Wednesday, May 5, 2010

A Case of Exploding Mangoes

Genre: Literature & Fiction
Author:Mohammed Hanif
Set in the eighties during the military rule of General Zia ul Haq, A Case of Exploding Mangoes can be loosely described as a work of historical fiction, weaving a number of characters and story threads around a framework of historical personalities and events. The author takes his time building the intrigue, but the literary style he uses is so fresh and powerful that it is never really boring. Tiny morsels of suspense bait are fed to the reader until the pieces all fall together beautifully in the grand finale, the historical mystery known to the world as the accidental death of General Zia.

I bought this one based on the approximately 5 minutes of author's book reading that I managed to catch at the Bastakiya Art Fair. That was even before I attended the theatrical performance. A good decision, it turns out, as that small sample was quite representative of the whole. The tone in the tome is laden with sharp sarcasm and noir, peppered with dark humor, even a little of the erotic and the grotesque. There are also a lot of colorful and well-developed characters to take in - some very overtly historical (like General Akhtar), some based on single or composite historical characters (such as Blind Zainab, almost certainly based on the many victims of the Zina ordinances of Zia's harsh state Islamization drive), and others completely fictional but fleshed out to fit in with the historical context.

While the secondary characters are highly significant to the story in their own right, most of the narration alternates between the first-person perspective of a low-ranked soldier in the Pakistani army and the third person perspective on the general who was so esteemed and so reviled. The soldier character is an air force officer from the Himalayan highlands, whose own narration alternates between scenes from his present and moments from his past. In the beginning of the book, all we know is that he is somehow involved in the mysterious climactic event. As he narrates the sequence of events leading up to the same, he reveals little pieces of the puzzle, artfully setting up the checkmate. While it initially seems that he is an unfortunate and innocent victim of the powers that be, the truth is far more interesting.

The general character is a fiction-embellished caricature of the historical General Zia. Under this general's rule, the Americans would wage in proxy a heated conflict to end their Cold War with the Soviets. This "openly covert" operation was naturally fraught with under-table dealing and hidden motives, meaning many things, noble and selfish, to many stakeholders. The general has won the public favor of the West, but now has the Sword of Damocles to worry about.

We all know what happens in the end. Heck, the book begins with the end. But as the personal and political drama hurtles towards the inevitable, the sneaky denouement makes a devilish grin really hard to avoid. Good fun, a most strongly recommended read, and not just for subcontinentals.

No comments:

Post a Comment