Patrick Skene Catling reviews A Case of Exploding Mangoes by Mohammed Hanif
“Who is trying to kill me?” General Muhammad Zia ul-Haq, the president of Pakistan, keeps asking his chief of security. “Everyone,” replies Brigadier Tahir Mehdi.
It is true. In the 11 years after Zia executed Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the dictator’s superstitious paranoia became fully justified. To know him was to fear and hate him. There were many willing assassins.
Hanif, who graduated as a pilot from Pakistan’s Air Force Academy but now lives in relative safety as the head of the BBC’s Urdu service in London, seeks to reveal in fiction the possible identity of Zia’s killer and has great fun doing so.
What caused Pak One, Zia’s C-130 cargo plane, to crash in the desert near Bahawalpur, killing him, his general staff and the US ambassador, after a farcical demonstration of newly donated American tanks and a big Fourth of July party? Should the CIA be blamed? It usually is.
Did the pilots succumb to VX gas in the plane’s ventilation system? Did a blind woman prisoner of the regime fatally curse the president? Was a crow responsible, blundering into an engine? Or did a case of mangoes, presented to Zia by the Left-wing Pakistan Mango Farmers Cooperative, contain explosives?
Did General Akhtar, resentful because Zia had promoted him away from command of Inter-Services Intelligence, know what was going to happen, but did not warn his chief, and yet, perversely loyal, stayed by his side to the end? The motives and chances remain inextricable.
Hanif’s depiction of the life of a Pakistani air cadet might be a caricature, but probably isn’t an unduly grotesque one. The narrator of the novel, Under Officer Ali Shigri, conjures up the authentic smell of military discipline.
Hanif displays the universal sameness of militarism at its most virulent, citing, for example, “weird US military-speak”, the use of torture to aid interrogation, and expenditure of vast sums of money to make the world a more dangerous place.
The Pakistani saluting style is very Sandhurst, but the only military progress in Pakistan, according to Hanif/Shigri, is that the generals grow fatter and have more medals: “The 40th Independence Day medal. The Squadron Anniversary medal. Today-I-did-not-jerk-off medal… One for organising a squash tournament, another for the great battle that was tree-planting week.” Shigri’s squadron leader went on “a freebie to Mecca and is wearing a hajj medal too”.
Zia consults the Koran every morning as his personal horoscope, while Shigri and his friend, Under Officer Obaid-ul-llah, derive intellectual stimulus from the condensed version of Escape from Colditz in Reader’s Digest and surrogate sex from Playboy.
The two cadets are so close that when Obaid disappears from the barracks and a plane goes missing, the authorities assume that Shigri is in collusion with him. Shigri claims ignorance and is cast into a dungeon in the Mughals’ 16th-century Lahore Fort.
He communicates with the prisoner next door, the secretary general of the All Pakistan Sweepers Union, who exerts significant influence on the mango farmers and was behind the failed plan to put a bomb in the gutter that Zia was scheduled to sweep to inaugurate National Cleanliness Week.
Shigri is mysteriously pardoned and welcomed to freedom, perhaps because his father was a celebrated colonel who frequently penetrated deep into Afghan territory and handled large numbers of dollars.
Hanif acknowledges Charlie Wilson’s War and uses it to good effect, reporting Zia’s visit to Congressman Wilson’s constituency in Texas. Zia was one of the principal opportunists and heroes of the Cold War, serving as a conduit for billions of dollars of covert aid to the mujahedin in their victorious campaign against the Soviet invasion.