A Case of Exploding Mangoes by Mohammed Hanif is a captivating fictional account of how President Zia-ul-Haq was killed in plane crash. The author is an ex-Pak Air force official. And he has all the interesting and intriguing details of the Pak Army and its operations, its academy and its characteristics and the people who run it. In fact, the autobiographical piece by Mohammed Hanif at the end of the book talking about his own journey from the Air force academy to being a bestselling author is lovely to read. His personal experiences somehow add a layer of validation to his narrative.
The story begins with the end. The last scene is revealed to you and then the whole story begins to unfold. The parallel narrative takes you through the story of the protagonist which in a way is the alter ego of the author. Or the kind of officer he would have thought of himself to be. And the other side is the story of General Zia-Ul-Haq. He is painted as a general caught in his own web, who is paranoid about his own security. And is hell-bent on painting everything through the eyes of Quran? The two stories lead to the same endpoint.
There are subplots of various people all of whom want the General and the self-proclaimed president to be killed. Some in his own organization are plotting to kill him without the knowledge of each other. Some have a revenge to be taken. While others are just cursing him for punishing them for no fault of theirs. There are Americans who want him killed. And there are military officers who want him dead. And there are Pakistani citizens who cannot stand him alive. In the end, all the energies converge together to kill him.
Mohammed Hanif’s Novel gives a good glimpse of life in Pakistan under General Zia. How Islamization of the country started under him, how restrictions were imposed and how everything in the country was about him. And what he did. It gives a peep into the corruption that breeds in such circumstances. It shows the lives of diplomats who are in a way living in a golden cage. Through General Zia’s wife, you get to know a bit of woman’s world and how they have to live with the men but more or less as invisible half.
There are sexual exploitation and gay relationships that come through interactions of various army personnel. There are prisons that you see in the dungeons of Lahore Fort. And there are gory scenes of torture by the army. There is spy versus spy games. And you never know who will topple whom and when. You never know whose liabilities lay with whom. The story mostly moves at a speed except for around 70% mark, the prison scenes drag on a bit. Author has also introduced the omens that Pakistanis believe in through a blind girl. And of course, through the General Zia’s belief in the Quran’s suras and the implicit meaning, they potentially carry within them. It also gives an insight into the Pakistan – America nexus. And the way it operated under Zia.
The book A Case of Exploding Mangoes has all the ingredients of a best seller. There is an added curiosity factor about a country that many of don’t know much about. The story works at various levels. And keeps you glued to the narrative enough when some parts are too gruesome and probably anticipated only by those who enjoy reading war stories.