Mohammed Hanif, A Case of Exploding Mangoes

A Case of Exploding Mangoes

Completely by accident, I happened to be reading Mohammed Hanif’s Case of Exploding Mangoes – a novel which goes deep into the Pakistani military’s role in the war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan – probably at the exact time that one of the most notorious products of that conflict, Osama Bin Laden (who makes in appearance in the book) was captured and killed in what has become a celebrated extraterritorial, extrajudicial execution by the United States. This has returned, for a time at least, credibility to the GWoT (Global War on Terror – it’s really funny as an acronym) which had been slipping among the American people. We have yet to see how long this will last – I am of the opinion that it will be short-lived – but it makes imperative the continued investigation and critique of the origins of the GWoT. As we see in Hanif’s novel, the ground was laid for such conflicts long before September 11th, 2001.

For the American media, Pakistan does not cross the horizon of reality until the advent of the GWoT. When I was hanging out with my uncle Matthew over Easter weekend, he was genuinely surprised when I told him that the origins of Pakistan are in India. Not his fault of course, but it shows just how deeply in the US information has become subordinated to imperial narratives – if it does not have to do with the US’ current mission, it effectively does not exist. Therefore a little description is in order. The idea of Pakistan as a home for Indian Muslims  first came out in the years leading up to Indian independence, in 1940 specifically. As a name for a country it is probably one of the best – it both means “land of the pure” in Farsi and is an anagram for the regions that went into it (Punjab, Afghania, Kashmir, Iran, Sindh, Turkharistan, Afghanistan, BaluchistaN). Under the Raj Hindu and Muslim elites had been effectively played off each other in competitions for the limited opportunities offered by a colonial regime. Thus as it emerged, the most powerful force driving toward Indian Independence, the Indian National Congress, was dominated by (upper-caste, wealthy) Hindus, and in the 1920s, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, a middle-class lawyer, began disguising himself as a Hindu saint and was able to become the face of the independence movement. Gandhi is revered in the West today to the point where it is hard to recall just how alienating his antics were to Muslim freedom fighters, although to his credit he never identified with the Hindu supremacists and made repeated efforts toward Hindu-Muslim unity. In any case, Mohammed Ali Jinnah and his fellow Muslim thinkers began to wonder if their interests could really be protected by a party led by Hindus that at best took a non-confrontational stance toward anti-Muslim bigotry of such figures as Savarkar, Tilak and Golwakar. I would argue that Pakistan was created, therefore, largely as a result of the failure of secular forces in India, particularly the left – the Communist Party, predictably, had lost much of its credit among the Indian masses at the time of WW2 through its support of the colonial power, and at the time of independence was reduced to providing the Congress with rhetorical cover from the left.

It was easier said than done to create a Muslim nation. After the violent partition of the country, some Indian Muslims, led by Jinnah, lived on two strips of “moth-eaten” (Jinnah’s words) land separated by a much larger and hostile nation between them. Indian Muslims did not have much in common, certainly not enough to cobble together even an approximation of a modern nation – the differences in class, language, and way of life were much too vast. After Jinnah’s death about a year after he was given Pakistan (it is questionable whether such a misbegotten creation was ever his real intention) and the assassination of his successor, Liaqat Ali Khan, the country passed through a few decades of rule by the largely Punjabi military, during which it set a new standard for corruption – one which is only being surpassed by the current civilian leadership of the country. The embarrassing defeat of the country by the Bengalis, who had been discounted as simple brown people unworthy of a real stake in the nation, led to the election of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto on a platform of quasi-socialist reform. Unfortunately for him, Mr. Bhutto had a big mouth and considered himself above petty considerations like the United States, or, more importantly, good relations with a military that had dominated the nation for almost its entire existence. In events described in Salman Rushdie’s novel Shame, he was deposed and executed by a coalition of generals led by the shining star of the Pakistani army, General Mohammed Zia ul-Haq.

Gen. Zia, in contrast to previous leaders of the country, was a bit of a God-botherer, as one of his very own generals call him in Hanif’s novel. It may be somewhat surprising to those of us raised on tales of Wahabbi puritanism as the face of political Islam, but it is a bit of an open secret that Jinnah, the founder of the first modern Muslim state, had a daily  lunch consisting of a ham sandwich washed down with a gin and tonic. Even well into the 70s Pakistan retained a more or less secular culture, in keeping with the wishes of the founder. It was under Zia that we can trace the Islamicization of society at large, including the state apparatus, to which we credit some of the most regressive, barbaric laws since Europe’s middle ages, among them a law illegalizing criticism of Islam and one mandating stoning of women who have sex outside of wedlock- in a particularly heartbreaking scene in the novel, Zia refuses to grant clemency to Zainab, a blind woman who was kidnapped and raped repeatedly over several days, on the grounds that her testimony is not reliable. Here is a discussion on the subject between Zia and his Saudi legal advisor that is funny in a really depressing way:

“I wanted your guidance on this matter: What happens when the accused [blind Zainab] says that she was forced to fornicate? How do we establish whether she is telling the truth? I mean, sometimes you can look at a woman’s face and tell she is a fornicator, but we need legal procedures to establish it.”

Qadi spoke as if he had thought about this for a long time. “Women always make this excuse after they are caught fornicating, but we all know that rape is not easy to commit. The perpetrator will need at least four accomplices… So the answer is yes, a woman can be raped, and it’s a serious crime.”

“So the woman will be required to recognize all five culprits in the court?” Zia asked.

“Our law, you know, is not set in stone; it encourages us to use our common sense. So the two men who are holding her down by her arms, maybe the woman would not be able to recognize those two and the judge can make an exemption.”

“And what if she didn’t see any of the culprits? What if they were wearing masks?”

General Zia could tell the old man was suddenly angry.

“Why would a rapist wear a mask? Is he a bank robber?… I have never heard of a rapist wearing a mask in my forty years as a judge. Rapists like to see their own reflection in the woman’s eyes. That is one reason they’d never wear masks,” said Qadi. (153-54)

Such was what the United States, which was outraged at the time by alleged human rights abuses by the Sandinistas and PDPA, was willing to put up with. And once the faucet was turned on to conduct the war of course, the Pakistani generals who had been telling themselves for years that they were helping defeat Godless communism, discovered the real reason for Pakistan’s involvement in the war. To quote the Wu-Tang Clan, what the discovered was that “cash rules everything around me.”  Such is the predicament of Gen. Shigri, who has been sent through hell by his commanders to recover a suitcase full of American dollars. He decides to tell his superiors to go fuck themselves, that they can come claim the money if they like, after which he either commits suicide or as the phrase goes had a “suicide involuntarily administered” to him.

As the novel unfolds, we have his son, Lieutenant Shigri of the Pakistani air force, being taken to prison for an attempt to kill General Zia. It is not completely clear at first that Shigri, who makes me think of what Hunter S. Thompson might have been like if he were in the Pakistani military, intended anything of the sort. Of course, we have another Chronicle of a Death Foretold story here (this novel, once again in a Pakistani work, is mentioned explicitly. I find that a bit strange). We know Zia dies- it is commonly known, although not by many Americans (who don’t even know his name- such was his payment for being such a faithful client) that he went to Paradise along with seven of his generals and the American ambassador in an explosion of immense magnitude when his plane crashed en route to Islamabad. What is not so clear is who finally gets to him – is it Lietenant Shigri, or his Joint Chiefs of Staff Commander, or the crow that flies toward the plane, or the leader of the All-Pakistani Sweepers’ Union who sends the president the novel’s title? As one of the characters says of Chronicle of a Death Foretold, the fun for us is seeing what happens when Zia dies, and what his last words will be.

A last note on the subject of the union leader. Lieutenant Shigri when he is imprisoned has the cell next to this man, a fellow conspirator on Gen. Zia’s life, and they have discussions on class struggle which would be too laborious to reproduce here. While I don’t fool myself that Hanif has many revolutionary sympathies, it is interesting that class struggle is so prominently shown within the story of assassination. Zia’s death was no great loss to humanity. But it did not solve anything at a fundamental level, if we know anything about the context. A greater force is necessary for that. And that is where I leave you.

Literary qualities: 4/5, Social qualities: 4/5

Mohammed Hanif, A Case of Exploding Mangoes. New York: Vintage International, 2008. $15

Similar books: Salman Rushdie, Shame, Gabriel García Márquez, Chronicle of a Death Foretold.

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Filed under Literature, Politics, Reading journal

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