Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 24, 2008

A Case of Exploding Mangoes (2008), by Mohammed Hanif

case-of-exploding-mangoesThis is a darkly satiric book in the style of Joseph Heller’s Catch 22. It is apparently based on real events, i.e. the mysterious death in 1988 of General Zia ul-Haq, predecessor to General Musharraf, who until recently was the wily President of Pakistan and good friend of America despite playing host to Islamic extremists on its border with Afghanistan.  (This was because, IMO, being an ally of the USA in the War on Terror is about the best guarantee Pakistan could have that nuclear-armed India wouldn’t attack over claims to Kashmir. )


There being no shortage of suspects for the assassination (the CIA or the KGB; their equivalents in India or Israel, political rivals from the military or the Bhutto clan; or maybe Al Qaeda & Co), conspiracy theories abound about this plane crash, even including the idea that explosives or canisters of nerve gas were placed in a case of mangoes placed on board.   Hanif has woven his story around the known facts and then embellished them with a whole raft of new suspects, chief of whom is the narrator, Ali Shigri, a young officer in the Pakistan Air Force, seeking revenge for his father’s death.

Until I looked it up on Google, I thought that the silent military drills in which Ali takes such pride were another of Hanif’s inventions, but not so.  Having now watched a couple on YouTube, I understand better the final details of Ali’s complicated assassination plot.  Alas for Ali, there are a few stumbling blocks along his way: he is arrested and interrogated over the disappearance of his friend and sometime lover, Baby Obaid.  Ali seems to take his incarceration with good grace, despite the filth and squalor offending his sensibilities.  His light-hearted tone does not, however, conceal the brutality of the fort – referencing both Shariah Law and Guantanamo Bay, Ali witnesses the stoning to death of a blind woman who was gang-raped and therefore can’t testify to absolve herself because she couldn’t see her attackers, and he sees also sees the execution of his cell-neighbour who has been in solitary confinement without charge for many years.  Just when we think that Ali too will be tortured with a Phillips iron to the head, he is released because of his connections – it’s all about coming from a good family, it seems. 

The novel is riddled with absurdities such as the Fourth of July party at the American embassy, attended by OBL (of Laden & Co Constructions) who gets sulky when a journalist won’t photograph him; Obaid concealing his phone number on a Poison-scented handkerchief in the mattress; Ali’s father being the one who turned the British fort into a torture centre; Uncle Starchy milking a krait (snake) for its venom for Ali to poison the tip of his ceremonial drill sword;  and Corporal Lessard attending a cultural sensitivity course so he knows not to offer the Pakistani troops a beer unless ‘you had an ulterior motive or the locals absolutely insisted.’  Religion comes in for mockery, in the form of General Zia’s excessive piety and habit of weeping during his daily prayers, and so do the US/Pakistan political machinations, chief of which is the American support for  Islamic extremists in Afghanistan when they were fighting the USSR occupation. 

The plot does become a bit confusing towards the end, maybe a bit hard to make sense of when reading in bed late at night, but ultimately food for thought about many things.


  1. […] Lady of Alice Bhatti  is Mohammed Hanif’s second  novel and I’d enjoyed A Case of Exploding Mangoes for its quirky satire, so when I was in the mood for something light-hearted to read,  I […]


  2. […] to see that Mohamed Hanif won the Best First Book prize for A Case of Exploding Mangoes.  (See my review). This slim novel was excellent, a bizarre satire with echoes of Catch […]


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