Wednesday, July 02, 2008

On Mohammad Hanif's A Case of Exploding Mangoes

A shorter version of this piece appeared last weekend in the Sunday Telegraph.

Whenever someone famous dies in mysterious circumstances, conspiracy theories proliferate; meanings rush in to fill the void. The insight of Mohammed Hanif’s funny and anarchic novel A Case of Exploding Mangoes – a properly fictional insight – is that the wild explanations proffered in such instances may not be all false, but, remarkably, may all be true. The reasoning at the root of Hanif’s story is something like this: Conspiracy theories are almost by definition false. Therefore they are all equally untrue. If we hold that even one of them is true, it pretty much amounts to saying that any or all of them are true. And indeed, if we are prepared to consider one of them, might we not consider that all of them somehow are true?
Hanif’s book is about the mendacious Pakistani dictator Zia ul-Haq – a proponent of Islamicization, an ally of America in the Cold War – who died when his private plane went down in August 1988. In A Case of Exploding Mangoes all kinds of forces – the machinations of generals, the resentment of a junior army officer, the curse of a blind woman, the wrath of a Communist group – are shown with their sights trained on Zia, so that when he dies it is not possible to establish the immediate cause, as it were, in this vast field of possible causes.
The Zia of the novel is a suspicious old man hobbled by age and care, nurturing both delusions of grandeur and paranoia about his safety. He opens to a page of the Quran every day to look for signals from the Almighty, “as if it was not the word of God but his daily horoscope on the back page of the Pakistan Times”. Like many strongmen, General Zia is the ruler of a kingdom but not of a home: he is repeatedly insulted by his own wife, who is disgusted by his lechery.
The irreverent language and set-ups of Hanif’s novel relentlessly puncture the pretensions of power. In one marvellous scene, the First Lady heads for her husband’s office in a fit of rage, but abruptly finds herself shooed into a line of widows waiting for alms from the General. Reaching the top of the line, she declares to her astonished husband that from this day she too is a widow. In another, General Zia, dressed as a commoner, teeters out into his kingdom on a bicycle, and is picked up and humiliated by a constable.
Among the best walk-on parts is that of “a lanky man with a flowing beard” who arrives at a party hosted by the American consulate to celebrate the success of the Afghans against the Soviets, introduces himself as “OBL”, and gets very little attention from the dignitaries present. Even as it entertainingly answers the questions still asked about Zia’s death, then, Hanif’s novel raises the delicious possibility that the rage and rancour of America's most intransigent opponent first erupted when he was not invited into a group photograph.
And two old posts, one on a Pakistani dictator and the other on a lanky man with a flowing beard: "On the memoirs of President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan" and "On Steve Coll's The Bin Ladens".


Amit said...

This is a real Alfonso of a novel. Interestingly, you don't mention much about the voice. The voice came across to me as not just irreverant and funny, but also as smart and real cool. It made me wonder about the aspect of voice in subcontinental novels - those published in the West most often possess a distinct one, while those published here most often don't. Have you ever wondered why western publishers are so obsessed with voice while Indian publishers aren't? Is it a reflection of the white society's obsession with individualism?

Chandrahas said...

Amit - Wow, you're really keeping pace with your reading. Were it not for reviewing I think I would read new books extremely selectively, so I am always surprised by people like you who seem to have already read everything I've just put back.

I think, though, that while your point about voice is true at one level - books with "voice" provide a hook that's useful while making a sale, even when that voice may be inconsistent or problematic - I would not go as far as to make the generalisation about western and Indian publishing you are making. I would imagine that Indian publishers would be really excited about voice too, but the best of them might make a more complex judgment of the strengths and flaws of the work in relation to its engagement with Indian reality.

Nor would I simply call the West "the white society" any more, even though it is true that our notion of the individual today is heavily influenced by ideas thought up in past centuries by white men. Indeed, your phrase "obsession with individualism" in the West might not actually be as negative as you mean it to be when you compare that obssession with, say, the disregard for the rights and freedoms of the individual in many Indian situations. And after all, the historical roots of the novel form itself are in the birth of inidvidualism. So perhaps we might think about what consitutes a balanced individualism (in both life and in literature), and where individualism spills over into mere selfishness and egocentrism (and in literature into a demand for "voice" in narrative over other essential aspects of writerly craft).

H R Venkatesh said...

Hi Chandrahas,
Having read the book, I too, have a few thoughts, or rather questions, about the role of 'voice'.
To me, it did seem like a Pakistani air force officer was the narrator, even though there's hardly any urduspeak in the book.

Can anyone writing in English in the subcontinent come across as speaking in an authentic voice, even if there's no regional patois or language in his/her writing? I wonder...

btw, i am a regular reader of middle stage, and picked up Contested Lands solely on your recommendation, have had no reason to regret that decision!