Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Essays on Indian fiction

Over the last three years I've written about Indian fiction new, old, and ancient on this site, from Dandin to Jhumpa Lahiri, Fakir Mohan Senapati to Vikram Chandra, and I'm putting all these pieces together in one place here, and will keep updating it with new essays and reviews.

You will find that although there are many general remarks about the nature and the craft of fiction in these essays, my ideas about Indian fiction as a distinct category are usually implied rather than stated. Some of the novels listed here I admired enormously, others I found very poor; some of the novelists are names that rove the world, others are known only at home or are now forgotten; some write in English, others are read in translation from other Indian languages. Wherever possible I have tried to use long quotes to support my judgments, and where some aspect of a writer's work has struck me as being especially significant, beautiful, or innovative, I have tried to burrow away at that instead of writing a more general review. Here is the full list:

English and Hindi in Vikram Chandra's Sacred Games, on Jhumpa Lahiri's Unaccustomed Earth, The double darkness of Aravind Adiga's The White Tiger, On Surender Mohan Pathak's The Sixty-Five Lakh Heist, Seventh century Indian life in Dandin's Dasakumaracharita, On Amitava Kumar's Home Products, Fakir Mohan Senapati's roundabout fictions, Anjum Hasan and the Indian Shakespeare, On Kamala Markandaya's Nectar In A Sieve, Schoolmasters and accountants in the fiction of Kunal Basu, Home and Away in Anuradha Roy's An Atlas of Impossible Longing, On Altaf Tyrewala's No God In Sight, The world of Bibhutibhushan Bandhopadhyay, On Mridula Koshy's If It Is Sweet, Kingdoms and Prisons in Jahnavi Barua's Next Door, On Vinod George Joseph's Hitchhiker, On Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi's The Lost Flamingoes of Bombay, Mathematics and rebellion in Nikita Lalwani's Gifted, Attia Hosain's lost world, On Kiran Nagarkar's God's Little Soldier,Sirshendu Mukhopadhyay's language of love, On Siddharth Chowdhury's Patna Roughcut, On Deepak Chopra's Buddha, The stories of Parashuram, Poetry As Medicine In Ashvaghosha's Handsome Nanda, On Vikram Chandra's Sacred Games, On Hamid Dalwai's Fuel, On Manohar Shyam Joshi's T'ta Professor, Life winding down in Cather and Saratchandra, On Nalini Jones's What You Call Winter, Irrelevant detail in the fiction of Raj Kamal Jha, On Aravind Adiga's Between The Assassinations, and On Manil Suri's The Age of Shiva.

And, since it seems slightly absurd to draw the line of classification upon the line of a nation-state and ignore many civilizational links and continuities, here are some other essays on works of fiction by Nepali, Sri Lankan, Bangladeshi, and Pakistani writers: On Samrat Upadhyay's The Royal Ghosts, On Tahmima Anam's A Golden Age, On Mohsin Hamid's The Reluctant Fundamentalist, On Manjushree Thapa's Tilled Earth, On Shobasakthi's Gorilla, and lastly, Pervez Musharraf's In The Line of Fire, one of the greatest of modern Asian bildungsromans.

Friday, July 25, 2008

On Chidananda Das Gupta's Seeing Is Believing

"Today, serious cinema is far ahead of serious film criticism.” This remark, taken from an essay written in 1982 by the Indian film critic Chidananda Das Gupta, seems even more true today than it must have been then. Most film reviews in the Indian press offer little more than plot summaries and a few desultory remarks of praise or condemnation. Their original perceptions, if any, are limited to telling the reader which foreign film the movie being discussed has been copied from, and their language is often stilted and ugly. They are published because of the enormous enthusiasm and appetite of Indian viewers for cinema, but they very rarely enhance the experience of a movie for a viewer, which might be thought of as the first prerequisite of good criticism.

It is a pleasant surprise then to read a set of essays on Indian cinema as combative, as vigorous, and as cogent as those in Das Gupta’s Seeing is Believing. In these pieces, published in different books and journals over the last 25 years, we see a powerful analytical mind at work, able to make searching connections between our movies and our society, our literature, our art, our music and our religion. But we also realize that we are reading a critic in whose work conceptual and analytical rigour and the desire to build interpretative structures is not used as a substitute (the distinction is one made by Das Gupta himself) for the play of sensibility: the attention to the unique rhythms and personality of each work of art, and to our aesthetic experience of the work.

Das Gupta’s attractive title refers to the powerful illusion intrinsic to cinema, more than any other art form, that what we are watching is real. He then takes this thought and runs with it, showing how, although film originated in the West, its transplantation to a pre-industrial society heavily invested in faith and myth instantly made it a very different thing in India. Most of the early Indian feature films were mythologicals, which enraptured audiences by bringing the gods and goddesses of Hindu myth from the hinterland of the imagination (where they had always resided) to visible, palpable life. Here is Das Gupta's winning recreation of that experience:

When films began in earnest in India, with Phalke’s Harishchandra in 1913, suddenly the gods and godlike men of mythology came to life. [...] Hitherto the Hindus had seen the trinity and pantheon in their minds and in images of clay, wood and stone; now they saw them walking, flying in space, throwing flaming discuses, setting offenders aflame with a burning look, making the dead come alive, appearing out of, and vanishing into, nowhere.This is how the gods had dwelt in the mind’s recesses, held aloft by a network of myths and legends spawned by the epics and the Puranas. The loves and hates of the gods had been seen as leela, divine play, evoked by the bhakta or devotee in his imagination. These now became reality; here was Raja Harishchandra walking barefoot through the brambles, giving away his son Rohita, his wife Taramati, for the sake of charity; and there, Rama roaming the Dandakaranya forest with Sita. Inside the cinema theatre, the devout took off their shoes, sat with folded hands, and even threw offerings at the screen. [...] As the screen lit up in the vast night in the open air or inside the dark womb of the theatre, before their eyes a primeval dream unfolded in which the gods lived and had their being, emerging from an ancient communal memory secreted within the self.

[...] This was different from seeing [the actors] in the folk theatre. The actors in the folk theatre were too real; too often you knew where they lived, and saw them paint their faces before they entered the arena. In the cinema they were real and shadowy, not gross enough to lose their distance and dignity.
"Too often you knew where they lived, and saw them paint their faces before they entered the arena"— there is a kind of rapture to be felt in lines like these, lines that allow us not just to register but actually to enter the worldview of that early Indian film audience Das Gupta is describing.

Cinema, then, was a product of science but, in this case, science had "reinforced faith and blurred the distinction between myth and fact”. Although the pure mythological film has made a retreat with the passage of time, Das Gupta argues that the basic accord between cinema and religiosity has not changed. Even where the exterior of what is being depicted is modern, beneath the surface, the present is being mythologized constantly and the currents of traditional belief are being kept alive. Again, Das Gupta is very good on the Hindi film song, and on why the songs are so often better than the films themselves. The Hindi film song

is the transcendental element in the language of popular cinema. It expounds philosophies; proposes inductive and dedeuctive syllogisms on the truths of individual life in relation to the social universe; explains hidden meanings; comments, like a chorus, of the worth or consequences of an action, besides providing aural enchantment to the otherwise music-less urban world at its rural grassroots.

[...] The song is like divine speech, filling the firmament, and all vacant space on earth. It flows into the poers of the mind, like balm on wounds inflicted by the daily battles of existence. It represents an experience shared by a vast, varied, divided populace in the cinema theatres, in roadside restaurants for the poor, at fairs, festivals, temple yards, weddings, and all celebrations.[...] Film music blares forth everywhere for everyone, including the unwilling ears of those who are used to high art. This imminence of the film song shared by all lifts it way above the bounds of realism required by particular films and gives it an autonomous, transcendental presence in society.
But Das Gupta does not succumb to the glorification of Bollywood drama, increasingly prevalent in film studies, as the most authentic kind of Indian film. Popular cinema, he argues, must inevitably be populist, because it is made on large budgets and for the delectation of mass audiences. But, for criticism to follow the line of “what is most popular is best” is to truckle to this populism, and that would be a fatal mistake.

Accordingly, a number of Das Gupta’s essays are vibrant appreciations of work, socially engaging, psychologically complex and technically innovative, produced in parallel and regional cinema: not just Satyajit Ray, Shyam Benegal, Mrinal Sen, Ritwik Ghatak, Adoor Gopalakrishnan and M.S. Sathyu, but also lesser-known figures such as G. Aravindan and Girish Kasaravalli. Indeed, he shows how there has been, and still is, a strong current of Indian cinema that wishes to challenge societal prejudice and entrenched inequalities, and that promulgates, often without didacticism, a concern for the deprived or the oppressed sections of society whom our expanding middle class would rather turn its eyes from.

One exceptional essay explains how M.G. Ramachandran and N.T. Rama Rao ascended the throne of politics on the back of their on-screen personae in Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh: Here again was an example of “seeing is believing” on the part of the audience. Another argues that Indian film studies rely too reflexively on trends in Western criticism, and on Western ideas such as catharsis and alienation, instead of drawing from our own rich native traditions. This is one of the richest and most satisfying books of criticism I have ever had the pleasure of reading.

An essay by Das Gupta on Ray's Pather Panchali is here.

And here are some old posts on books on Bollywood and on movies: On Mihir Bose's Bollywood: A History, on Nagesh Kukunoor's Dor, and Tahmineh Milani's Two Women.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

An interview wth Pico Iyer

This interview appears today in Mint.

In the two decades since the publication of his first book Video Night In Kathmandu Pico Iyer has produced a body of work so influential that for most people he is the first name that comes to mind when they think of travel writing. Born in England to parents from India, brought up in California, educated at Oxford and Harvard, and now for many years a resident of Japan, Iyer personifies the vast revolution in the self-image of much of humanity in the last fifty years. Increasingly our cultural allegiances are multiple, the reach and frequency of our journeys wider and longer, our relationship to the word “home” drastically different. To understand the place of the new self within this new globalism many thousands of readers have turned to Iyer. Iyer’s new book The Open Road, a biography of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama of Tibet, appeared this summer. In this interview he talks about the book, about travel writing, about the writers he loves, and about Indians and travel.

Your new book on the Dalai Lama has many insights on religion, politics, globalism, and on the balancing act of upholding tradition while embracing change. Am I correct in my understanding that these are as much the themes of your own work as they are of the Dalai Lama’s life?
One major theme of the book is projection—the way in which we all create the Dalai Lama that we need or want—and I am sure that I am as guilty of that as any other. So inevitably, I see him in relation to certain themes of cross-cultural fascination, of exile and home and globalism, that have always been close to my interests (while trying, I hope, to acknowledge, at many points, that he is infinitely richer and larger than my tiny notions of him). And in approaching a figure on whom so much has been written and said, my only justification for attempting such a project was to bring what I could from my background, and interest in literature, comparative religions and globalism, to see what they might light up in him that more serious and informed scholars of Tibet, of Buddhism, or of monasticism, hadn’t done already. But yes, I can’t pretend that I’m giving the reader anything more than my limited and, no doubt, distorted vision of the man, try though I might to cut through my own projections. My one talisman was that the Dalai Lama himself always speaks for transparency, accuracy and objectivity, so I tried as hard as I could to honour those principles, and spent five years working on the book every day, much longer than I’ve spent on any other of my works.

To make a move from Buddhist “mindfulness” to the travel writer’s art: How important is it for a travel writer to be able to live in the present—to inhabit the moment fully and pick up sensory detail in an intense way? Or would you say this aspect of travel writing is diminishing in importance in the age of Discovery and Travel and Living?
I would say that this aspect of writing is diminishing in the age of information. When I first visited Tibet, in 1985, I felt that few of my friends and neighbours could ever dream of seeing Lhasa, so my job was to absorb as much of its smells and spices and faces and sounds as possible, to bring back to them. By the time I made my third trip there, in 2002, it seemed to me that most people who might read my books could see parts of Tibet I could never visit on some website, or could walk around the Potala Palace on the Discovery Channel. The one thing that writing could do that no new media could touch was to try to catch the inner Tibet, the discussion inside oneself about how much to believe and how much to distrust, the constant dissolve between realism and dream-state that high altitude, culture shock and jet lag bring on.

So, the external aspect of travel, which has always been to me the least interesting part, is best caught these days by a tape recorder, video recorder or digital camera; the psychological, emotional, spiritual and moral conundrums of travel are more and more the writer’s domain. Marcel Proust in Tibet (as I tried to show in my last book, Sun After Dark) would find things that no National Geographic team could match. And Leonard Cohen just sitting in his monastery near Los Angeles can go places far wilder, more exciting and more adventurous than nearly any climber in the Himalayas. The journey through the parallel world of jet lag is just as remarkable and displacing as the errant holiday through Haiti.

How much of travel writing is about place and how much of it is about the person? Must the reader also be able to sense an inward journey taking place alongside the physical one?
No writer can pretend to give you the ‘true’ India, let us say; all she can offer is her version of India, her particular discussion with it, her sometimes inspired and sometimes insipid take on it. Travel, after all, is a conversation, and every traveller only gets as much from his journey as he brings to it. The reason people read Naipaul on India or Africa is that he is trying, with such poignancy and intensity, to sort out the India, the Africa and the Britain in himself; it’s the hauntedness he brings to the places he visits, the questions that shiver inside him, the uncertainties he hopes to resolve there that give his works a power and passion that most travellers can’t match. Likewise, when you read W.G. Sebald, you read him not for his descriptions of Venice or East Anglia, but in spite of them—and because he is always at some level running from his legacy (as one born in Germany in 1944) and running into nothing more than the perplexity of having been born in Germany in 1944.

Jan Morris in Trieste, Orhan Pamuk on Istanbul, Joseph Brodsky on Venice—all the great writers on place are great because of the unsettledness they bring with them, and the intensity of their concerns.

On one’s travels, one encounters not just other cultures but also hundreds of other travellers. Are Indians good travellers? Do you find from your experience that Indian tourists are in any way different from other ones?
Indians are born multiculturalists, and the Indians one sees travelling are used to speaking four or five languages and navigating several cultures every time they walk down the street in Mumbai or Delhi. They are also trained from birth in some of the rigours of travel—in patience and in flexibility, in other words—are as fluent in English as any traveller on earth and tend to bring a particular energy and engagement that you often don’t find in, say, travellers from China. It’s impossible, and folly, to generalize about travellers, but urban Indians are often travellers from birth, and much less thrown off, say, by New York or Hong Kong than the average American or a visitor from Tokyo, say. Among prominent Indian writers, say, V.S. Naipaul, Salman Rushdie, Vikram Seth, Anita Desai, Amitav Ghosh, Jhumpa Lahiri—and tens of others—all grew up with many, many different places inside them. It’s no surprise that they were in the perfect time, and place (or places) to hymn into being our new, multinational universe.

What is the best travel book you've read recently? And which is your favourite travel book from before the revolution in travel in the 20th century?
A Crime So Monstrous, by the young American writer Benjamin Skinner, tracing the realities of human trafficking from Haiti to India, does what every great book about place should do: opens the eyes, shakes the conscience and lights up those corners of the world that few of us would dare to inspect first-hand. A truly global work, it shows us the realities that underlie many of our casual pleasures, and reminds us of those truths that affect far more people than (those who) travel on holiday around the globe. After reading it, you cannot look at that red-light street in Romania, or that smiling face in Cambodia, in the same way.

As for classic books, all my books have been written, as readers probably know too well, in the shadow and light of Emerson and Thoreau (who enjoy first word and last in my most recent book, and who offer the epigraphs to at least three other of my works). So, it’s no secret, I fear, that my favourite book of travel is Thoreau’s Walden, which takes us around the world, while never moving more than a mile and a half from its author’s home, which reminds us that true travel takes place in the descrying of new ideas and the entertaining of new horizons—and which asks us, unblushingly, “Why go around the world to count the cats in Zanzibar?” Insofar as travel is really about transformation—the only reason ever to leave home—Emerson and Thoreau remind us that the truest and deepest journeys can indeed be found while walking around one’s backyard.

Lastly, what three things would you absolutely want to take with you on any journey?
A good book—Greene, Mistry, Lawrence, Roth—some medicines, and a sense of humour.

Monday, July 07, 2008

On Mukul Kesavan's The Ugliness of the Indian Male

Like a family impatient with the deadwood left behind by old tenants, the voluble essays of Mukul Kesavan's The Ugliness of the Indian Male and other propositions take up a set of subjects – Indian secularism, nationalism, history, cinema – which typically lend themselves to long-encrusted pieties, and refurbish them with a series of arguments and linkages that really set the brain ticking.

The particular pleasure of Kesavan's prose is that the drama of Indian history is enhanced, in his telling, by the drama of thought. The writing constantly asks questions to itself, wheels and roves in search of adroit juxtapositions or historical parallels, hammers away at key points. A historian by training and one of our sharpest columnists, Kesavan is also distinguished by the breadth of his expertise: he is equally at home on each of the subjects that make up what might be called the holy trinity of Indian public discourse: politics, cricket, and cinema (or more properly Bollywood). If cricket is by and large absent in Ugliness, it is because Kesavan’s appetite for the game is so vast, and his dismay with the game's governing body, the ICC, so total, that all his essays on cricket was siphoned off into a separate collection, Men In White, published in 2006.

The material of Ugliness is arranged much like the way a team traditionally built an innings in one-day cricket. Early on the tempo is more relaxed, the style of the play more various. Kesavan declares his disdain for Indian documentaries, asserts that the Indian male is not only born ugly, but hones that trait through regular practice (on which more later), dissects the various kinds of patriotism found in Hindi cinema. He can be seen attending a political rally in Uttar Pradesh, looking at statues in Madras, enjoying a junket in Australia, bathing in Istanbul. It is only in the last section of the book, "Politics", that his tone rises to a kind of slog-overs crescendo, with a constellation of high-octane arguments about the distinctive colour and character of Indian secularism and nationalism.

Kesavan's argument runs something like this. Indian secularism is not only highly unusual (all the neighbouring states in South Asia privilege one religious community or another), it is also confused, to its disadvantage, with the Western version of that practice. The origins of Indian secularism lie not in the battle to separate the church from the state, as in the west, but in our anti-colonial national movement, and in particular the strategies forged by the Indian National Congress.

Unlike the other provincial political bodies that sprung up in India late in the nineteenth century, the Congress from the very beginning was self-consciously and pluralistically "national", of a mind to represent all the classes, religions and communities of India on the common plank of anti-colonialism. "The uniqueness of Congress's nationalism," writes Kesavan,"is its near-complete freedom from mystical and mystifying notions such as blood, soil, or national essence which are the stock-in-trade of narrower patriotisms”:

The Congress, as its name suggests, saw itself as a cross between a party and a parliament (or at least an assembly of representative Indians). Typically, till 1939, members of the Hindu Mahasabha and the Muslim League could be members, even presidents of the Congress. For the Congress, being secular meant making different types of Indians equally welcome; secularism in this context was a way of being comprehensively nationalist. […] The emotional charge of Congress nationalism came from anti-imperialism – not the myth of a suppressed identity waiting to be born.
Even if, in the beginning, the Congress's pluralist definition of nationalism was strategic, designed to bring the largest number on board in a Noah's Ark kind of way, over the sixty years of the independence struggle it became something like a reflex. Thus it was that, despite the horrors of Partition, India did not go down the road of being a Hindu nation. Our secular constitution, in Kesavan's telling, enshrined this liberal and hospitable nationalism in law. Although the Congress itself has been unable to live up to its legacy, the historical triumph of the Congress, writes Kesavan, "is that every party must now lay claim to the virtue of being secular. The meaning of secularism can be contested (truly secular/pseudo-secular), but it is a value, like democracy, that no mainstream party can publicly repudiate.”

Because we don't fully appreciate the ingenuity of the Congress's construction of nationalism, argues Kesavan, we tend to confuse it with the more pedestrian, majoritarian ideas of nationalism that have forged nations around the world. Paradoxically, it is this race-and-religion conception of nationalism, which we bypassed, that is now advocated by a powerful force in Indian politics: the BJP and its allies. Although many secular Indians are horrified when their friends and family members support what they see as the bigotry of the BJP, the fact is that BJP supporters never think of themselves as communal, only as nationalist. And indeed, if we look at the history of the nationalist movements of Europe, it is possible to credit this argument. Hence,

Since the dominant sense of nationalism the world over is derived from the European experience, when a Hindu chauvinist arguing for the primacy of Hindi asks rhetorically, “Doesn’t France have a common language?”, the French example begins to seem a sound nationalist precedent for supporting Hindi. When he asks, “Don’t the English acknowledge that their culture and morality are derived from Christian values?”, this becomes a persuasive reason to support the demand that all Indians acknowledge that they are constituted by Hindutva. The proper secularist response to this is that the nationalism of Gandhi that won us our freedom as a nation state and shaped the pluralism of our constitution has very little in common with this hectoring, homogenizing patriotism. These derivative arguments don’t apply. They’re irrelevant because they aren’t rooted in our experience of the freedom struggle; they don’t emerge from our nationalist practice.
“For secular Indians, the dreadful track record of intolerant nationalisms [the world over] and their failure in containing secession or managing dissent is a gift,” Kesavan argues. "Instead of reflexively denying the BJP's claim to nationalism, secularists should ratify this claim enthusiastically. They should then distinguish it from the nationalism of Gandhi and the freedom struggle, and encourage an undecided public to study the self-destruction that BJP-like chauvinisms wreaked on countries misguided enough to harbour them" – in neighbouring Sri Lanka, for example, where an aggressive Sinhala majority and an embattled Tamil minority have been locked in a murderous conflict for decades. The day Indians accept that those in the majority deserve to have their beliefs and sensibilities deferred to by the rest – the prevailing climate in the rest of South Asia – our marvellous pluralist experiment will have foundered. "Invisibly, we shall have become another country" – that is the ringing close of Kesavan's book.

The density of Kesavan's engagement with these questions, and the sophistication of his responses in general, is perhaps intentionally absent in his irreverent title-essay. "Some years ago I was struck by the contrast between the beauty of Hindi film heroines and the ugliness of Hindi film heroes," he writes. The explanation for this is simple: Indian women are radically better-looking than Indian men. Indian women are, to Kesavan's eye, "delicate and vivid"; Indian men "coarse, dull, and squab-like". Their native ugliness is accentuated by their deficiencies of hygiene (nose-picking, crotch-scratching), hair (moustache-wearing, nose- and ear-hair growing) and other assorted personal and sartorial habits.

It seems to me that Kesavan has set up a slanging match here: responses to these assertions are likely to depend on whether the reader is a man or a woman. As for myself, I can only attest from that Indian women, even if they are more fastidious than men on the body-hair-removal score, are not the angels that Kesavan makes them out to be. Maybe those of his generation were.

In fact, if the ugliness of the Indian male resided only in the list drawn up by Kesavan, Indian women might actually be quite happy to have them, since some of these deficiencies are surface-only and can be reversed with a little grooming, and since Indian women too have grave defects of their own (which for reasons of space I can't go into right now). The real ugliness of the Indian male resides not in his face, but in his mind: in his willing or unquestioning endorsement of patriarchy and chauvinism. But Kesavan's jocular survey of surfaces and appearances, his refusal for a change to probe any deeper, makes for an sly variation in a first-rate collection of essays. The Indian male may be ugly, but in certain instances his writing is remarkably fine.

And here are some essays by Kesavan: "I, The Nation", "Three pivotal moments that shaped early nationalism in India", "How Pluralism Goes Bad", "No Escaping The Nation-State", "The Congress's pluralism became a reflex by the time of Partition", "One-Day Democracy", "Partition became inevitable once the Congress resigned in 1939", and "Memories of 1984".

A long interview with Kesavan from 1998 is here, and Kesavan's excellent cricket blog Men In White is here.

And two old posts on books of essays by Indian writers: "Amartya Sen's large India" and "Krishna Kripalani's faith and frivolity", and a review of Sumantra Bose's excellent book Contested Lands, which is among other things an examination of the temptations and the consequences of majoritarian politics around the world. And here is another old post on a writer greatly, and often annoyingly, stimulated by Indian pluralism, "Shashi Tharoor, banally in love with India", and a post on a somewhat more thoughtful and engaging commentator, "Mark Tully and India".

Kesavan's book is published in India by Black Kite, an imprint of Permanent Black (which publishes some great academic books, often in conjunction with university presses in America) aimed at the lay reader. Among their upcoming titles which might be of interest to you is Amit Chaudhuri's new book of essays: Clearing A Space: Reflections on India, Literature and Culture, which should be out next month.

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".