Eleven years after Mohammed Hanif’s debut novel A Case of Exploding Mangoes was published and won a Commonwealth prize for best book, it has been discovered by the Pakistan army. This has to be the slowest-burning fuse in military history. Actually, the book has been found in translation, after the Urdu version appeared last year. According to Hanif, its publisher Maktaba Danial was raided by persons claiming to be from the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), who confiscated all copies and threatened to return to secure a list of booksellers who carry the novel.
Hanif’s story, told in a satirical vein, is set at the time when Gen Zia-ul-Haq’s reign of 11 years ended in mid-air after he boarded Pak One, his C-130 Hercules, accompanied by a case of mangoes. It is a coming of age novel like Upamanyu Chatterjee’s English, August, which scandalised the IAS. But while Chatterjee anonymised his characters and set them in the fictional town of Madna, Hanif’s story begins in the Pakistan Air Force Academy, from where he graduated himself, includes historical figures from Pakistan and the US, and even features a cameo appearance by Osama Bin Laden.
Hanif suggests that a defamation notice recently served on his publisher by Zia’s son may have something to do with the raid and confiscations. In a Pakistan where civil society has become vigilant and assertive over the years, brazenly repressive steps, allegedly taken by an intelligence agency, would have been unusual enough.
But it is totally bizarre that character assassination, if any, went unnoticed for 11 years in English but was instantly detected in Urdu by the intelligence community. We eagerly await a Punjabi translation which, given Zia’s roots in Jalandhar, can only cut even closer to the bone.
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