Sunday, March 11, 2012

Book 92, Pakistan: "A Case of Exploding Mangoes" by Mohammed Hanif

Remember how I bragged about meeting Dany Laferrière during my Haiti entry? Well, this is another book by a guy I met at the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival, though I don’t recall having a conversation with him as much as I do with his tiny son (daughter? There were two little Desi kids running around, and one of them was his and the other one belonged to some other writer/human rightsy lady, with a name not unlike Samara, god knows who she was).

Anyhow, as I hinted in the last post, it’s a splendid read: as anarchically funny as advertised: all that South Asian verbosity and humour attacking the institution of an Islamic military dictatorship.

Did I mention this was a historical novel? I didn’t realise it was a historical novel for quite some time, not until Osama bin Laden popped up as a character I think. It’s a conjectural Scheherezadean tale surrounding the perfectly factual air crash that took the lives of Pakistani dictator General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq and half his generalissimos in 1988. (He’s the guy who deposed whatzisname Bhutto, Benazir’s dad. Zulfikar Ali, my iPhone says. I’m drafting this without an Internet connection.)

And what Hanif’s done is he’s told the tale with two different forms of narration (ooh, this is how I teach creative writing): half the chapters are first-person in the form of the much-beleaguered Air Force cadet Ali Shigri, imprisoned in Lahore Fort under byzantine circumstances; the other half in omniscient third person, spanning the viewpoints of the blind rape victim Zainab, the conspiring spymaster General Akhtar, hapless US ambassador Arnold Raphael, a mango-eating crow, and of course the doomed General Zia himself, bamboozled by his security forces and his Quran, harangued by his wife and his tapeworms (both of whose viewpoints we also get to witness, oh joy).

There’s a certain amount of name-dropping involved because Hanif feels he owes his debt to the inspiration of Gabo’s Chronicle of a Death Foretold; even has Ali’s best friend Obaidi nose-deep in said book in the final fatal chapters. But it does not feel derivative, this: it is wholly its own animal, and it delights me. Would that us Singaporeans, ach, even us Southeast Asians, wrote like this!

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Representative quote: Behind the cordons set up along the road by the police for this VIP procession, people stood and waited and guessed: a teenager anxious to continue his first ride on a Honda 70: a drunk husband ferociously chewing betel nuts to get rid of the smell before he got home, a horse buckling under the weight of too many passengers on the cart, the passengers cursing the cart driver for taking this route, the cart driver feeling the pins and needle sin his legs begging for their overdue opium dose, a woman covered in a black burqa - the only body part visible her left breast feeding her infant child - a boy in a car trying to hold a girl's hand on their first date, a seven-year-old selling dust-covered chickpeas, an old water carrier hawking water out of a goatskin, a heroin addict eyeing his dealer stranded on the other side of the road, a mullah who would be late for the evening prayer, a gypsy woman selling bright pink abby chickens, an air force trainee officer in uniform in a Toyota Corolla being driven by a Dunhill-smoking civilian, a newspaper hawker screaming the day's headlines, Singapore Airline's crew in a van cracking jokes in three languages, a pair of home-delivery arms dealers fidgeting with their suitcases nervously, a third-year medical student planning to end his life by throwing himself on the rail tracks in anticipation of the Shalimar Express, a husband and wife on a motorbike returning from a fertility clinic, an illegal BEngali immigrant waiting to ell his kidney so that he could send money back home, a blind woman who had escaped prison in the morning and had spent all day trying to convince people that she was not a beggar, eleven teenagers dressed in white impatient to get to the field for their night cricket match, off-duty policemen waiting for free rides home, a bride in a rickshaw on her way to the beauty salon, an old man thrown out of his son's home and determined to walk to his daughter's house fifty miles away, a coolie from the railway station still wearing his red uniform an in a shopping bag carrying a glittering sari he'd change into that night, an abandoned cat sniffing her way back to her owner's house, a black-turbaned truck driver singing a love song about his lover at the top of his voice, a bus full of trainee Lady Health Visitors headed for their night shift at a government hospital; as the smoke from idling engines mixed with the smog that descends on Islamabad at dusk, as their waiting hearts got to bursting point with anxiety, they all seemed to have one question on their minds: 'Which one of our many rulers is this? If his security is so important, why don't they just lock him up in the Army House?'

Next book: Salman Rushdie's Shalimar the Clown, from Kashmir.

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