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.

DVARCA by Madhav Mathur

When and where you read a book should not be an influencing factor in your appreciation of it.  Or should it?

Reading Madhav Mathur’s intriguing novel “Dvarca” in India (where I live), during the worst days of demonetisation, when millions of people found themselves with no access to their own cash, added a definite piquancy, I have to admit.  India in late 2016 – now very early 2017 – is a far cry from the Dvarca of the 22nd century, but I couldn’t help finding disturbing parallels as I read.  Growing intolerance of what are dubbed “minority” religions here (read Islam), the brazen way Hindu-fundamentalist trolls harass people on line, and, of course, the wholesale buying into the demonetisation move, with dissenters being labelled anti-national…again, I repeat, we are, thank goodness, far far away from 22nd century Dvarca.  But it makes you think.

And it’s a chilling thought.

Madhav Mathur’s Dvarca is a world where the (Hindu) state controls every aspects of one’s life, projecting images – literally – of a supposedly ideal world into your head, and monitoring every aspect of your life, from your moment of birth to your place in society. The state is all-seeing, and projects itself as all-knowing and all-caring, and the citizens of Dvarca are expected to follow the dictates of society without any questions.

The parallels with “1984” are telling, but even more frightening, for this is a world where love has been eradicated, where sexual contact is prohibited, and where women are impregnated by the state, at a time of the state’s choosing, with a baby designed for and by the state.  The scene when Jyoti is made pregnant is terrifying – little more than state ordered rape.

I found the book disturbing and thought-provoking, and every time I said “No, don’t be silly, this is just fiction…” I’d remember the millions of people getting up in the winter dark to stand in serpentine queues to try and get access to their own money, and then I’d be even more disturbed.

Initially, as a non-Indian – and a non-Hindu – some of the more Sanskrit-based words and religious concepts were a bit of a barrier, but with time, they became more familiar.

A good, interesting, thought-provoking read – especially in these disturbing times we live in.

Published by Fingerprint! and if you would like to read this book, just click on the link below.

THE SECRET SERVANT by DANIEL SILVA

My current politico-thriller writer of choice is Daniel Silva, creator of the Gabriel Allon series, which I have been rattling through at a cracking pace.  The only trouble with a gripping series such as Mr. Silva’s books is that once started, you don’t pause for breath, nor (in my case) for time to review them.

And so I have stopped reading for just long enough to share with you my thoughts on “The Secret Servant”, the 7th novel in this exciting series.

Yup. Indeed.  6 books read, back to back, without pausing long enough to review them.  Guilty as charged.

What an interesting man Gabriel Allon is.  A spy and and assassin for the Israeli secret service,  Gabriel is Jewish without being overtly religious.  He is Israeli, but a polyglot, at home in much of Europe.  A talented art restorer, he is forever haunted by his own personal horrific backstory (don’t worry, no plot spoilers).

In other words, an interesting, complex figure, but one who still manages to keep a veil of secrecy around him.  We, the reader, instinctively like Gabriel.  We root for him, we worry about him, but yet we do not fully “know” him.

Gabriel’s foe in many of the books is extreme Islam, and there is little point being politically correct or beating about the bush. What Gabriel and the Israeli secret service face seems to be a pretty fair representation of much of what is currently wrecking our world.  Bombs aimed at innocent people, racking up the collateral damage that the hardline extremists we meet, seem to consider of no value whatsoever.  Lives are expendable.

IMG_9423

It’s not that the world of Gabriel Allon and the decent, likeable towering figure of Ari Shamron unfairly represents the growing conflict between Judeo-Christianity and militant Islam.  These books are not Israeli propaganda  It isn’t like that at all.  And yet…so many of the plots and terror threats that Gabriel has solved in the books thus far, involve the sort of terror threats that the world today increasingly faces.  And “The Secret Servant” was written in 2007, for goodness sake. So much horror has happened since.  Almost scarily prescient.

Mr. Silva’s books could never be described as light or humorous or frothy.  His stories are of terror and plots and spies and danger, of death and fear.

And yet, I found this excellent novel “blacker” and gloomier than some of its predecessors.  As we travel the road of counter-terrorism in the edgy company of the upright Gabriel, a killer with a very firm conscience and a deep awareness of the rights and wrongs of this world, we sense his growing weariness and occasional disenchantment.  He is heading towards middle-age, he has faced dangers and torture far too many times, and he knows that his life will always be at risk.  He has tackled so many terrorist outfits head-on that he has enemies galore.

Thus it is that the international terror plot that he must unravel and destroy in “The Secret Servant” reveals a frightening world of alienation and radicalisation, of European-born and educated Muslims who hate with a passion and are ready to kill and die for their beliefs.  This picture of Europe being radicalised from within is a deeply disturbing one:

IMG_9421And, I repeat, this book was published in 2007…

Like all its predecessors in this series, “The Secret Servant” is a gripping, often times gory and frightening, and, I must be frank, a disturbing picture of an alienated world.  The old continent has never looked more vulnerable.

This is a page-turner with a long-lasting message.

Highly recommended.

Now you’ve read this review, please go ahead and buy the book. Couldn’t be easier. Just click on one of the links below: 

THE YACOUBIAN BUILDING by ALAA AL ASWANEY

Alaa Al Aswany’s novel, “The Yacoubian Building” is an endearing tale of life in Cairo, in the period of political and religious turmoil during the first Gulf War.

The famous, formerly elegant Yacoubian Building is now a tad run down, and home to a host of characters, some of whom live in the elegant apartmens, and many others who live on the roof, literally.  In a reversal of the upstairs/downstairs analogy, here it is rather a case of upstairs/on top of upstairs.

Happily occupying tiny rooms on the roof, the inhabitants of the roof lead their busy lives, eking out a living, while their more fortunate fellow occupants live below them, largely unaware of the passions and dramas being played out over their heads.

The novel follows the lives of many of these inhabitants, some of whose lives cross, and others who don’t.  As a skilled storyteller, the author introduces us to each of his characters by plunging straight into their adventures. Thus we meet Zaki Bey in the opening sentence of he book, taking an hour to walk the 100 metres between his home and the Yacoubian building where he has his office, since he has to stop and talk to everyone he meets on the way.

We meet the young and clever Taha, the doorman’s son, who is brilliant academically and hopes to pass the exams into the Police Academy.  Taha is endearing and we witness with sadness, during the course of the book, his descent from optimism to bitterness and beyond, and if you are like the reviewer, you hope against hope that something might intervene to change Taha’s fate.

In a cast of many appealing characters, Taha stands out, for we the reader see how easily his fate might have been different, if only his contact with officialdom had been different.  But it wasn’t, and from the moment of his rejection, we know instinctively that this young man is headed down a violently different path.

As his life descends into chaos, the life of his childhood sweetheart Busanya moves in the opposite direction. Steering her way through the mine field of sexual predators, this clever but naive girl has a relativey happy ending. No, let’s be honest she has a very happy ending. She may have thought she was compromising, but she ends up in confused, but real love.

The Yacoubian Building is the clever focal point, of the book from which each of these characters leaves each morning to start their day, and where they return at night, often to sit on the roof, overlooking Cairo, and think over their day.

The themes of sexual predation and militant Islam run powerfully through this novel, and there is hardly a character who doesn’t have a brush with either.  The people who live in the Yacoubian Building think a lot about sex and money, and opportunities, and how to better their lives. And some of them think a lot about Islam.

The growing radicalisation of the Egyptian students is skilfully portrayed, as is their manipulation by their religious leaders and their parallel abandonment by their political leaders. From the moment Taha is arrested after a student demo, you have a horrible feeling that you know exactly where this young man is heading.

The book is written with obvious affection both for the city and the people of Cairo. The noise, the packed streets, the shabby chic restaurants, the dusty suburbs, are all described and brought to life with skill.

There are so many clever threads running through this book : militant vs casual easy-going religion. Westernised Egyptian life vs the poor, earthy village life, brilliantly portrayed in the passionate but sadly doomed affair between Hatim Rasheed and Abd Rabbuh.   Is God vengeful ? Is that why tragedy often follows illicit love in this book ?  There is huge sexual tension in the book, be it the agonies of being homosexual when it is both against your faith and against the law, or the love of a mother for her unborn child that ruins her life and her love.  There is the love of an ageing playboy for a young woman, and the indignities they must suffer as a result. Sex is very much a part of the lives of the residents of the Yacoubian Building, but it is rarely simultaneously consensual and uncomplicated sex.

The lives and loves of the residents are fraught with the consequences of their actions, all of which are played out against a backdrop of nosy, often noisy neighbours, who all know perfectly well what goes on in the lives of their neighbours.

As we dip in and out of the lives of the many residents of this building, itself a symbol of the decay and parallel change that is taking place in society, the story-telling style of the author sweeps us along.

Well written  – well, one imagines so, since this is the English translation – full of life, and death, and passion, and love, and religion, and sadness, the novel leaves you feeling both saddened by the way some characters lives have evolved, and yet also happy for others.

Published by Harper Perennial, the paperback costs £7.99.

After reading this review, should you wish to buy the book, nothing could be easier.

Simply click on the link below :

THE SUBMISSION by AMY WALDMAN

A book that makes you think, makes you evaluate, makes you unsure of your own perceived views is a rare and precious thing.

If you haven’t already read Amy Waldman’s utterly brilliant “The Submission”, then you have a serious intellectual treat in store.
The book documents the deliberations and then the resultant turmoil, when the winning (anonymous) design is chosen for a memorial for Ground Zero to commemorate 9/11.  Because the winning architect is a Muslim.

Mo Khan is American by birth, and education, and training, and intellect, and instinct.

He is only nominally a Muslim.

Articulate, clever, talented, low key, he is a likeable man who has won an immensely prestigious competition.
His design for a simple, elegant soothing garden was selected, anonymously, by a committee comprising art luminaries, city grandees and the fiercely committed Claire Burwell, a 9/11 widow and the representative of the families who were bereaved in the attack.

Claire loves the design and the concept of the garden, which she finds soothing and perfect, and she unflinchingly sticks to her principles, even when the identity of the architect is known and the furore starts.

For this is no ordinary civic archeological project and the pressure on the committee members is intense.  The pressure is, quite simply, to select another design.  One not submitted by a Muslim.

The pressure on everyone concerned with the project is extreme, from Claire still grieving and trying to help her young children heal, to the chairman of the selection committee to Mo himself.  Family and colleagues line up on either side of battle-lines that are drawn up.  Should he withdraw ? Should he change his design ? Should he continue, amidst the maelstrom of publicity and outrage and polarisation that engulfs him, his family, and then the city at large.

It is this angry, vicious polarisation of an emotionally scarred city that is so brilliantly portrayed.

Ignorance on one side vs hostility on the other.

Pain and outrage vs a determination to stand one’s ground.

There is hardly a moral conflict that isn’t evoked during the course of this powerful book.

Mo himself has to face up to the meaning of being a Muslim, of being an immigrant, of being American, but, well, not quite American in the dreadful aftermath of 9/11.  His journey of self-awareness is painful and traumatic.

We see a good, decent, likeable man buffeted by pressures that he is helpless to control.

You cannot read this book without being moved by the passion and argument, and by all the ancillary tragedies that result from that one huge tragedy.

“The Submission” makes you think about identity, and assimilation, and community, and influences, and cultural roots, and religion.

It is, quite simply, a wonderful, thought-provoking, fabulously well-written book.

 

Published by Heinemann, the paperback costs £11.99.

If after reading this review, you wish to buy the book (and it is a compelling read) then simply click on the link below.  Couldn’t be easier.