A Case of Exploding Mangoes by Mohammed Hanif [A Review]

A Case of Exploding Mangoes is a dark satire of one of Pakistan’s enduring mysteries – the death of former President General Zia-ul-Haq. Longlisted for the 2008 Booker Prize, it is a funny, provocative and mischievous tale that explores the normally unexplorable.

Cover image of A Case of Exploding Mangoes, a novel by Mohammed Hanif

One morning, Ali Shigri, a Junior Under Officer in the Pakistani Air Force Academy, wakes up to find his roommate, Obaid-ul-llah, gone. Ali is quickly placed under close arrest and interrogated, but it is not simply a matter of his roommate going AWOL. It turns out Obaid took a plane, used Ali’s call signs and disappeared from radar ten minutes after take-off. The fact that the missing man’s roommate happens to be Ali Shigri is not something to ignore as a coincidence either, as Ali’s father was a Colonel in the Pakistani Air Force. A well-respected soldier, he died suddenly in circumstances determined to have been a suicide and quickly swept under a rug.

In ten minutes he had drafted a statement on my behalf and made me sign it. The statement said that as the only male member of the family, I didn’t want an autopsy, I didn’t suspect foul play and I had not found a suicide note.

‘Call me if you ever need anything,’ he had said and left without giving me a phone number.

This past means that Ali’s superiors in the Air Force can never dismiss the possibility that Ali is seeking information, even revenge, for his father’s death. The fact that the President of Pakistan, General Zia-ul-Haq is scheduled to visit the academy and inspect the troops, including a drill led by Ali, is further reason for suspicion.

‘The Colonel was only doing his duty.’ He shuts the file and clasps it to his chest under his folded arm. I knew Dad was running the logistics of guerrilla war in Afghanistan for General Zia. I knew he was liaising between the Americans who were funding the war and the ISI, which was responsible for distributing these funds to the mujahideen.

Still far away from Ali, General Zia certainly is suspicious. A pious and superstitious man, Zia has noticed a serious of coincidences that have troubled him enough to order an increase to his security. Since taking control of the country in a coup d’état in 1977, Zia has become Pakistan’s longest serving head of state, instituting a wide range of reforms and initiatives. Now, in mid-1988, Zia should be enjoying a triumphant stage of his career. He has overseen economic growth, set Pakistan on a path to becoming a nuclear power and, with America’s support, has aided the resistance to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan to the extent where the Soviets have now begun their withdrawal.

Yet Zia has also made many enemies. The Russians, of course, are angry about their failure in Afghanistan after Zia had assured them he would not interfere. America are happy to have an ally in the fight against Reagan’s ‘Evil Empire’, but wish that ally was not a military dictator and that he had not armed the Mujahideen. The Pakistani people are unhappy with Zia’s dismemberment of democratic processes and his crackdown on personal freedoms in the name of religion. And Zia’s fellow generals in Pakistan’s powerful military have their own gripes against Zia and their own ambitions.

One thing the reader knows for certain when they begin this novel – in less than three months from its opening, Zia will be dead. Zia died in a plane crash on 17 August 1988 along with other Pakistani generals, the US Ambassador to Pakistan, Arnold Raphel, and an American General. The question is, who was responsible?

Ali Shigri has an answer. For, he tells the reader, at the novel’s opening; he is the only person who boarded that same plane and survived.

Before falling off the edge of the cliff, I am sure, everyone tells himself a story which has a happy ending. This is mine.

Mohammed Hanif, author of A Case of Exploding Mangoes, and I share something in common – a love for Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. Hanif discovered Catch-22 in, of all places, an Air Force library. He would read passages to colleagues in the Pakistan Air Force who would laugh out loud at its depiction of the absurdities of military bureaucracy and chain of command. Hanif said the book changed his outlook and that he has read it multiple times.

Hanif left the Air Force, where he was an officer pilot, and tried his hand at journalism. He set himself the ambitious task of getting to the bottom of a national mystery – the death of former Pakistan President, General Zia-ul-Haq. Zia’s death in that 1988 plane crash has never been satisfactorily explained. Hanif was frustrated in his attempt, however, stifled by cover ups and conspiracy theories and found little thirst for truth. What that left, though, was ample source material for a novel.

A Case of Exploding Mangoes is a political and military satire, exploring some of the contradictions of modern Pakistan. Its plot can be thought of as the confluence of several threads, some based on actual conspiracy theories, that put General Zia in its sights. Hanif says that the reaction to his novel included some people who thought the story was true. He recalls being contacted by a former head of Pakistani intelligence who wanted to know his sources!

Comparing A Case of Exploding Mangoes to Catch-22 would be very unfair to both novels – though both contain much satire, they are very different. That being said, the influence is clear to see. Especially in the early novel where asides and digressions, often absurd and humorous, take the reader off the main course. A few would be familiar to readers of Catch-22.

Unquestioning obedience was drilled into them by making them dig holes in the earth all day only to fill other holes the following day.

There are several passages and events in A Case of Exploding Mangoes that will make you wonder how this novel was ever published in Pakistan. Pakistan is, of course, far from alone as a country in trying to navigate the region between progress and tradition; between personal freedoms and national security; between the democratic state, the military and religion. There is plenty of material in A Case of Exploding Mangoes that will make you wonder how this novel slipped through without being halted on many fronts and Mohsin Hamid, author of The Reluctant Fundamentalist, called Hanif a brave writer. Hanif says he was told by an Indian writer that you would not get away with a similar book – a novel about Indira Gandhi, for example – in India.

The answer to how these aspects slipped through is that they haven’t. A Case of Exploding Mangoes was first published in English in Great Britain in 2008. An Urdu edition was only made available in late 2019 and copies of the edition were seized in Pakistan by the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), a government agency who also feature in the novel.

The parts in question would be spoilers to share here, but a transparent example would be the character of General Zia himself. In the novel, he is not a symbol or a figure in the distance that the rest of the plot revolves around as you might expect. He is a fully fleshed-out character, by volume probably the main character of the novel, complete with embarrassing medical issues and potentially blasphemous inner-thoughts. It shows that A Case of Exploding Mangoes is not just satirical but cheeky, mischievous and provocative as well. If you are like me, you will find such provocation surprising and delightful as I did.

What I enjoyed most in A Case of Exploding Mangoes were those moments that were genuinely dark and terrifying. These were wonderfully conceived and skilfully achieved. 

I smell the Dunhill smoke in the room before I hear the voice. I would recognise it from my coffin.

‘Under Officer Ali?’

The fact that the voice has used my first name makes me put the phone down abruptly.

Major Kiyani of the Inter Services Intelligence is standing in the doorway, one hand leaning on the frame, the other holding the cigarette in front of his chest. He is in civvies. His is always in civvies. A cream-coloured silk shalwar qameez, neatly pressed, his gelled hair glistening under the bulb’s light, a curl carefully arranged in the middle of his forehead where his burley eyebrows meet.

Also skilful was the manipulation of the ambiguous role of Ali in the novel that leaves the reader guessing and uncertain for much of it. Is Ali a passive victim; arrested, interrogated and tortured for no reason other than unfounded suspicion? Is Ali an active victim; the son of a murdered father on a personal mission to find out the truth? Or is Ali an actual conspirator, one of several who has Zia in his sights?

The humour adds another layer of enjoyment.

In the historic city of Lahore, the Fort is a very historic place. It was built by the same guy who built the Taj Mahal, the Mughal King Shahjahan. He was thrown into prison by his own son, a kind of forced premature retirement. I have never been to the Fort but I have seen it in a shampoo ad.

A Case of Exploding Mangoes was longlisted for the 2008 Booker Prize. It was probably a strong year. Unlike some other years, the names of the other 2008 nominee novels will be familiar to many readers despite being over a decade ago. These included A Fraction of the Whole by Steven Toltz, The Northern Clemency by Philip Hensher, Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh, The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry and eventual winner, The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga. Did A Case of Exploding Mangoes suffer being compared in such company? In particular, did it suffer in comparison to the winner, also a provocative, highly imaginative first novel set in the sub-continent?

It is impossible to say but I would like to give the judges more credit than that. In any case, it hardly matters. Unlike comparing it to a source of inspiration, like Catch-22, comparisons to its fellow nominees won’t provide any insights into this novel, only into the Prize. Appreciating A Case of Exploding Mangoes on its own will find it to be funny, dark, provocative, well-executed and daring.

Note: Details contained in this review of Mohammed Hanif’s life before becoming a novelist, his inspiration for A Case of Exploding Mangoes and his comments about some reactions to the novel, come from an TV Interview he gave several years ago, which I watched a took a few notes on, but cannot now find a reference for.

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