Widely praised on its publication last year, Mohammed Hanif’s debut novel A Case of Exploding Mangoes is a delicious and irreverent send-up of the regime of Gen. Zia-ul-Haq of Pakistan, and more generally of the pomposity and pretensions of dictatorship. Unusual in its structure, shrewdly alert to the quirks of subcontinental politics, and often setting up situations of great hilarity (including a splendid one involving Osama bin Laden at a party), the novel revealed an imagination confidently at play in the shadows and gaps of history. Hanif was head of BBC’s Urdu service but has just moved back to Karachi from London. After reading excerpts from A Case of Exploding Mangoes at the recent Jaipur Literature Festival 2009, he spoke to Lounge about the Zia years. Edited excerpts:
Your novel shuttles between the lives of the menial and the powerful, telling us the story of a young army cadet, Ali Shigri, and also that of Zia in the last year of his life. Which side of the story came to you first, and how did you work out the form of the whole?
I had Ali Shigri’s voice in my head to begin with. And the idea was that his story should lead up in the end to Zia and his death. So initially I was thinking about a single narrator. But then I thought that it would also be interesting to imagine what kinds of things might have been going on in Zia’s life in the days leading up to his demise, and there was no way I could do that from Ali Shigri’s point of view. So I worked out the idea of two kinds of narration going on in parallel.
Authorspeak: (clockwise from top left) Hanif at the Jaipur Literature Festival (Chandrahas Choudhury); his book is about Zia-ul-Haq (AFP); Karachi, where the novel is set (Asif Hassan / AFP).
One of the funniest things about the book is that it shows us so many plots being hatched simultaneously to eliminate Zia that when he does die, we can’t tell exactly who it was that did it.
Yes, there were so many explanations for Zia’s death, at the time, and no matter how ridiculous they were, there still would be some people who totally believed them. It became one of those matters on which everybody projected their own stories. In fact, as late as 2005, the matter was raked up all over again by the American ambassador to India in 1988, John Gunther Dean, who came out saying that Israel was behind Zia’s death. When he reported his suspicions to Washington in 1988, he was accused of being mentally unbalanced and forced into retirement. So when I began working on the book, I thought that surely I could use the creative licence of fiction to invent some more theories of my own. After my book came out I actually got an email from Dean. We almost arranged to meet in Paris to figure out who did it.
Many novelists, when they write critically or satirically about public figures, change their names. But your book was unusual in that Gen. Zia remains “Zia”. Did you not worry that there might be protests over this?
There is now a kind of universal loathing for Zia in Pakistan—it’s one of the few things that we all agree about. And actually, not everyone read the book as a thoroughly negative portrayal of Zia. Some of my friends thought that Zia actually comes across as a somewhat sympathetic figure (many episodes in the book show us the weakness behind the strongman’s façade, and one very funny scene shows him being insulted in public by his own wife). Strangely enough, because I used the name Zia, some readers in Pakistan almost read it as a work of non-fiction. I was often asked how I got access to all these private details of Zia’s life, when I had actually made them up.
Has the memory of any moment in the Zia years stayed with you?
I grew up in a small town in Pakistan called Okara, and I remember the day I was giving the last paper of my matriculation exams. There was an eerie silence on the streets. Then I saw a newspaper vendor holding up a paper saying that (Zulfiqar Ali) Bhutto had been hanged by Zia. Few people had thought that Bhutto would pay with his life. That was the beginning of a new era in Pakistan.
Have you begun work on another novel?
It’s too early to say what it might turn out to be. I’m still just scribbling.
A number of young Pakistani writers, including Mohsin Hamid, yourself, and now Daniyal Mueenuddin, are being read around the world. Are there any older writers whose work you regard highly?
I think very highly of the fiction of Abdullah Hussein, some of which is available in translation here in India. Of the other books I remember as having an influence on me, there’s a book called Memories and Reflections of a Pakistani Diplomat by Sultan Mohammed Khan. It’s set mostly in the first half of the 20th century, when the author was a soldier in the British Indian army and then a diplomat in the Pakistan foreign service. Not only does it provide many insights into a key period in the history of the Indian subcontinent, but it’s also really funny. It has stayed with me.
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