Mohammed Hanif

A Case of Exploding Mangoes

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A Case of Exploding Mangoes Summary

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Mohammed Hanif’s comic novel A Case of Exploding Mangoes (2008) is based on the true events of the 1988 plane crash that killed the former president of Pakistan, General Muhammad Zia ul-Haq. The story follows Ali Shigri, a junior officer in the Pakistani Air Force, as he seeks to assassinate General Zia in revenge for the death of his father. The novel won the 2008 Shakti Bhatt First Book Prize and the 2009 Commonwealth Book Prize for the Best First Book. A film adaptation is currently in production.

On August 17, 1988, General Zia boards a C-130 plane dubbed the Pak One along with several of his senior army officials, the US Ambassador to Pakistan Arnold Raphel, and some crates of mangoes. Shortly after take-off, the plane begins to fly erratically and eventually, nosedives into the ground. Everyone on board is killed in the resulting explosion.

Lazy, irreverent Ali Shigri narrates the story. Ali’s father, Col. Quli Shigri, has recently died in what was called a suicide, but Ali discovers that his father was killed by a rogue ISI officer, Major Kiyani, under General Zia’s orders. “Sometimes there is a blind spot right under your gaze,” Ali says. The story takes place in the months before the plane crash, jumping back and forth between Ali’s revenge plans and his third-person observations of General Zia’s life.

Ali attends the Pakistani Air Force Academy with his fellow cadets and their instructors—a cast of colorful characters that are quite likely insane. The drill instructor, the hash-smoking American Lieutenant Bannon, known to everyone as Loot, wears too much Old Spice cologne. Uncle Starchy, the squad’s laundryman, uses the venom from live snakes to self-medicate. There is also Baby O, Ali’s best friend, roommate, and lover, who enjoys imaging himself to be Jonathan Livingston Seagull, the title character of the Richard Bach novel.

Meanwhile, General Zia’s daily life plays out. Every morning, he asks his chief of security, “Who’s trying to kill me?” A devout Muslim, he attends daily prayers, where he weeps loudly (an occurrence to which the other worshippers have become accustomed). He fights with his wife and takes every opportunity to leer at non-Muslim cleavage. The book also touches on the perspectives of some of General Zia’s closest confidants.

In one subplot, General Zia sentences Zainab, a blind woman, to death by stoning for being the victim of a gang rape. According to Zia’s Sharia court, she has committed adultery. For condemning her, Zainab calls down a curse upon General Zia. The curse is picked up by a sugar-obsessed crow.

In another subplot, Arnold Raphel holds a Fourth of July party in Islamabad. A young, bearded Saudi known as “OBL” attends. OBL works for Laden and Co. Constructions, making this a clear reference to, and a cameo by, Osama bin Laden.
Ali’s initial revenge plot consists of stabbing General Zia in the eye with his under-officer sword—a move he practices in secret. But Baby O concocts a new plot to kill the General by crashing a plane kamikaze-style down on top of him. He even goes so far as to steal a plane for the job, but in doing so, he accidentally lands Ali in prison at Lahore Fort, a torture center.

While there, Ali listens to the screams of his tortured fellow prisoners and talks via a hole in the wall with a man who has been in solitary confinement there for nine years. Ali eventually learns that his own father is the one responsible for turning Lahore Fort into a torture center (“Nice work, Dad,” he responds). Meanwhile, Major Kiyani appears on the scene, intending to torture Ali.

Suddenly a change in ISI command takes place, and Ali is freed in the nick of time to avoid torture. Upon his arrival back at the Pakistani Air Force Academy, he learns that he has been chosen as part of the squad that will perform a silent drill salute for General Zia. Ali will finally have his opportunity, and he decides to stake his revenge plot on the use of snake venom, injected into the General’s hand via Ali’s sword. After the silent drill salute, General Zia boards the doomed Pak One.

However, the novel wraps up without confirming whether or not Ali was successful in his attempt to assassinate the General. Rather, the book asks, was it the curse-carrying crow that crashed into the plane’s engines while pursuing the mangoes on board? Or was it an explosive planted in the mangoes by the All Pakistan Sweepers Association in revenge for the death of their general-secretary at the hands of Major Kiyani? Or perhaps was it any of his confidants, each with their own secrets and motivations? It may even have been the CIA’s doing.

In the end, the “who” and “why” of the plane crash are less important than the author’s satirical comments about the political state in Pakistan. The story concludes with a passage from the Prayer of Jonah from the Qur’an, which also previously appeared in chapter two.