A Case of Exploding Mangoes

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A Washington Post, Rocky Mountain News, Boston Globe Best Book of the Year

Intrigue and subterfuge combine with bad luck and good in this darkly comic debut about love, betrayal, tyranny, family, and a conspiracy trying its damnedest to happen.

Ali Shigri, Pakistan Air Force pilot and Silent Drill Commander of the Fury Squadron, is on a mission to avenge his father's suspicious death, which the government calls a suicide.Ali's target is none ...

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A Washington Post, Rocky Mountain News, Boston Globe Best Book of the Year

Intrigue and subterfuge combine with bad luck and good in this darkly comic debut about love, betrayal, tyranny, family, and a conspiracy trying its damnedest to happen.

Ali Shigri, Pakistan Air Force pilot and Silent Drill Commander of the Fury Squadron, is on a mission to avenge his father's suspicious death, which the government calls a suicide.Ali's target is none other than General Zia ul-Haq, dictator of Pakistani. Enlisting a rag-tag group of conspirators, including his cologne-bathed roommate, a hash-smoking American lieutenant, and a mango-besotted crow, Ali sets his elaborate plan in motion. There's only one problem: the line of would-be Zia assassins is longer than he could have possibly known.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers
"The guilty commit the crime, the innocent are punished. That's the world we live in." In 1988, Pakistani dictator General Zia died in a mysterious plane crash. Debut novelist Hanif has seized upon this unsolved mystery and spun a darkly satirical explanation by way of this tale -- that Zia's plane crash was the result of not one but two assassination attempts.

A Case of Exploding Mangoes is a sly, riotous send-up of Mideast politics, the unintended and often disastrous consequences of American foreign policy, the hypocrisy of Islamic fundamentalism, and last but not least, the far, if not lighter, side of tyranny and torture. Even Osama bin Laden makes a cameo appearance, but at the time, he was our ally in the fight against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, and 9/11 was just a date in the future.

It might be hard to imagine how a writer could spin gold from this straw, but Hanif has, delivering a frolicking and shocking political satire. A Case of Exploding Mangoes will have readers laughing -- and thinking that though truth is said to be stranger than fiction, this novel may just have the ring of truth to it. (Summer 2008 Selection)
From the Publisher
“An insanely brilliant, satirical first novel . . . Belongs in a tradition that includes Catch-22, but it also calls to mind the biting comedy of Philip Roth.”—The Washington Post"A brilliant debut. . . . Exceptional. . . . The detail is rich, the prose resonant. Grade A."—Rocky Mountain News“Like Catch-22, it is best understood as a satire of militarism, regulation and piety.... Hanif has written a historical novel with an eerie timeliness.”—The New York Times Book Review“Global satire with a savage bite. . . . Richly imagined.”—The Miami Herald“Hanif’s book is sexy, subversive, and magical.... Entertaining and original.” —Slate“Fascinating.... It sardonically examines the workings of the Pakistani state, which comes off like a Third World Brazil imagined by Raymond Chandler. What really drives Mangoes, however, is Hanif’s sharp writing and considerable wit.”—The Village Voice“There are many reasons to read this excellent novel, and one for which it should be celebrated: Hanif has found in Zia a veritable Homer Simpson of theocratic zealotry . . . The inevitable comparison here is to Dr. Strangelove, and just as the Kubrick film crystallized the absurdities of nuclear escalation into an archetypal cast of idiots-who-run-the-world, Mangoes provides the necessary update.”—New York Observer“Witty, elegant, and deliciously anarchic. Hanif has a lovely eye and an even better ear.”—John le Carré“Hanif confidently tackles ‘the biggest cover-up in aviation history since the last biggest cover-up,’ bringing absurdist humor and surprising warmth to his story.”—Entertainment Weekly“Funny, subversive, erotic, and sad. Anyone thinking of applying for the job of unhinged, religious dictator should read it first.”    —Mark Haddon, author of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time“Unputdownable and darkly hilarious . . . Mohammed Hanif is a brave, gifted writer. He has taken territory in desperate need of satire–General Zia, the military, Pakistan at the time of the Soviet-Afghan war–and made it undeniably his own.”—Mohsin Hamid, author of The Reluctant Fundamentalist “A sure-footed, inventive debut that deftly undercuts its moral rage with comedy and deepens its comedy with moral rage . . . The novel has less in common with the sober literature of fact than it does with Latin American magical realism (especially novels about mythic dictators such as Gabriel García Márquez’s Autumn of the Patriarch) and absurdist military comedy (like Joseph Heller’s Catch-22). Hanif adopts a playful, exuberant voice, as competing theories and assassination plots are ingeniously combined and overlaid.”—Kirkus Reviews“Pakistan’s ongoing political turmoil adds a piquant edge to this fact-based farce . . . Hanif’s depiction of military foibles recalls the satirical wallop of Catch-22. [He brings] heft to this sagely absurd depiction of his homeland’s history of political conspiracies and corruption.”—Publishers Weekly “Entertaining and illuminating . . . Hanif has crafted a clever black comedy about military culture, love, tyranny, family, and the events that eventually brought us to September 11, 2001.”—Booklist
Robert Macfarlane
Far from coming to a conclusion about the cause of Zia's death, Hanif gleefully thickens the stew of conspiracy theories, introducing at least six other possible suspects, including a blind woman under sentence of death, a Marxist-Maoist street cleaner, a snake, a crow, an army of tapeworms and a junior trainee officer in the Pakistani Air Force named Ali Shigri, who is also the novel's main narrator. Ali is irreverent, lazy and raspingly sardonic, and his obvious fictional predecessor is Joseph Heller's Yossarian. Indeed, like Catch-22, A Case of Exploding Mangoes is best understood as a satire of militarism, regulation and piety. Much of Hanif's novel is set in the Pakistani Air Force Academy, an institution staffed by crazies and incompetents who could have walked straight out of Heller's novel…Hanif has written a historical novel with an eerie timeliness.
—The New York Times
Julia Slavin
…insanely brilliant…even as Hanif eviscerates, he writes with great generosity and depth…A Case of Exploding Mangoes belongs in a tradition that includes Catch-22, but it also calls to mind the biting comedy of Philip Roth, the magical realism of Salman Rushdie and the feverish nightmares of Kafka. But trying to compare his work to his predecessors is like trying to compare apples to, well, mangoes, because Hanif has his own story to tell, one that defies expectations at every turn.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly

Pakistan's ongoing political turmoil adds a piquant edge to this fact-based farce spun from the mysterious 1988 plane crash that killed General Zia, the dictator who toppled Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, father of recently assassinated Benazir Bhutto. Two parallel assassination plots converge in Hanif's darkly comic debut: Air Force Junior Under Officer Ali Shigri, sure that his renowned military father's alleged suicide was actually a murder, hopes to kill Zia, who he holds responsible. Meanwhile, disgruntled Zia underlings scheme to release poison gas into the ventilation system of the general's plane. Supporting characters include Bannon, a hash-smoking CIA officer posing as an American drill instructor; Obaid, Shigri's Rilke-reading, perfume-wearing barracks pal, whose friendship sometimes segues into sex; and, in a foreboding cameo, a "lanky man with a flowing beard," identified as OBL, who is among the guests at a Felliniesque party at the American ambassador's residence. The Pakistan-born author served in his nation's air force for several years, which adds daffy verisimilitude to his depiction of military foibles that recalls the satirical wallop of Catch 22, as well as some heft to the sagely absurd depiction of his homeland's history of political conspiracies and corruption. (May)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Kirkus Reviews
Journalist Hanif's first novel is a darkly witty imagining of the circumstances surrounding the mysterious plane crash that killed Pakistan's military ruler, General Zia, in August 1988. The central figure is a young military officer named Ali Shigri whose much-decorated father was found hanging from a ceiling fan, an alleged suicide. Ali knows, however, that his father's death was something more sinister, and he sets out first to identify the responsible party, Zia, and then-by way of a loopy plan involving swordsmanship and obscure pharmacology-to exact revenge. The book's omniscient narrator gets into the heads of multiple characters, including that of the General himself; his ambitious second-in-command, General Akhtar; a smooth torturer named Major Kiyani; a communist street sweeper who for a time occupies a prison cell near Ali's; a blind rape victim who has been imprisoned for fornication; and a wayward and sugar-drunk crow. Even Osama bin Laden has a cameo, at a Fourth of July bash. But plot summary misleads; the novel has less in common with the sober literature of fact than it does with Latin American magical realism (especially novels about mythic dictators such as Gabriel Garc'a Marquez's Autumn of the Patriarch) and absurdist military comedy (like Joseph Heller's Catch-22). Hanif adopts a playful, exuberant voice that's almost a parody of old-fashioned omniscience, as competing theories and assassination plots are ingeniously combined and overlaid. Uneasy rests the head that wears the General's famous twirled mustache-everybody's out to get him. A sure-footed, inventive debut that deftly undercuts its moral rage with comedy and deepens its comedy with moral rage. Agent: ClareAlexander/Gillon Aitken Associates
Library Journal
Though this whirlwind of a story centers on Pakistani Air Force Junior Under Officer Ali Shigri, Hanif’s dazzling exploration of the inner dialogs, workings, and turmoils of a disparate range of characters will blow up your mind some. Shigri is a bright light in his camp’s silent drill squad (yes, such a thing exists), but is jailed on suspicion after his roommate Obaid steals an aircraft and goes AWOL. The fact that the two have been sleeping together doesn’t matter in the least, reflected in one officer’s remark, “You two think you invented buggery?” There is a plot, but it’s placed firmly behind characters whose terrible weaknesses and strengths will captivate readers. There’s Generals, a blind woman imprisoned for fornication (she was raped), even a lowly radio operator who is feeling transcendently great after a fleeting encounter with his superior. “The fume-filled air was fragrant in his lungs. His ears were alive to the chirping of the birds. The bus horns were love tunes in the air waiting to be plucked and put into words.” Then he’s assassinated. The strong sense of doom will have readers expecting new characters to be Brazil-esque torturers, and the comedy is black as a tadpole coloring himself with a Sharpie, but this is no Catch 22 retread; it’s a bloodthirstier White Teeth.

(c) Copyright 2013. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

The Barnes & Noble Review
One of the funniest passages in Mohammed Hanif's acidly satirical novel, A Case of Exploding Mangoes, is the official statement of a Pakistani cadet facing interrogation by his superiors. "When I asked whether I was under detention [the guard] laughed and made a joke about the cell mattress having too many holes. The joke cannot be reproduced in this report. 2nd OIC arrived half an hour later and informed me that I was under close arrest... if I didn't tell him the truth he'd hand me over to Inter Services Intelligence and they would hang me by my testicles...2nd OIC made a joke about two marines and a bar of soap in a Fort Bragg bathroom. I didn't think I was supposed to laugh and I didn't."

The soldier is Junior Under Officer Ali Shigri, the country is Pakistan in the 1980s. The deadpan tone, however, could be that of Evelyn Waugh, Jaroslav Hasek (The Good Soldier Swejk), Spike Milligan, Joseph Heller, or any fine satirist of the military. Hanif certainly belongs in such exalted company, and his young officer, Ali Shigri, is instantly recognizable as the seemingly innocent yet secretly cunning underling who can subvert any regime.

Ali tells lies, of course, but only when he must, and never to us. Through his keen eyes, we perceive the absurd world of the Pakistani armed forces orbiting the larger absurd world of the late General Zia ul-Haq's appalling dictatorship. "The guilty commit the crime, the innocent are punished. That's the world we live in," Ali explains as the novel opens with the mysterious 1988 plane crash that killed General Zia, his head of Inter Services Intelligence and the US ambassador among others. Observing the doomed party as it boards Pak One, Ali knows that he is "saluting a bunch of dead men. But if you are in uniform, you salute. That's all there is to it."

How does Ali know? Is the crash the work of Pakistani Intelligence? Of the CIA? And what part could mangoes possibly play? The answers to these and other questions shimmer mirage-like throughout the cleverly constructed novel as it winds backwards -- and often sideways -- from the assassination to its origins, churning up flotsam such as spymaster William Casey, Osama bin Laden, American "advisers" and Afghani mujahideen along the way.

"The ambassador had reasons to be inclusive," Hanif writes of the US embassy's Fourth of July party in Islamabad at which even Osama bin Laden appears. "[D]ozens of American agencies ran their own little jihads against the Soviets along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. There were those avenging Vietnam and there were those doing God's work...." In this anarchic and deadly playground, General Zia may ogle the breasts of Texan socialite and jihad-sponsor Joanne Herring while an American drill sergeant on loan to Ali Shigri's squad can dream up his own little coup.

Hanif wisely shrinks this larger context -- the Soviet/Afghanistan/ Pakistan/U.S. imbroglio of the 1980s -- concentrating instead on Ali's drama and that of the increasingly paranoid General Zia. The dictator's skewed reality is brilliantly conveyed. At Zia's fortress, for example, as dawn approaches, "The commandos on the night shift were flicking back the safety catches on the Kalashnikovs.... a team of gardeners was being body-searched.... [and] General Zia's personal batman was pinning seven identical sets of medals to seven different uniforms." Despite all this, the general can be panicked by an ominous verse from the Qaran and is hardly reassured when his bodyguard, an aerial stuntman, tells him, "Life is in Allah's hands, but I pack my own parachute."

This vain and jittery Zia is a wonderful creation, and Hanif surrounds him with boldly sketched thugs and flunkies. (Guarding Zia, "Brigadier TM navigated the crowd effortlessly, his elbows working like the oars of a skilled rower as if the milling crowd was nothing but dead water in a still lake.") It is Ali, however, who demands not only our attention but also our sympathy as the novel's heart and its conscience. Sardonic, cocky, tough but occasionally terrified, he is the son of a venerated general who committed suicide to become, as Ali puts it, "a legend hanging from a ceiling fan." Like a hardboiled Hamlet, this brooding son cannot rid himself of his father and, more urgently, of the suspicion that his "suicide" was murder. General Shigri's death, after all, occurred just after he had retrieved millions of US dollars from a dead Pakistani agent in Afghanistan.

Avenging his father's murder may be Ali's obsession, but in the meantime his heart belongs to a fellow cadet, sweet-natured Obaid-ul-Ilah, who is partial to the poems of Rilke and a dab of St. Laurent's "Poison" on the wrists. This whimsical character might well have derailed or at least diluted Hanif's potent satire (remember Breakfast on Pluto, Patrick McCabe's lame attempt to subvert Irish paramilitary myth with cross-dressing camp?). But Obaid is the perfect innocent to have wandering through such a murky plot; the kind of innocent, in fact, who is tougher than any veteran, as Ali discovers to his horror when he is invited to sip tea with sadistic Major Kiyani in the Palace gardens. Here shackled enemies of the state are paraded. "The prisoners circle the marble fountain outside the Palace of Mirrors, their shaved heads bobbing up and down behind the manicured hedges covered in purple bougainvillea," Ali notes. "They look like betrayed promises; broken and then put together from memory, obscure names crossed out of habeas corpus petitions, forgotten faces that will never make it to Amnesty International's hall of fame." Among the ruined group Ali suddenly recognizes...well, never mind.

That shock is one of many exquisitely timed jolts in a novel that succeeds by teasing rather than telling. There is nothing coy, however, about Hanif's satisfying plot or his portrait of a world he clearly knows intimately and describes with tactile immediacy. In the US ambassador's residence, the beers chill "in the morgue-size fridge." The day after General Zia's coup, the conference room of General Headquarters, sprayed with rose-scented air freshener, smells "like a freshly sealed coffin." In Hanif's hands, even the exploding mangoes are plausible. --Anna Mundow

Anna Mundow writes "The Interview" and the "Historical Novels" columns for The Boston Globe and is a contributor to The Irish Times.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780307388186
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 5/5/2009
  • Series: Vintage Series
  • Pages: 336
  • Sales rank: 684,925
  • Product dimensions: 5.12 (w) x 8.04 (h) x 0.73 (d)

Meet the Author

Mohammed Hanif runs the Urdu service of the BBC's World Service. He was in the Pakistani Air Force for seven years, and then a journalist in Pakistan, where he is also known as a playwright. He won the Board of Examiners top prize at the University of East Anglia this year for an excerpt from A Case of Exploding Mangoes, which is his first novel.

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Read an Excerpt

There is something about these bloody squadron leaders that makes them think that if they lock you up in a cell, put their stinking mouth to your ear, and shout something about your mother, they can find all the answers. They are generally a sad lot, these leaders without any squadrons to lead. It's their own lack of leadership qualities that stops them mid-career, nowhere for them to go except from one training institute to another, permanent seconds in command to one commander or the other. You can tell them from their belts, loose and low, straining under the weight of their paunches. Or from their berets, so carefully positioned to hide that shiny bald patch. Schemes for part-time M.B.A.'s and a new life are trying hard to keep pace with missed promotions and pension plans.

Look at the arrangement of fruit salad on my tormentor's chest, above the left pocket of his uniform shirt, and you can read his whole biography. A faded paratrooper's badge is the only thing that he had to leave his barracks to earn. The medals in the first row just came and pinned themselves to his chest. He got them because he was there. The Fortieth Independence Day medal. The Squadron Anniversary medal. Today-I-did-not-jerk-off medal. Then the second row, fruits of his own hard labour and leadership. One for organising a squash tournament, another for the great battle that was tree-plantation week. The leader with his mouth to my ear and my mother on his mind has had a freebie to Mecca and is wearing a haj medal, too.

As Obaid used to say, "God's glory. God's glory. For every monkey there is a houri."

The 2nd OIC is wasting more of his already-wasted life trying to break me down with his bad breath and his incessant shouting. Doesn't he know that I actually invented some of the bullshit that he is pouring into my ear? Hasn't he heard about the Shigri treatment? Doesn't he know that I used to get invited to other squadrons in the middle of the night to make the new arrivals cry with my three-minute routine about their mothers? Does he really think that "fuck your fucking mother," even when delivered at strength 5, still has any meaning when you are weeks away from the president's annual inspection and becoming a commissioned officer?

The theory used to be damn simple: Any good soldier learns to shut out the noise and delink such expressions from their apparent meaning. I mean, when they say that thing about your mother, they have absolutely no intention—and I am certain no desire, either—to do what they say they want to do with your mother. They say it because it comes out rapid-fire and sounds cool and requires absolutely no imagination. The last syllable of mother reverberates in your head for a while as it is delivered with their lips glued to your ear. And that is just about that. They have not even seen your poor mother.

Anybody who breaks down at the sheer volume of this should stay in his little village and tend his father's goats or should study biology and become a doctor, and then they can have all the bloody peace and quiet they want. Because as a soldier, noise is the first thing you learn to defend yourself against, and as an officer, noise is the first weapon of attack you learn to use.

Unless you are in the Silent Drill Squad.

Look at the parade square during the morning drill and see who commands it. Who rules? There are more than a thousand of us, picked from a population of 130 million, put through psychological and physical tests so strenuous that only one in a hundred applicants makes it, and when this cream of our nation, as we are constantly reminded we are, arrives here, who leads them? The one with the loudest voice, the one with the clearest throat, the one whose chest can expand to produce a command that stuns the morning crows and makes the most stubborn of cadets raise their knees to waist level and bring the world to a standstill as their heels land on the concrete.

Or at least that is what I believed before Lieutenant Bannon arrived with his theories about inner cadence, silent commands, and subsonic drill techniques. "A drill with commands is just that—a drill," Bannon is fond of saying. "A drill without commands is an art. When you deliver a command at the top of your voice, only the boys in your squadron listen. But when your inner cadence whispers, the gods take notice."

Not that Bannon believes in any god.

I wonder whether he'll visit me here. I wonder whether they will let him into this cell.

The 2nd OIC is exhausted from his business with my mother and I can see an appeal to my better sense on its way. I clench my stomach muscles against the impending "cream of the nation" speech. I don't want to throw up. The cell is small and I have no idea how long I am going to be here.

"You are the cream of our nation," he says, shaking his head. "You have been the pride of our Academy. I have just recommended you for the sword of honour. You are going to receive it from the president of Pakistan. You have two choices: graduate with honour in four weeks or go out front-rolling to the sound of drums. Tomorrow. Clap. Clap. Tony Singh-style." He brings his hands together twice, like those Indian film extras in a qawwali chorus.

They did that to Tony Singh. Drummed the poor bugger out. I never figured out what the hell Tony Singh was doing in the air force of the Islamic Republic anyway. Before meeting Tony Singh (or Sir Tony, as we had to call him, since he was six courses senior to us), the only Tony I knew was our neighbour's dog and the only Singh I had seen was in my history textbook, a one-eyed maharaja who ruled Punjab a couple of centuries ago. I thought the partition took care of all the Tonys and the Singhs, but apparently some didn't get the message.

Tony Singh didn't get the message even when they found a transistor radio in his dorm and charged him with spying. "Top of the Pops" was Sir Tony's defence. They reduced the charge to unofficerlike behaviour and drummed him out anyway.

A lone drummer—a corporal who, after carrying the biggest drum in the Academy band all his life, had begun to look like one—led the way, keeping a thud, thud, thud-a-dud marching beat. More than one thousand of us lined both sides of Eagles Avenue, which leads from the guardroom to the main gate.

"At ease," came the command.

Tony Singh emerged from the guardroom, having spent a couple of nights in this very cell. His head was shaved, but he still wore his uniform. He stood tall and refused to look down or sideways.

"Clap," came the command.

We started slowly. The 2nd OIC removed Sir Tony's belt and the ranks from his shoulder flaps and then he took a step forward and whispered something into Sir Tony's ear. Sir Tony went down on his knees, put both his hands on the road, and did a front roll without touching his shaved head on the ground.

The bugger was trying to be cocky even when his ass was raised to the skies.

His journey was painfully slow. The drumbeat became unbearable after a while. Some cadets clapped more enthusiastically than others.

I glanced sideways and saw Obaid trying hard to control his tears.

"Sir, I swear to God I have no knowledge of Cadet Obaid's whereabouts," I say, trying to tread the elusive line between grovelling and spitting in his face.

The 2nd OIC wants to get home. An evening of domestic cruelty and Dallas beckons him. He waves my statement in front of me. "You have one night to think this through. Tomorrow it goes to the commandant, and the only thing he hates more than his men disappearing is their clever-dick collaborators. He is looking forward to the president's visit. We are all looking forward to the visit. Don't fuck it up."

He turns to go. My upper body slumps. He puts one hand on the door handle and turns; my upper body comes back to attention. "I saw your father once, and he was a soldier's bloody soldier. Look at yourself." A leery grin appears on his lips. "You mountain boys get lucky because you have no hair on your face."

I salute him, using all my silent drill practice to contain the inner cadence, which is saying, Fuck your mother, too.

I wonder for a moment what Obaid would do in this cell. The first thing that would have bothered him is the smell the 2nd OIC has left behind. This burnt onions, homemade yogurt gone bad smell. The smell of suspicion, the smell of things not quite having gone according to plan. Because our Obaid, our Baby O, believes that there is nothing in the world that a splash of Poison on your wrist and an old melody can't take care of.

He is innocent in a way that lonesome canaries are innocent, flitting from one branch to another, the tender flutter of their wings and a few millilitres of blood keeping them airborne against the gravity of this world that wants to pull everyone down to its rotting surface.

What chance would Obaid have with this 2nd OIC? Baby O, the whisperer of ancient couplets, the singer of golden oldies. How did he make it through the selection process? How did he manage to pass the Officerlike Qualities Test? How did he lead his fellow candidates through the mock jungle-survival scenarios? How did he bluff his way through the psychological profiles?

All they needed to do was pull down his pants and see his silk briefs with the little embroidered hearts on the waistband.

Where are you, Baby O?

Lieutenant Bannon saw us for the first time at the annual variety show, doing our dove and hawk dance. This was before the commandant replaced these variety shows with Quran Study Circles and After-Dinner Literary Activities. As third-termers, we had to do all the shitty fancy-dress numbers, and seniors got to lip-synch to George Michael songs. We were miming to a very macho revolutionary poem. I, the imperialist eagle, swooped down on Obaid's Third World dove; he fought back, and for the finale sat on my chest, drawing blood from my neck with his cardboard beak.

Bannon came to meet us backstage as we were shedding our ridiculous feathers. "Hooah, you zoomies should be in Hollywood!" His handshake was exaggerated and firm. "Good show. Good show." He turned towards Obaid, who was cleaning the brown boot polish from his cheeks with a hankie. "You're just a kid without that war paint," Bannon said. "What's your name?"

In the background, Sir Tony's "Careless Whisper" was so out of tune that the speakers screeched in protest.

Under his crimson beret, Bannon's face was beaten leather, his eyes shallow green pools that had not seen a drop of rain in years.

"Obaid. Obaid-ul-llah."

"What does it mean?"

"Allah's servant," said Obaid, sounding unsure, as if he should explain that he hadn't chosen this name for himself.

I came to Obaid's rescue. "What does your name mean, Lieutenant Bannon?"

"It's just a name," he said. "Nobody calls me 'Lieutenant.' It's 'Loot' Bannon for you stage mamas." He clicked his heels together and turned back to Obaid. We both came to attention. He directed his over-the-top two-fingered salute at Obaid and said the words which in that moment seemed like just another case of weird U.S. militaryspeak but would later become the stuff of dining hall gossip.

"See you at the square, Baby O."

I felt jealous, not because of the intimacy it implied, but because I wished I had come up with this nickname for Obaid.

I make a mental note of the things they could find in the dorm to throw at me:

1.One-quarter of a quarter bottle of Murree rum.

2.A group photo of first-termers in their underwear (white and December-wet underwear actually).

3.A video of Love on a Horse.

4.Bannon's dog tags, still listed as missing on the guardroom's Lost and Found notice board.

If my Shigri blood wasn't so completely void of any literary malaise, I would have listed poetry as Exhibit 5, but who the fuck really thinks about poetry when locked up in a cell, unless you are a Communist or a poet?

There is a letter-box slit in the door of the cell, as if people are going to send me letters. Dear Ali Shigri, I hope you are in the best of health and enjoying your time in . . .

I am on my knees, my eyes level with the letter-box slit. I know Obaid would have lifted the flap on the slit and would have sat here looking at the parade of khaki-clad butts, and amused himself by guessing which one belonged to whom. Our Baby O could do a detailed personality analysis just by looking at where and how tightly people wore their belts.

I don't want to lift the flap and find someone looking at me looking at them. The word is probably already out. That butcher Shigri is where he deserves to be; throw away the key.

The flap lifts itself, and the first-termer shitface announces my dinner. "Buzz off," I say, regretting it immediately. Empty stomach means bad dreams.

In my dream, there is a C-130 Hercules, covered with bright flowers like you see on those hippie cars. The plane's propellers are pure white and move in slow motion, spouting jets of jasmine flowers. Baby O stands on the tip of the right wing, just behind the propeller, wearing a black silk robe and his ceremonial peaked cap. I stand on the tip of the left wing in full uniform. Baby O is shouting something above the din of the aircraft. I can't really make out any words, but his gestures tell me that he is asking me to come to him. As I take the first step towards Baby O, the C-130 tilts and goes into a thirty-degree left turn, and suddenly we are sliding along the wings, heading for oblivion. I wake up with one of those screams that echoes through your body but gets stuck in your throat.

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Reading Group Guide

1. What do you think of Obaid and Ali’s relationship?

2. 'Life is in Allah's hands but I pack my own parachute.' After this strong statement were you surprised that Bridgier TM died?

3. At the heart of the book is an unsolved mystery. How does this affect your reading of the book? Why do you think Mohammed Hanif leaves the mystery unsolved?

4. ‘You want freedom and they give you a chicken korma’ (p.140) How do you think satire works in this novel? What difference would it have made if the book was told from a straight, serious perspective?

5. The story of blind Zainab and the American journalist, whose breasts General Zia looks at, highlight the conflicting attitudes towards women in Pakistan. How important do you think the female characters are to this novel? Do they play a vital part to the tale?

6. Is General Zia sympathetic at all?

7. How significant is the structure of the plot to your understanding of the story? Why does Mohammed Hanif reveal the end before the story opens?

8. ‘How the hell am I supposed to know about civilians or what they think? All I know about them is from television and newspapers…They never tell you about the nutters who want to spit on you.’ (p.130) How does censorship work within the novel?

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 7 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 7 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted June 27, 2012

    Excellent read.

    Thoroughly enjoyed how the fiction was interwoven with fact. I will be reading Mohammed Hanif's other work.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 15, 2009

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    Posted August 7, 2011

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    Posted July 27, 2009

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    Posted August 1, 2009

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    Posted January 2, 2010

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