“Like all young reporters, I was like, this is going to be my big story, and I started working on it. After a few months, I realized that there was no way I was going to get to the bottom of it. There were layers and layers and layers of deception and cover-ups to cover the other cover-ups. Then it occurred to me that I would just make up my own facts. If no one was willing to tell me who did it, then as a fictional character, I’ll raise my hand and say, ‘Well, I did it,’ and I’ll write a book about it. And so, basically, it was a failed journalist’s revenge.” Those are words from Mohammed Hanif on being asked about the ease with which he fictionalized facts in his first novel , A Case of Exploding Mangoes (2008).
A pleasant, witty, down-to-earth, no-airs individual who seems a little embarrassed at all the compliments and the glory lavished on him, Hanif, is a prominent figure in Pakistani journalism who has carved a dint for himself as one of the most critically acclaimed English fiction-writers from Southeast Asia. When A Case of Exploding Mangoes exploded on the literary scene in 2008, it seized the heart of readers unawares. It was shortlisted for the 2008 Guardian First Book Award and long listed for the 2008 Man Booker Prize. It won the Commonwealth Writers Prize for the Best Novel in 2009 and the 2008 Shakti Bhatt First Book Prize.
Hanif was born in Okara, Pakistan in 1964. Trained as a pilot officer from the Pakistan Air Force Academy, he left his job to pursue his dream to be a journalist. He initially worked for Newsline and wrote for The Washington Post and India Today. He is a graduate of the University of East Anglia. After graduating, he moved to London to work for the BBC in 1996. Later, he became the head of the BBC ‘s Urdu service in London. After spending a decade in London, Hanif moved back to Pakistan in 2008 where he works now as a special correspondent for BBC . In A Case , Hanif takes up the story of the plane crash on August 17, 1988 which killed General Zia ul-Haq, the military ruler of Pakistan since 1977 and America’s staunchest ally in the first Afghan war. Zia was accompanied by some of his senior generals, the US ambassador to Pakistan and the head of the US military aid mission to Pakistan, all of whom died. There was no real investigation and no culprit was ever discovered. Conspiracy theories still abound, implicating the CIA, the Bhutto family, Indian intelligence, miscreant elements within the Pakistan Army or the erstwhile Soviet Union.
The intrigue surrounding the death of the General and his entourage that fateful day is what the author is trying to explore through a work of fiction. The only fact in the book is the plane crash. The rest is all the product of his imagination. That was the simple explanation the author gave for having written the book. No hidden agenda, no hatred of the army, no revealing of secrets that became known to him through Deep Throat or anything like that. It is, as if, he himself wonders and debates about who is most likely to be capable enough and powerful enough to plan and implement that plan. It begins with Junior under Officer Ali Shigri being dragged for interrogation.
A Case of Exploding Mangoes was fast to attract meaningful comparisons to Catch-22 – both being caustic satirical depiction of life in the air forces, but the similarities run deeper. Like Joseph Heller, Hanif has a specialized knack to coalesce a kind of detestation and humor joined at the root. Also, his prose is spontaneous and highly readable and the way his characters are brought to life is also unconventional. He tells us about Zia in the prologue of the book and points out that“if you watch closely you can probably tell that he is in some discomfort. He is walking the walk of a constipated man.” The novelist deftly describes places, people, incidents, happenings in a way that puts them all in line with the main plot and everything seems very connected. Even the Kaaba is described to suit the mood of the novel and the state of mind of the General who is soon going to meet his end: “The door opened and nothing happened. There was nobody ambushing them. There was nobody welcoming him either. The room was empty.” The author makes all his characters talk with the contextual intelligence that they are supposed to have in real life.
One cannot ignore the political undertones obvious in the book. The book is a treat in all respects. The reader who wants to understand Pakistani history from the intriguingly comic perspective, do read it. You want to know if Pakistani writers can be irreverent in their expression, this book shows they can.
Our Lady of Alice Bhatti (2012), Hanif’s second novel, neither speaks about terrorism rampant in western Pakistan nor does it deal with Taliban atrocities. The book takes for its setting a Karachi Christian hospital and is about the daily fight for survival. What strikes right at the beginning is that the female protagonist is a Christian in a country like Pakistan torn by religious fundamentalism. As the author himself says, it is a “much more intimate novel… it is an insider’s look at how life is lived on a day-to-day basis. This is not the kind of life that makes screaming headlines; this is not the kind of life that CNN and FOX and Al Jazeera like to cover. It might seem mundane and boring from the outside, but it is full of little adventures, full of little romance, full of little humiliation, full of tiny terrors. For me, this life is as captivating, as amazing as anything that happens on a global scale.”
Though, in general, the situation is shown to be very bad for women, Hanif’s novel runs much deeper. “There was not a single day – not a single day – when she didn’t see a woman shot or hacked, strangled or suffocated, poisoned or burnt, hanged or buried alive. Suspicious husband, brother protecting his honor, father protecting his honor, son protecting his honor, jilted lover avenging his honor, feuding farmers settling their water disputes, moneylenders collecting their interest: most of life’s arguments, it seemed, got settled by doing various things to a woman’s body.” Nevertheless Hanif accedes, “But we must also point out that in my book and also outside in society, there are a lot of women who are very gutsy, who fight back, who have to wage a battle every day to win an inch of space. And that space, I must say, over the years has been increased. It has been a tough battle. But that is a fight that goes on, on a daily basis.” The author’s observations are pointed and specific. It’s a brusque piece of art; its concerns are local and universal.
The author expresses that “Basically, I was trying to write it as a love story, but since the love story happens in a particular setting, like many love stories, it goes wrong somewhere.” And will this story – and grisly Sacred Heart – be taken as a parable for a whole nation? One hopes not. The Metro (U. K.) reviewed aptly, “ A Case of Exploding Mangoes established Hanif as a brave, gifted and important writer with a sharp insight into Pakistan’s politics and recent history… Our Lady of Alice Bhatti is as striking as its predecessor…Ultimately, it is at once a fiercely tender novel about different kinds of love, and a terrible tale of what happens when love turns bad.” This book was shortlisted for the Wellcome Trust Book Prize (2012) and the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature (2013).
He has written plays for the stage and screen; including the critically acclaimed BBC drama, What Now, Now That We Are Dead? And the feature film The Long Night (2002),Pakistan’s first digital feature film. One can only earnestly hope that we get to read more and more of this gifted author’s truly precious literary produce in the coming years.
- A Case of Exploding Mangoes(2008)
- Our Lady of Alice Bhatti (2011)
- The Baloch who is not missing and others who are (2013)
- The Long Night (Script) (2002)
- What Now, Now That We Are Dead?(radio play)
- The Dictator’s Wife(2008)
This section of “South Asian Writers” is not intended for any immediate commercial value, but to create a beyond boundary literary world, which is the primary mission of Indic House.
Please note, the information in these sections is collected from various sources, including internet sources. With all our sincere effort, it is not possible to give individual recognition, however, we do acknowledge and appreciate all sources.