Whisky & Culture

Exploding Mangoes

Snake pits or snake bites? That is the question
By Jefferson Chase
Before morning prayers on 15 June 1988, General Mohammad Zia ul-Huq's index finger hesitated on verse 21:87 while reading the Quran, and he spent the rest of his short life dreaming about the innards of a whale.

These aren't the first words of Mohammed Hanif's 2008 novel A Case of Exploding Mangoes, but they might as well be. Mangoes is both a pitiless satire and a whodunnit revolving around the real-life Pakistani president-cum-despot who died in a never explained plane crash on August 19, 1988.

One of the main suspects is Ali Shigri, the son of a former Pakistani military hero who blames Zia for his father's apparent suicide and who narrates half the novel. If Mangoes is a Pakistani Catch-22, then Shigri is its Yossarian. Shigri gets arrested after the plane crash but that doesn't affect his sardonic tone:

With people like Major Kiryani there are no identification cards, no arrest warrants, no pretence at doing something legal or for your own good. There is a cruel stillness about him. The stillness of a man who lights up in a hospital room and doesn't even look around for something to use as an ashtray.

Shigri is about to be subjected to a potentially very unpleasant interrogation, and to make matters worse, he did indeed conspire to kill Zia - although perhaps not in a plane.

But he's not the only suspect.

Not surprisingly, Zia had possible enemies galore, including everyone from his subordinate generals to CIA Director Bill Casey, who also makes a cameo appearance:

General Zia never served alcohol at his dinners…General Akhtar Abdur Rehman considered it his duty to keep his guests in good humour…He tapped the driver's seat, and without looking back, the man passed him a black canvas bag. Akhtar produced two glasses, a silver ice bucket, a bottle of Royal Salute whisky and poured Bill half a glass and himself a glass of water.

Zia is a devout Muslim, and in backing him, the US supported a movement that would ultimately rebound in very dramatic fashion against New York and Washington, DC. In Hanif's fictional version of history, Osama bin Laden even attends a barbeque to celebrate the Fourth of July.

Ultimately Hanif leaves the mystery behind the plane crash, which also killed the US Ambassador to Pakistan, unsolved. In Hanif's funny and thoughtful satiric thriller, late 1980s Pakistan is a total snake pit. And in a snake pit, which snake delivers the fatal bite is only a secondary question.