A Case of Exploding Mangoes

A Case of Exploding Mangoes

3.9 8
by Mohammed Hanif
     
 

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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

Overview

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.

Editorial Reviews

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.

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)
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)

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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
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

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780307268075
Publisher:
Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
05/20/2008
Pages:
336
Product dimensions:
9.46(w) x 5.86(h) x 1.22(d)

Read an Excerpt

Prologue

You might have seen me on TV after the crash. The clip is short and everything in it is sun-bleached and slightly faded. It was pulled after the first two bulletins because it seemed to be having an adverse impact on the morale of the country's armed forces. You can't see it in the clip, but we are walking towards Pak One, which is parked behind the cameraman's back, in the middle of the runway. The aeroplane is still connected to an auxiliary fuel pump, and surrounded by a group of alert commandos in camouflaged uniforms. With its dull grey fuselage barely off the ground, the plane looks like a beached whale contemplating how to drag itself back to the sea, its snout drooping with the enormity of the task ahead.

The runway is in the middle of the Bahawalpur desert, six hundred miles away from the Arabian Sea. There is nothing between the sun's white fury and the endless expanse of shimmering sand except a dozen men in khaki uniforms walking towards the plane.

For a brief moment you can see General Zia's face in the clip, the last recorded memory of a much-photographed man. The middle parting in his hair glints under the sun, his unnaturally white teeth flash, his moustache does its customary little dance for the camera, but as the camera pulls out, you can tell that he is not smiling. If you watch closely, you can probably tell that he is in some discomfort. He is walking the walk of a constipated man.

The man walking on his right is the U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, Arnold Raphel, whose shiny bald head and carefully groomed moustache give him the air of a respectable homosexual businessman from small-town America. He can be seen flicking an invisible speck of sand from the lapel of his navy blue blazer. His smart-casual look hides a superior diplomatic mind; he is a composer of sharp, incisive memos and has the ability to remain polite during the most hostile exchanges. On General Zia's left, his former spymaster and the head of Inter-Services Intelligence, General Akhtar, seems weighed down by half a dozen medals on his chest and drags his feet as if he is the only man in the group who knows that they shouldn't be boarding this plane. His lips are pinched and, even when the sun has boiled everything into submission and drained all colour out of the surroundings, you can see that his normally pale skin has turned a wet yellow. His obituary in the next day's newspapers will describe him as "the Silent Soldier" and "one of the ten men standing between the Free World and the Red Army."

As they approach the red carpet that leads to the Pak One stairway, you can see me step forward. You can tell immediately that I am the only one in the frame smiling, but when I salute and start walking towards the aeroplane, my smile vanishes. I know I am saluting a bunch of dead men. But if you are in uniform, you salute. That's all there is to it.

Later, forensic experts from Lockheed will put the pieces of crashed plane together and simulate scenarios, trying to unlock the mystery of how a superfit C-130 came tumbling down from the skies only four minutes after takeoff. Astrologists will pull out files, with their predictions for August 1988, and blame Jupiter for the crash that killed Pakistan's top army brass as well as the U.S. ambassador. Leftist intellectuals will toast the end of a cruel dictatorship and evoke historic dialectics in such matters. But this afternoon, history is taking a long siesta, as it usually does between the end of one war and the beginning of another. More than 100,000 Soviet soldiers are preparing to retreat from Afghanistan after being reduced to eating toast smeared with military-issue boot polish, and these men we see in the TV clip are the undisputed victors. They are preparing for peace and, being the cautious men they are, they have come to Bahawalpur to shop for tanks while waiting for the end of the Cold War. They have done their day's work and are taking the plane back home. With their stomachs full, they are running out of small talk; there is the impatience of polite people who do not want to offend one another. It's only later that people will say, Look at that clip. Look at their tired, reluctant walk. Anybody can tell that they were being shepherded to that plane by the invisible hand of death.

The generals' families will get full compensation and receive flag-draped coffins, with strict instructions not to open them. The pilots' families will be picked up and thrown into cells with blood-splattered ceilings for a few days and then let go. The U.S. ambassador's body will be taken back to Arlington Cemetery and his tombstone will be adorned with a half-elegant cliché. There will be no autopsies, the leads will run dry, investigations will be blocked, and there will be cover-ups to cover cover-ups. Third World dictators are always blowing up in strange circumstances, but if the brightest star in the U.S. diplomatic service (and that's what will be said about Arnold Raphel at the funeral service in Arlington Cemetery) goes down with eight Pakistani generals, somebody will be expected to kick ass. Vanity Fair will commission an investigative piece, the New York Times will write two editorials, and sons of the deceased will file petitions to the court and then settle for lucrative cabinet posts. It will be said that this was the biggest cover-up in aviation history since the last biggest cover-up.

The only witness to that televised walk, the only one to have walked that walk, will be completely ignored. Because if you missed that clip, you probably missed me. Like history itself. I was the one who got away.

What they found in the wreckage of the plane were not bodies, not serene-faced martyrs, as the army claimed, not the slightly damaged, disfigured men not photogenic enough to be shown to the TV cameras or to their families. Remains. They found remains. Bits of flesh splattered on the broken aeroplane parts, charred bones sticking to mangled metal, severed limbs and faces melted into blobs of pink meat. Nobody can ever say that the coffin that was buried in Arlington Cemetery didn't carry bits of General Zia's remains and that what lies buried in Shah Faisal Mosque in Islamabad are not some of the remains of the State Department's brightest star. The only thing that can be said with certainty is that my remains weren't in either of those coffins.

Yes, sir, I was the one who got away.

The name Shigri didn't figure in the terms of reference, the investigators from the FBI ignored me and I never had to sit under a naked bulb and explain the circumstances that led to my being present at the scene of the incident. I didn't even figure in the stories concocted to cover up the truth. Even the conspiracy theorists who saw an unidentified flying object colliding with the presidential plane, or deranged eyewitnesses who saw a surface-to- air missile being fired from a lone donkey's back, didn't bother to spin any yarns about the boy in uniform, with one hand on the scabbard of his sword, stepping forward, saluting, then smiling and walking away. I was the only one who boarded that plane and survived.

Even got a lift back home.

If you did see the clip, you might have wondered what this boy with mountain features was doing in the desert, why he was surrounded by four-star generals, why he was smiling. It's because I had had my punishment. As Obaid would have said, there is poetry in committing a crime after you have served your sentence. I do not have much interest in poetry, but punishment before a crime does have a certain singsong quality to it. The guilty commit the crime; the innocent are punished. That's the world we live in.

. . .

My punishment had started exactly two months and seventeen days before the crash, when I woke up at reveille and, without opening my eyes, reached out to pull back Obaid's blanket, a habit picked up from four years of sharing the same room with him. It was the only way to wake him up. My hand caressed an empty bed. I rubbed my eyes. The bed was freshly made, a starched white sheet tucked over a grey wool blanket, like a Hindu widow in mourning. Obaid was gone and the buggers would obviously suspect me.

You can blame our men in uniform for anything, but you can never accuse them of being imaginative.

* * *
Form PD 4059
Record of Absentees Without Leave or Disappearances
Without Justifiable Causes
Appendix I
Statement by Junior Under Officer Ali Shigri,
Pak No. 898245
Subject: Investigation into the circumstances in
which Cadet Obaid-ul-llah went AWOL
Location where statement was recorded: Cell No. 2,
Main Guardroom, Cadets' Mess, PAF Academy


I, Junior Under Officer Ali Shigri, son of the late Colonel Quli Shigri, do hereby solemnly affirm and declare that, at the reveille on the morning of 31 May 1988, I was the duty officer. I arrived at 0630 hours sharp to inspect Fury Squadron. As I was inspecting the second row, I realised that the sash on my sword belt was loose. I tried to tighten it. The sash came off in my hand. I ran towards my barracks to get a replacement and shouted at Cadet Atiq to take charge. I ordered the squadron to mark time. I could not find my spare sash in my own cupboard; I noticed that Cadet Obaid's cupboard was open. His sash was lying where it is supposed to be, on the first shelf, right-hand corner, behind his golden-braided peaked cap. Because I was in a hurry, I didn't notice anything unlawful in the cupboard. I did, however, notice that the poem on the inside of the door of his cupboard was missing. I do not have much interest in poetry, but since Obaid was my dorm mate, I knew that every month he liked to post a new poem in his cupboard but always removed it before the weekly cupboard inspection. Since the Academy's standard operating procedures do not touch upon the subject of posting poetry in dorm cupboards, I had not reported this matter earlier. I arrived back at 0643, to find that the entire squadron was in Indian position. I immediately told them to stand up and come to attention and reminded Cadet Atiq that the Indian position was unlawful as a punishment and as an acting squadron commander he should have known the rules. Later, I recommended Cadet Atiq for a red strip, copy of which can be provided as an appendix to this appendix.

I didn't have the time for a roll call at this point, as we had only seventeen minutes left before it was time to report to the parade ground. Instead of marching Fury Squadron to the mess hall, I ordered them to move on the double. Although I was wearing my sword for that day's silent drill practice and was not supposed to move on the double, I ran with the last file, holding the scabbard six inches from my body. The second officer in command saw us from his Yamaha and slowed down when passing us. I ordered the squadron to salute, but the 2nd OIC did not return my salute and made a joke about my sword and two legs. The joke cannot be reproduced in this statement, but I mention this fact because some doubts were raised in the interrogation about whether I had accompanied the squadron at all.

I gave Fury Squadron four minutes for breakfast and I myself waited on the steps leading to the dining hall. During this time I stood at ease and in my head went through the commands for the day's drill. This is an exercise that the drill instructor on secondment, Lieutenant Bannon, has taught me. Although there are no verbal commands in the silent drill, the commander's inner voice must remain at strength 5. It should obviously not be audible to the person standing next to him. I was still practising my silent cadence when the squadron began to assemble outside the dining hall. I carried out a quick inspection of the squadron and caught one first-termer with a slice of French toast in his uniform shirt pocket. I stuffed the toast into his mouth and ordered him to start front-rolling and keep pace with the squadron as I marched them to the parade square. I handed over command to the sergeant of the day, who marched the boys to the armoury to get their rifles. It was only after the Quran recitation and the national anthem were over, and the Silent Drill Squad was dividing into two formations, that the sergeant of the day came to ask me why Cadet Obaid had not reported for duty. He was supposed to be the file leader for that day's drill rehearsal. I was surprised because I had thought all along that he was in the squadron that I had just handed over to the sergeant.

"Is he on sick parade?" he asked me.

"No, Sergeant," I said. "Or if he is, I don't know about it."

"And who is supposed to know?"

I shrugged my shoulders, and before the sergeant could say anything, Lieutenant Bannon announced that silent zone was in effect. I must put it on record that most of our Academy drill sergeants do not appreciate the efforts of Lieutenant Bannon in trying to establish our own Silent Drill Squad. They resent his drill techniques. They do not understand that there is nothing that impresses civilians more than a silent drill display, and we have much to learn from Lieutenant Bannon's experience as the chief drill instructor at Fort Bragg.

After the drill, I went to the sick bay to check if Cadet Obaid had reported sick. I didn't find him there. As I was coming out of the sick bay, I saw the first-termer from my squadron sitting in the waiting area with bits of vomited toast on his uniform shirt's front. He stood up to salute me; I told him to keep sitting and stop disgracing himself further.

As the Character Building lecture had already started, instead of going to the classroom, I returned to my dorm. I asked our washerman, Uncle Starchy, to fix my belt, and I rested for a while on my bed. I also searched Obaid's bed, his side table, and his cupboard to find any clues as to where he might be. I did not notice anything untoward in these areas. Cadet Obaid has been winning the Inter-Squadron Cupboard Competition since his first term at the Academy, and everything was arranged according to the dorm cupboard manual. I attended all the rest of the classes that day. I was marked present in those classes. In Regional Studies we were taught about Tajikistan and the resurgence of Islam. In Islamic Studies we were ordered to do self-study because our teacher, Maulana Hidayatullah, was angry with us, since when he entered the class, some cadets were singing a dirty variation on a folk wedding song. It was during the afternoon drill rehearsal that I got my summons from the 2nd OIC's office. I was asked to report on the double and I reported there in uniform.

The 2nd OIC asked me why I had not marked Cadet Obaid absent in the morning inspection when he wasn't there.

I told him that I had not taken the roll call.

He asked me if I knew where he was.

I said I didn't know.

He asked me where I had disappeared to between the sick bay and the Character Building lecture.

I told him the truth.

He asked me to report to the guardroom.

When I arrived at the guardroom, the guardroom duty cadet told me to wait in the cell.

When I asked him whether I was under detention, he laughed and made a joke about the cell mattress having too many holes. The joke cannot be reproduced in this statement.

Half an hour later, the 2nd OIC arrived and informed me that I was under close arrest and that he wanted to ask me some questions about the disappearance of Cadet Obaid. He told me that 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.

I assured him of my full cooperation. The 2nd OIC questioned me for one hour and forty minutes about Obaid's activities, my friendship with him, and whether I had noticed anything strange in his behaviour in what he described as "the days leading up to his disappearance."

I told him all I knew. He went out of the cell at the end of the question-answer session and came back five minutes later with some sheets of paper and a pen and asked me to write everything that had happened in the morning and describe in detail where and when I had last seen Cadet Obaid. Before leaving the cell, he asked me if I had any questions. I asked him whether I'd be able to attend the silent drill rehearsal, as we were preparing for the president's annual inspection. I requested the 2nd OIC to inform Lieutenant Bannon that I could continue to work on my silent cadence in the cell. The 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.

I hereby declare that I saw Cadet Obaid last when he was lying in his bed reading a book of poetry in English the night before his disappearance. The book had a red cover and what looked like a lengthened shadow of a man. I don't remember the name of the book. After lights-out, I heard him sing an old Indian song in a low voice. I asked him to shut up. The last thing I remember before going to sleep is that he was still humming the same song.

I did not see him in the morning, and I have described my day's activities accurately in this statement in the presence of the undersigned. In closing I would like to state that in the days leading up to Cadet Obaid absenting himself without any plausible cause, I did not notice anything unusual about his conduct. Only three days before going AWOL he had received his fourth green strip for taking active part in After-Dinner Lit- erary Activities (ADLA). He had made plans to take me out at the weekend for ice cream and to watch Where Eagles Dare. If he had any plans about absenting himself without any justifiable cause, he never shared them with me or anyone else as far as I know.

I also wish to humbly request that my close arrest is uncalled for and that if I cannot be allowed to return to my dorm, I should be allowed to keep the command of my Silent Drill Squad, because tomorrow's battles are won in today's practice.

Statement signed and witnessed by:
Squadron Leader Karimullah,
2nd OIC, PAF Academy


* * *

Life is in Allah's hands but . . .

One

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-jerkoff 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 awhile. 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 practise 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?

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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Case of Exploding Mangoes 3.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 7 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Thoroughly enjoyed how the fiction was interwoven with fact. I will be reading Mohammed Hanif's other work.
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