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 Himalayan Concerto by John Masters

You shouldn’t have to know a place and/or physically be in a place to enjoy a book, but there really is nothing like sitting in the Himalayas, relishing a book about the Himalayas.

John Masters’ “The Himalayan Concerto” was written in 1975, published in 1976, and purports to take place in 1979, and yet nearly 40 years on is still pertinent and quite alarmingly up to date.

 

Reading this book in Leh, the atmospheric little capital of Ladakh, while acclimatising for a climbing expedition to Chamser Kangri…no, wait, sorry…our climbing permit was refused because of a Chinese incursion over the border into Ladakh…as I was saying, this book about the balance of power in the Indian Himalayas in the 1970s remains as pertinent today as when Mr. Masters wrote it.

Quite alarmingly pertinent, in fact.

I thoroughly enjoyed this novel about Rodney Bateman, a British composer from a family that has long loved and served in India, but is currently unhappily married to an Indian.  Rodney is trying to write his Himalayan Concerto, about the music that binds the mountains and the adjoining countries, and as he travels the length and breadth of the mountains, he is also trying to sort out his own personal life.  Plus investigating some strange happenings on the Tibetan border for the Indian government.  His cover – travelling to research music –  affords him a degree of freedom to wander and chat, and he willingly undertakes to observe whatever is going on and report back to the Indian authorities.

Call it nostalgia, but I love the idea of a foreigner, but one who is known to love India, being co-opted to  – well –  spy for India.  This is a world of climbing, and fishing, and camping, and Kashmiri houseboats, and little private planes dropping off supplies in the highest most unreachable parts of the Himalayas.

That world has long since gone, but the charm of this story remains bang up-to-date, with its twists and turns and politics and downright “old fashioned” adventure.  Mr. Masters writes about Chinese incursions into India, and the Maoist threat in Bengal, and Pakistani sabre rattling…yes, 40 years down the line, open the Indian papers and what do you get?

A good old nostalgic read for a way of life that has gone, and yet…

 

HOW TO GET FILTHY RICH IN RISING ASIA by MOHSIN HAMID

cover

How many gushing adjectives can one use to describe a wonderful book?

Amazing.

Well written.

Moving.

Realistic.  This book was all of these and more.

All the time I was reading this book,  I kept saying “yes,” simply because so much of it was so familiar.

I live in India. This book would seem to be set in Pakistan.

I live in Delhi and I think this book is meant to be set in Lahore, and so there was so much about the descriptions and the people and the lives described that was instantly recognisable, and there is nothing like feeling a comfortable, knowledgeable insider, to add enjoyment to the reading of a book.

I said that I thought the book was set in Pakistan and that it was probably set in Lahore.

That is because no proper names are used in the book. We do not even know the name of the protagonist – except that since the book is written in the second person, the “you” the writer addresses could well be you the reader/or me the reader. So “you” does not have a name, and people are referred to throughout by a descriptive tag that never changes nor evolves over the decades covered in the book. The pretty girl of the early chapter remains the pretty girl despite age and frailty…but I will not spoil the end, worry not.

Mr. Hamid is a staggeringly good writer (clever sounds almost condescending) and his talent fizzes through the book.

Firstly the way he used the second person without ever alienating you the reader/me the reader. It sounds so natural that you go along with his conceit. His descriptions of the countryside, the city, the country (which could be Pakistan, could be India) are perfect. I caught myself, time and again, saying “yes, that is exactly the way x, y, or z happens/looks/sounds” even though we are not entirely sure where the book takes pace. Now if that isn’t fabulously brilliant writing, I don’t know what is.

Mr. Hamid uses the format of a self help book, and each chapter contains a new message for “you” the reader.

Education, love, work, family, religion, bureaucracy – the writer skilfully steers we the readers through all the different chapters of life, and as “you” climb your way up and out of grinding rural poverty into middling commercial success, there is a chapter of advice to accompany “you” on the journey.
If I am making a bit of a hash of describing the technique, please rest assured it is clever and slick and also endearing. The writer is omniscient, but always sympathetic and never critical of you/me/we the reader(s).

Plus he is just such a brilliant writer.

 8

 

One of the most dazzling pieces of writing for me is in the opening chapter of the book when “you” travel on the top of a rickety bus from the countryside to a town.

 

12

 

What writing…

Mr. Hamid has an infallible eye for the people of the subcontinent.

The man described below may well be power walking in Lahore, but I have seem so many of his fellow walkers here in Delhi :

 

10

 

Or this lady: reading this made me feel distinctly uncomfortable, having experienced similar behaviour at first hand :

45

 

My uneasiness at the matriarchal behaviour continued as I read more, almost squirming because I have witnessed such moments :

 

67

 

This is literally a countryside-dirt-poor-rags-to-polluted-but-big-city riches story, and it all hinges on certain crucial decisions and opportunities afforded to “you,” such as education :

 

3

You/we/the reader gets a chance that the siblings do not have and so life takes a different direction.

This book is a great read, it brilliantly captures the chaos and conflict of the sub-continent.  And it is fun.

And, for this reviewer at least, the innovative writing style “works” so much better than “The Reluctant Fundamentalist.”

Shabash.

Thoroughly recommended.

 

Published in 2013 by Penguin, the hardback sells for Rs 499 in India.

If you enjoyed reading this review and would now like to read the book, nothing could be easier. Just click on any of the links below :

RED JIHAD by Sami Ahmad Khan

“Red Jihad”  is a good story in need of a good editor,

A clever, futuristic plot set in 2014, that sees India and Pakistan almost at war against each other, and then coming together to fight a common enemy, is marred by poor editing.

A writer like Mr. Khan who is a PhD scholar student from JNU and a Fulbright scholar would not – I’d stake my life on it – make the sloppy grammatical errors that pepper this book.

You don’t have to be a linguistic purist to be irritated by these errors, which any decent editor should have picked up :

…pick up cudgels…

He had learned that one should never let a neta not blame people around him, for it was the neta’s pet alibi.  (I have no idea what that means)

Sonar was all he knew, rest everything puzzled him.

The silo was lighted and ready for action.

Grapevine had it that India was…

He knew a lieutenant general who did not make it to a full general only because he had given many under his command. Cardiac arrests.

His biggest achievement in the field of defence was on the verge of biting dust.  “What  else do we know?” the defence minister asked, trying to put the shock behind.  (2 errors in as many sentences –  careless)

The storyline does, thank goodness. carry the reader along, and towards the end of the book I became less irritated by the editing, choosing to ignore it, and much more involved in the unfolding Indo-Pak drama.

The premise is a clever one.

Pakistani Islamic extremists join forces with Indian Naxalites, and together they try and set the 2 traditional enemies at each others throats by launching a nuclear missile.  I won’t spoil too much of the plot for you, as there are many twists and turns along the way – literal as well as metaphorical – as the terrifyingly powerful Pralay (India’s imagined intercontinental ballistic missile) is programmed to jink and twist and turn as it flies across the subcontinent making its lethal target impossible to predict.

You see the drama in that ?

Will it hit an Indian city (Delhi) or a Pakistani one (Lahore) ?

Will India unwittingly nuke its own capital ?

Or will India start a war by unwittingly nuking a Pakistani city ?

And who has programmed Pralay anyway ?  Who has unleashed this weapon on truly terrifying magnitude ?

Should old enemies trust each other as they both try to handle this disastrously explosive situation ?

Living in Delhi as I do, I enjoyed the futuristic touch, peeking into how my city and government will look in 2 years. We will have a new PM (and it is NOT whom you think, which is reason enough to cheer!)  and we will have learned how to queue.  This, I have to admit, I found fantastic in every sense of the word.

A disaster has been declared in Delhi.  Evacuation orders have been issued, and I quote :

“There were long but well-managed queues as hastily recalled DTC bus drivers came running in their pyjamas, and sped the jam-packed buses away…”

Hmm…well-managed queues in Delhi, just 2 years from now…page 137 if you don’t believe me.

Joking aside, “Red Jihad” is interesting, it’s a good page-turning read –  though I could have wished for a less complicated timeline, jumping back and forth as it does between India and Pakistan, minute by minute.  And watch out for the underlined dates which, as the writer explains in a footnote, “imply action having taken place in the past rather than during the linear timeline of events.’

Combining the forces of Jihadis and Nazalites is clever and thought-provoking.

I look forward to Mr. Khan’s next book.

Published by Rupa, the paperback costs Rs 295.

You can buy the book now, by clicking on this link below :

This review is a part of the Book Reviews Program at BlogAdda.com . Participate now to get free books!

INVITATION by SHEHRYAR FAZLI

The debut novel of the young writer Shehryar Fazli is set in his home country, Pakistan, in 1970, in the politically fraught months leading up to civil war and the formation of Bangladesh, formerly East Pakistan.

The narrator, Shahbaz, returns from Paris, where he has lived for 19 years with his widowed, embittered father, to a Karachi he no longer knows or really understands. He has childhood memories, a legacy of inherited bitterness from his father, and a deep desire to belong. Shahbaz, with the arrogance of the young, has a distinct sense of entitlement. He feels that he should be part of the inner social circle of the city whose language he can barely speak, and whose unspoken rules he has to learn.  He sets out to belong.

Back in Pakistan to try and sort out a long-standing family property dispute, the orchard in Mirpurkhas assumes a central place on Shahbaz’s memory and motivation. From cherished idyllic childhood memories shattered by the ugly reality of land now squatted upon, to the realities involved in reclaiming the orchard, Shahbaz has much to learn. The orchard, with its lingering childhood aura of romance, becomes the stage upon which Shahbaz tries out his new persona and learns how to view his new world, a world of greed and corruption, the world awaiting him in Pakistan.

He grudgingly admires his feisty aunt Mona, who has single-handedly wrested the land back from the government, even though she now wishes to sell it. He is appalled by the squalor of the squatters, while feeling affection for 2 little boys whom he often invokes when trying to decide what to do with the orchard. By the time the squatters are finally evicted, Shahbaz’s education in the realities of life in poor, dusty Mirpukhas is almost complete.

The novel is densely packed with detail, details of food and people and sex and politics and smells and noise and language and drugs – all the strands that form the whole that is Karachi. This mass of sensual details successfully bring to life the converging worlds of sleazy cabarets, corrupt officials, ambitious politicians, fanatic Islamists and genteel patrician Karachi. The larger than life figure of Brigadier Alamgir straddles all these diverse worlds, and he is one of the novel’s pivotal characters, an altogether more fully-dimensional (and likable) figure than the young narrator.

The novel moves slowly and in great detail through Shahbaz’s months in Pakistan. He struggles with Urdu, and so is often cast linguistically adrift. He falls in love with a cabaret dancer, whose lazy sluttishness is laced through with religion. He witness his aunt Mona’s moments of madness mixed in with acerbic sanity. He spends much time with a driver from East Pakistan, a Bengali called Ghulam Hussain who is kind, enterprising, friendly, and who will assume a tragic dimension in Shahbaz’s progress towards understanding the harsh realities of Pakistani life.

One of the book’s most memorable characters has little more than a walk-on role. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, whom we meet briefly at a cocktail party at the Brigadier’s home, is so sharply drawn that he lingers in the reader’s mind long after his car has driven him out of the elegant garden, and into the pages of history.

A finely researched novel, that successfully brings to life a world and way of life of 40 years ago, the author is, however, let down in one small way.

Shahbaz speaks fluent French.

Mr. Fazli’s editors clearly don’t.

“Invitation” is published by Tranquebar and the hardback sells in India for Rs 495.

If, after reading this review, you wish to buy the book –  and it really is a good read –  then simply click on the link below :