Mohammed Hanif deftly sculpts the contours of conspiracy theories in his novel ‘A Case of the Exploding Mangoes,’ molding them into a tantalizingly explosive narrative.
About the Author
Mohammed Hanif (1964 – ) is a British Pakistani journalist and writer. His opinion pieces in the New York Times are just as famous as the body of literature that he has produced. Born in Okara, Punjab, he originally graduated as a pilot officer but chose to pursue a career in journalism. He has contributed to The Washington Post and India Today and worked for a long time with the BBC in London, writing the much-acclaimed feature film about Karachi, The Long Night.
A Case of The Exploding Mangoes, published in 2008, is Hanif’s debut novel. He has, since then, written three novels and two plays, which have been critically acclaimed and shortlisted for several esteemed literary awards like the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature, the Man Booker prize, etc. His books reflect a sense of bittersweet dark humor and a detailed understanding of the socio-economic and political structures of contemporary Pakistani society.
Summary of A Case of the Exploding Mangoes
A Case of the Exploding Mangoes seeks to ramble over the possible causes leading to the real-life death of Pakistan’s former President, General Muhammad Zia ul-Haq. The novel inaugurates with the former President’s boarding his aircraft for Islamabad after witnessing a parade in Bahawalpur. Accompanying him on this trip are important army officials, Zia’s best officers, and a few crates of mangoes. This is the final journey that the President undertook before this aircraft blasted midair, killing all the passengers on board. The story after that jumps between the first-person and third-person perspectives. On the one hand, we have Ali Shigri, an army officer, narrating the events leading up to the crash; on the other hand, we have third-person observations surrounding the lifestyle, thoughts, and actions of the President himself till his dying moment.
One morning, Ali wakes up to realize that his friend and lover, Baby O or Obaid, is missing from the academy. Being his roommate, Ali is forced to go through various levels of torture by the army officials to reveal any plan of action that Obaid may have been hatching. Besides, the seniors can never dismiss the fact that Ali may be seeking revenge on the President for his father’s death ( a suicide triggered by Major Kiyani under the President’s orders).
Simultaneously, we see a portrait of the former President of Pakistan, a pious and superstitious man who frantically imagines at all times that someone is conspiring against him, so much so that he refuses to leave the grounds of his house. The rest of the novel gives us a flavor of the many possible reasons why the aircraft could have exploded, from a curse by a victim of Zia’s sense of justice to Ali’s course of action. The novel chooses to keep you guessing at the cause till its final pages.
Exploring Conspiracy Theories in Fiction
A conspiracy theory can be understood as an explanation of a situation that validates the presence of a secret ploy devised on socio-political levels among forces in power. A conspiracy theory is validated both by the presence and absence of evidence to prove a conspiracy. They generally thrive on circular reasoning and social, religious, or political inklings of the party conjuring the theory at hand. Simultaneously, scientists, historians, and social theorists are always at work to prove these conspiracy theories wrong and keep them from misleading the general public by providing accurate data, stats, and facts to validate their judgment.
One popular example is the opinions around the Holocaust. According to a 2014 survey conducted by the Anti-Defamation League, only 30% of the respondents (mostly above 65) believed that the Holocaust was a real historical event. The rest did not seem to fully believe that the Nazi director and his troupe could have massacred the lives of around 6 million Jews within a span of five years.
A Case of the Exploding Mangoes (2008) does something very rare in fiction. It shapes up all possible conspiracy theories surrounding the death of the former Pakistan president using biting humor, making them read like real-life possibilities of the same. However, some of these theories are as bizarre as they can get. For example, Zia ul-Haf sentences the young and blind Zainab to death by stoning her for committing adultery. A dying Zainab pronounces a curse upon General Zia, which apparently gets picked up by a crow with a sweet tooth. This crow, we later find out, plump with the recently-relished mangoes, accidentally flies too close to the’s President last flight. The crow’s wings getting sucked into the aircraft’s revolving fan possibly leads to a malfunction that ultimately causes the aircraft to go down. The hilarious profundity of this conspiracy theory is at once a slap on the face of conspiracy theorists who will concoct anything to meet their politically driven agenda and a bathetic end of a world leader. This makes Hanif a writer who knows how to carefully modulate his fiction to strive for the middle ground between conspiracy theory and historical fiction – an art.
Why Should You Read A Case of the Exploding Mangoes?
In Salman Rushdie’s Shame, the character of Raza Hyder was caricatured to represent Zia ul-Haq. Similarly, writers in the west have shown a fascination for re-imagining their zealous leaders, from Claudius to Adolf Hitler. Hanif’s book gives us a similar portrait of a leader who is plagued by his own suspicions. The former Pakistan president is never at peace despite his frenzied readings of the Koran every day because he is always suspicious – this description drips with slapstick satire and intrigue.
That doesn’t, however, mean that the former President is portrayed as a black-and-white character, helping garb the writer’s own political leanings in the process. He is portrayed as someone fearing his wife’s whimsical behavior to listening to a maulvi tell him how to bring justice in the case of a blind rape victim and lying down on his stomach to face the country’s flag while a doctor’s fingers probe his arse. He is caricatured as a human being with a blasphemous thinking process who is very much real, stubborn, and God-fearing, an oft-forgotten characteristic of most world leaders.
Hanif’s book helps etch out this raw portrait of the former President. Further, the story isn’t shaped to address the global political scenario that Pakistan found itself in during the reign of Zia ul-Haq. The reality of this novel takes place in the bylanes and torture chambers of Pakistan, especially the wryly crafted love story between Ali and Obaid, making this a lighter read for the lovers of thrilling but politically unambiguous historical fiction. Interestingly, this is also the image of a country belonging to the South-Asian subcontinent that carefully forgoes its stereotypes – bombs, jihads, hatred for India – only to draw on the larger socio-political forces (read: leaders and their actions), which may be responsible for validating these popular beliefs.
Critical Acclaim of the Book
A Case of the Exploding Mangoes (2008) won the Commonwealth Book Prize in the debut book category in 2009 and the Shakti Bhatt First Book Prize in 2008. It was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2008 and shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award in 2008. The New York Times even called the book out for its “eerie timeliness” and established Hanif’s commanding presence as a fiction writer in the scope of global literature.