A CASE OF EXPLODING MANGOES by Mohammed Hanif

What a pleasure to re-read a book after some 8 years and find it every bit as entertaining.

My Delhi book club was bang on trend when we read this book in late 2008, and I thoroughly enjoyed it at the time.  We all did, I seem to remember.  In the intervening years, the book club has changed its membership totally – the downside of being a “lifer” in a largely ex-pat group –  and in our new avatar we are reading this extraordinarily entertaining book again.

Mr. Hanif is a fine writer, cleverly weaving history with fiction and huge dollops of quirky imagination, to bring us an absorbing story of the last days of the Pakistani President, Zia ul Haq, who was killed in August 1988 when his official plane, Pak One, blew up in flight, killing everyone on board.

What Mr. Hanif has done is take the main protagonists –  Zia, his wife, the American Ambassador, the generals –  and mix them up in a nice masala mix with fictional characters – Under Officer Ali Shigri, the wonderful Baby O, Brigadier TM, and the minor but colourful character of Uncle Starchy.

The novel is an indictment of the growing Islamisation of Pakistan, and the Army in particular, by an unpopular man, who supported the Afghan Muhajaddin and steamrollered his own country along an increasingly Islamic path.

To explain the explosion on board Pak One –  still an unsolved mystery – the author has a case of exploding mangoes loaded onto the plane.  But since we know from the very first moments of the book that the plane will explode  –  well, yes, obviously, we also know that fact from history – there is no plot spoiler, just a zany unravelling of the tangled web of actions and ambitions and treachery that led to the inevitable dénouement.

A great read, with some equally great writing and lots of laugh-aloud moments.

The scene where Zia exhorts his generals to pray before a staff meeting is a gem:

Another great laugh-aloud moment is when Brigadier TM is faced with 200 or so hastily assembled widows for a presidential photo op when Zia will give them alms. How can men search burqa-clad, face-covered, head-covered women?  Especially when the TV crews are already in place.  TM makes an on-the-spot decision that, Presidential photo op or not, there can be no “ninjas whose faces I can’t see,” so all the widows in burqas are ordered to leave the queue. Their loud protests and offers to remove their burqas are ignored and the poor about-to-be-given-presidential-charity widows are unceremoniously bundled off.

Zia ul Haq’s fanatical piety robs Pakistan of some of its Islamic colour and variety:

Sad.

The First Lady is a great character.

Supremely disinterested in her husband’s politics, preferring to watch Dallas, looked down on and yet feared by her husband, she rises to the occasion when she sees a photo of her oh-so-pious husband ogling the cleavage of an American reporter:

There are moments that are almost slapstick, such as the black Texan barber trimming the President’s moustache:

There are dark moments, when we encounter the torture and terror that keeps much of the country in line.

But overall, there is a zany streak running through this novel, pushing us on – through the unbearable heat of a Pakistani summer, through a dreadful 4 July party, towards that moment when the case of mangoes explodes.

Read this book to brush up on recent political history, to get a feel for the way Pakistan was, and  – in my case – to yearn to be in that adorable cottage on Shigri Hill, with the clouds drifting through the picture windows and the views of K2.

If you would like to read this award-winning novel, you can order your copy right now.

Just click on the link below.

The Patience Stone by Atiq Rahimi

This slim book, winner of the Prix Goncourt, and translated from French by Polly McLean, is extraordinary on every level.  It is poetic, lyrical, moving, crude, tragic, sometimes funny in an earthy way, and absolutely engrossing.

The plot is simple, the action confined to one room, the characters very few, and as a result there is hardly any dialogue, just a long, slowly expanding monologue by the unnamed woman.

“The Patience Stone” is almost Beckett-like in its sparing emptiness  –  and interestingly Samuel Beckett wrote in French, a foreign language, as did Atiq Rahimi, an Afghan living between Paris and Kabul.

The plot line is simple in the extreme.  A woman tends her injured husband, who has been shot in the neck. He is comatose but breathing.  We never learn their names, nor those of their two little girls who make a happy, noisy but brief appearance in the story.

We are not even sure where the story takes place, right from the title page :

As she tends her husband who lies there, eyes unseeing, not moving, not eating, just breathing regularly, the woman starts by speaking briefly to him, and the accompanying narrative is brief and staccato-like.

Gradually the woman talks more and more to her inert husband, a man she hardly knows, even after 10 years of what would seem to have been a loveless marriage.  The only person in her husband’s family who seemed to care for her was her late father-in-law.  Her brothers-in-law spy on her, ogle her, and abandon her, and their brother, when they most need help.

 

The days follow a similar pattern – the woman cleans her inert husband, gives him a drip, puts eye drops into his unseeing eyes, and on the rare occasions when she leaves the room, we never follow her into the streets.

War rages on outside, in the street, in the courtyard of the shelled house next to her, but we never see it.  We hear it.  We hear the explosions, we feel the tremors, but for the woman, as every other person caught up in war, life  – such as it is –  has to go on.  So she sweeps the floor, and talks to her husband, and prays, and reads the Koran.

The brief intrusion of the reality of war into her life takes place when she is not there, having gone to sleep at an aunt’s house with her 2 little girls.  Taliban fighters break into the room and ransack it, stealing whatever meagre possessions they have – the comatose man’s watch and wedding ring, and his Koran.  It is a brief shocking moment, an ugly flip-side of the eruption of the man’s daughters into this room.

As the woman talks, she gradually confides in her husband.  She talks of her fears about being married off to an unknown stranger, of her misery in her in-laws’ home.  She talks of her childhood.  She rails against the hypocrisy of war, and the cruelty of his family.  She reproaches her husband for not loving her or caring for her, and she hates the futile war that has made him into what he now is.

 

Her language and her stories get earthier, and cruder, and more graphic, and searingly truthful as the days unfold.  She curses and swears and tells her unresponsive husband the fears and drams and nightmares of her innermost soul :

 

The book is beautifully written, in sparse but such moving prose, that we come to know every inch of that room in detail, and are every bit as fearful of the war and violence raging outside as the woman, as her deranged neighbour, as the stammering boy.

If ever the world needed an ode to the futility of war, to the brutal reality of its aftermath, to the tragedy that is the lot of Afghan women, and to the hypocrisy of blind adherence to religion, “The Patience Stone” is that ode.

A beautiful, moving book.  Recommended.

Published by Vintage Books, the paperback costs £7.99

If you want to buy the book, simply click on the link below :

RED SUN by Sudeep Chakravarti

What does one do, as a mere reader, when a book so profoundly shakes you up, frightens you even ? Review it, in the fervent hope that more people will thereby read it.

It’s not much of a contribution to one of India’s most alarming social problems, but if one more person reads this disturbing book, as a result of this review, then this reviewer will feel a little vindicated.

Sudeep Chakravarti’s book “Red Sun. Travels in Naxalite Country” is not an easy read, not easy at all, but in this reviewer’s opinion it is an essential read. Essential for anyone who cares about India, who cares about the poor, or who is interested in how a healthy, noisily democratic political system can consistently fail so many of its people.

“Red Sun” should be read by any citizen or resident of India, by each and every urban India who sees the ever increasing traffic and profusion of malls and Americanized fast food joints as proof that India is shining, that India has arrived, that India –  the much touted world’s largest democracy – is now well and truly out there, a global figure to be reckoned with.  Read this and reflect.

The book is not an easy read because the subject matter is uncomfortable, shocking and profoundly unsettling.  The author, a former journalist, spent years researching and living with the disaffected poor who support –  actively or tacitly –  the Naxalism, one of the biggest extreme left wing movements on the world, India’s home grown Maoism.

The Naxalite movement began in 1967 in a village called Naxalbari, which means that for over 40 years the simmering discontent and grinding poverty that launched the movement are still there, unaddressed by the politicians who govern India Shining from the safety and prosperity of far-away New Delhi.

What Sudeep Chakravarti delivers is a dense, scholarly book, that is sometimes written in a slightly breathless journalistic way, and other times packed with facts and figure and statistics –  all of them disturbing.

Take this paragraph in the introduction to the book :

“There is little debate that the spread of Maoist influence is at its core the consequence of bad governance – or plain non-governance – and crushing exploitation in the world’s next superpower. There have been instances in Bihar and Jharkhand where illiterate tribals have been told that they own just six inches of their land ; what lies below the six inches belongs to others : the state, the local trader, the local moneylender – now established via-media for mining interests. Such reality makes the congratulatory data and conclusions about today’s India, much of it true, seem a little hollow.”

What follows is an account of the author’s years of travelling in these far-off almost forgotten parts of India.  He interviews politicians, social workers, local officials, and the people themselves, the very people so let down by their government that they have little choice but to turn the other way when Naxals raid their villages.

As a reader, oftentimes you have to work hard to remember the many acronyms that are scattered throughout the book, to piece together the bits and pieces of the political jigsaw puzzle of local politics and administration, and to remember who the various players in this complex book are – many of Mr.Chakravarti’s sources are referred to only by their initials.

There is hardly a day goes by without a report in the Indian press about someone dying at the hands of Naxalites, another village being attacked, another family devastated.  Read this powerful, alarming book and you will better understand why.

RED SUN is published by Penguin/Viking and the hardback costs Rs 495.

You really should read this book, if you want to understand the nature of the threats facing contemporary India.

Do yourself a favour.  Buy it and read it.  Couldn’t be easier – just click on the link below :