taken in for intense questioning and a lengthy confinement.
In the meantime, General Zia's life is crumbling. Twice now before his morning prayers, he has haphazardly opened his English translation of the Qur'an to the same verse about Jonah's plea in the belly of the whale. What does this mean? he thinks. He's plagued by tapeworms. His wife, too, has grown tired of him, and after an inappropriate picture of her husband is published in the Palestine Times, she storms into a charity event and cracks her glass bracelets against each other, breaking them into shards in front of him. "Add my name to that list of widows," she says. "You are dead for me."
General Zia is paralyzed at the slightest hint of conspiracies against him; he decides he will never again leave his residence, the Army House. But General Zia has another problem—one he is unaware of. His right–hand security man, General Akhtar Abdur Rahman, is tired of being number two. At first, he enjoys the benefits and special privileges, but they begin to grate on him because, well, he's not top dog. Small treacherous thoughts blossom in his mind. His success depends largely on getting rid of that formidable beast Brigadier TM, who's in charge of General Zia's personal safety. If only … .
I won't spoil the story for you. But there are enough questions to keep you fitting the puzzle pieces together until the very end. Does Shigri get a chance to use his poisoned sword? Does Shigri find out what happened to Obaid? And what on earth does this have to do with General Zia's death? And yet we know Shigri is present as General Zia and his cohorts board the plane. Here's Shigri's description on the first page: "You might have seen me on TV after the crash. The clip is short and everything in it is sun bleached and slightly faded. It was pulled after the first two bulletins because it seemed to be having an adverse impact on the morale of the country's armed forces … . For a brief moment you can see General Zia's face in the clip, the last recorded memory of a much photographed man … . If you watch closely you can probably tell that he is in some discomfort. He is walking the walk of a constipated man." Constipated? Why?
A Case of Exploding Mangoes does illustrate how seemingly innocuous minutiae can have a collective, irreversible, and linked effect. Perhaps the best reference to this comes as General Zia's plane is plummeting to the ground. "As he bends down to pick up his piece of evidence, he notices a copy of the Qur'an, open in the middle and intact. Not a scratch on it, not a lick of fire or smoke. Before he kisses the Qur'an and closes it carefully he reads the verse on the page that is open in front of him and tries to recall a half–remembered story about an ancient prophet." And there it is. The Jonah verse. He is Jonah, being spat out upon the earth. And like the general in the last few seconds of his fragile life, don't you want to know why?
Elissa Elliott is a writer living in Rochester, Minnesota. Her book Eve: A Novel of the First Woman is due in January 2009 from Delacorte Press.
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