It is possibly the most enduring mystery in Pakistan’s troubled history. On 17 August 1988, a camouflaged Pakistan air force C-130 transport aircraft crashed in Bahawalpur, killing President Zia-ul-Haq. Also killed were his joint chief of staff and former Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI, chief General Rahman, US ambassador Arnold Raphael, US military attaché Brigadier General Akhtar Abdul Herbert Wassom and 27 other passengers.

Parallel worlds: Hanif’s book is similar to Joseph Heller’s Catch 22 and Mad magazine.

President Zia was returning to Islamabad after attending a demonstration of a new American tank which had flunked the tests. The story goes that he had been persuaded by some of his generals to attend the ceremony to keep the Americans on his side, especially with the war in Afghanistan drawing to an end.

According to most accounts, Pak 1 — carrying President Zia and his guests — lost contact with the control tower 2 minutes after take-off, went into a nosedive, climbed again and then hurled to the ground. Nobody quite knows what caused the crash — the only faint clue was the recovery of some traces of a chemical in the wreckage, which some investigators attributed to the leakage of a poisonous gas on board.

Did a poison gas canister smuggled into the plane blow up Pak 1? Two uninspected crates of mangoes and a box of model tanks had been loaded at Bahawalpur before the plane took off.

Decades after the crash, speculation has not ebbed over who may have been responsible for the sabotage of Pak 1. There are the usual suspects — disgruntled and ambitious generals fed up of Zia’s ways; the Komitet Gosudarstvennoi Bezopasnosti, or KGB, with its track record of using nerve gas during the Afghan war; Israel and India, skittish over Pakistan’s vaulting nuclear ambitions under a stubborn president. Nobody knows.

Well, almost. What fact left as threads, fiction may well have picked up in Mohammed Hanif’s debut novel, A Case of Exploding Mangoes. It picks up the plot that killed Zia and turns it into a fiendishly funny tale on a president, a military establishment and how it ran a country.

Hanif paints a biting caricature of Zia as a megalomaniac, Nobel Prize-pining, newspaper typo-checking, haemorrhoid-suffering, paranoid dictator, living perpetually in fear of being assassinated. The only time he loses the composure that “helped him to survive three wars, one coup and two elections" is when a buxom American journalist lunges towards him while asking a question.

With two interlocking narratives moving towards the air crash in the desert, the novel is filled with picaresque characters. The protagonist, who tries to kill the president with a snake poison-tipped sword during a parade, is a Reader’s Digest-loving junior officer at a military academy. His friend is a Rilke-loving, poison-daubed, sexually unfulfilled air force cadet who goes missing with a plane. There is a former Maoist mango cooperative revolutionary turned sweepers’ collective czar locked up in a Mughal dungeon by the ISI for nine years without being charged. And a blind woman who could not produce the four witnesses to prove that she was raped.

And, in a clever move, Hanif introduces a “lanky man with a flowing beard" called OBL who lands up at an American ambassador’s party saying that he is from Laden and Co. Constructions. OBL hangs out in the Kabul-Texas theme party seeking attention, gets very little of it, and ends up cursing the Americans when he finds that the good lamb has run out. “God, these Americans," mutters OBL, “eat like pigs."

The pace of the book is frenetic, the style snappy and there is never a dull moment — Exploding Mangoes is Joseph Heller meets Don Martin in a narrative that mimics Catch 22 and the risqué satire of vintage Mad magazine. Hanif has an obvious gift for rip-roaring dialogue: a “dick doctor" borrowed from the Saudis asks Zia, “You wanna a bigger or you wanna a longer?" before realizing that the president’s haemorrhoids need attention.

It is a savage farce involving a paranoid dictator, a comfortably numb and frowzy first lady, a security apparatus which listens in to the information minister having phone sex with a woman with a “motherly voice" and a Pakistan awash with spies, mercenaries and hustlers — home-grown and foreign — chasing moolah and ambition. “Who is trying to kill me?" Zia keeps asking his chief of security in the book. “Everyone," the man replies. On such, and many other occasions, the dividing line between fact and fiction blurs in this tour de force.

Soutik Biswas in the India editor of BBC News online.

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