Book Review No. 1 – Qaiser of Hanif, A Case of Exploding Mangoes

CDA Institute Research Associate Adnan Qaiser, who had a distinguished career in the armed forces and international diplomacy, reviews the book A Case of Exploding Mangoes by Mohammad Hanif (Toronto: Anchor, 2009).

In summary, Mr. Qaiser argues that “despite showcasing itself as satire, this fictional work about the circumstances that could have led to the plane crash of one of Pakistan’s former dictators is more about the ethos and behaviour pattern of Pakistan’s armed forces and its premier intelligence agency, the ISI . Disregarding the preoccupation of these institutions with preserving and protecting the national security of Pakistan, the narrative tries to demean and deride the military establishment. Vainly taking refuge behind purported wit and humour, much is communicated through nuance and insinuation using real and fake names, events and places, which leaves little to the imagination about Pakistan’s real-life characters and how they interacted at the end of the Afghan jihad of the 1980s.” Although this work of literature is a few years old, he concludes, “History never gets archaic or outdated; it only gets perfected and more truthful with age.”


Palace of Mirrors: A Thousand Faces of Pakistan’s Enemy Within

Adnan Qaiser

~ ~ ~

 My Enemy Within

 A rival in me, an enemy within

Hiding his jinx, deep down my skin

His sainthood stays, akin his sins

A foe, which never, lets me win

Hits my chin, then kicks my shin

Knocking my senses, keeps head in spin

Rubbing in dust, my face it pins

Scheming against me, to my chagrin

A wolf, cloaked, in lamb’s skin

Weakens my resolve, my courage gets thin

Throwing me in, history’s dustbin

Mocks me then, with his loathsome grin …

 ~ Adnan Qaiser

~ ~ ~

They say too much information is fatal. The aphorism reinforces spy-craft’s dictum: An intelligence asset’s elimination plan is devised concurrent to its creation. Since the asset, having served its purpose, has been privy to much sensitive and classified information, a time eventually comes to eliminate the trail à la Fredrick Forsyth’s 1984 epic novel, The Fourth Protocol.

The mysterious death of Pakistan’s former president, General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, along with the top brass of the Pakistani army in a plane crash on 17 August 1988 may have fallen into this category as their purpose had been served: the Soviet Union had been defeated in the Afghan jihad in which Pakistan, acting as a frontline state, stopped the communist onslaught from reaching the warm waters of the Arabian Sea.

Pakistan’s President Zia-ul-Haq in Pakistan on March 28th, 1983. (Photo by Chip HIRES/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

Among several “conspiracy theories” about the crash, the most popular story concerns a few crates of mangoes that were loaded aboard the president’s C-130 Hercules aircraft at the city of Bahawalpur just before takeoff for Islamabad on the fateful day; the mango crates were said to be carrying deadly VX, a nerve agent, to instantly incapacitate the pilots.

Interestingly, the major-general who had “gifted” the mangoes to the president had been “extraordinarily insistent” to have General Zia witness a tank exercise at Bahawalpur, as noted by then-U.S. ambassador to India, John Gunther Dean. Having had a long history of serving in the United States (first as military advisor, then as defence attaché, and later as ambassador), the major-general was suspected of playing Cold War-era “Moscow Rules” on behalf of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Despite nothing being proven against the said major-general, his bright career sun-setted with just two stars, demonstrating a shorter shelf life for those caught in the cobweb of national security or spy-games.

Mohammad Hanif’s A Case of Exploding Mangoes is a comical caricature of the possibilities that could have led to the assassination of Pakistan’s most despotic – and despised – ruler in the country’s history. Notwithstanding Pakistan’s democratic credentials, there still remain some curbs on free speech when it comes to publicly discussing (read here, criticizing) Pakistan’s invisible establishment, said to be comprised of its army and (military-dominated) intelligence agencies. Authors and commentators often rely upon satire – or insinuate using nuance – to put across their points of view. Hanif also exhibits his odium for the dictator, the military establishment and their (alleged) brutal practices in the name of national security, while taking refuge behind a “just kidding” type of fallacious humour, which unfortunately does not even cause a wry smile to cross one’s face.

The language of the book is deliciously appetizing and the story also unfolds rather captivatingly. The story, involving real life characters, walks apace initially, but drags in the middle and disappointingly ends without lighting any fireworks. Notably, this fictional novel – the winner of the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book and shortlisted for a few other awards – distorts many of Pakistan’s historical facts, events and places. More regrettably, the author’s personal rancour lurks behind his slurs and disrespect shown toward key individuals of national stature, which is difficult to be seen as wit or satire.

Neither does the novel enlighten the reader – at least in Pakistan – on anything new: as conspiracy theories abound in the Islamic Republic and are often referred to as “unconfirmed truths,” people are generally aware of the power-politics – and power-dynamics – in their country. They also know how the army and intelligence agencies establish and enforce their pre-eminence domestically and why the international powers remain keen to engage with them.  By narrating a scheming plot full of intrigues, however, Hanif has tried to reinforce the myth of the military establishment dominating the world’s fourth “national security state” (after Taiwan, South Korea and Israel who all face existential threats).

The story pivots around a hero, named Ali Shigri, a bright final-term air force cadet who secretly plans – and practices – to kill General Zia by poking the tip of his under-officer sword in Zia’s eye when the president comes to take a salute from his silent-drill squad. Shigri believes that his father – a distinguished, upright and courageous colonel of the ISI who is fond of the finest Scotch in the world and played a key role in the Afghan jihad – had been murdered on General Zia’s orders by the ISI, even though his death had been described as a case of suicide.

Hanif, who had been an air force cadet himself, maliciously portrays life at the Pakistan Air Force Academy. Having had the distinction of spending four years in the Pakistan Military Academy (receiving a commission in the army as senior under-officer), I can vouch that nobody dare abuse one’s mother during “ragging sessions” as Hanif misleadingly describes. In a culturally sensitive country – both from religious as well as moral points of view – portraying future commissioned officers abusing the mothers of their junior cadets is not funny at all, even satirically! Hanif’s personal scorn and disdain for the Pakistani armed forces keeps appearing in his convoluted narrative. Despite changing the names of some of the distinguished national figures and institutions, none could save their grace from the author’s mocking humiliation at the altar of satire.

Ali Shigri’s story begins with his life at the air force academy and helps introduce two main characters: his roommate, who hijacks a training plane to blow it up at the Army House like a kamikaze (I leave his motivation a surprise) and his American silent-drill instructor, a lowly pot-smoking lieutenant working for the CIA.

While General Zia’s personality problems, his issues with the First Lady and his apprehensions about someone being out to kill him continue in a parallel narrative, Shigri undergoes solitary confinement, barely escaping torture, at the hands of a rogue and impetuous ISI officer. He became an object of interest as his roommate used his call-sign while hijacking the air force plane! Here Major Kiyani enters the scene, whose Dunhill smoking addiction and his unquestioning obedience to his ISI chief (who had been giving him “killing assignments” even when out of office) makes him resemble another prominent figure in the Pakistani army. It is the same Major Kiyani, who after putting Colonel Shigri to his eternal sleep, gets him a state funeral and makes his son (Cadet Ali Shigri) decline an autopsy on his father.

Midway, Hanif gets lost in the labyrinths of his own plot. His unintelligent and creepy depiction of ISI dungeons at the Mughal-era Lahore Fort is not only absurd, but also mind-boggling, unpleasant and nauseating. With a sudden change in ISI’s command, however, Shigri and his roommate find themselves honourably exonerated and freed from captivity. Landing back at the air force academy, they learn that Shigri’s moment of truth has arrived – he has been granted the rare honour of presenting his silent-drill salute to the president of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan.

Hanif wraps up his not-so-fictional narrative leaving his readers confused as to who actually kills General Zia:

  • 1) Is it the snake venom, which Shigri’s sword injects into the general’s hand?
  • 2) Is it a curse-carrying crow crashing into the engine of the C-130 aircraft (the crow holding the jinx of a blind girl sentenced to death for her rape by Zia’s Sharia court)?
  • 3) Or perhaps the airborne mangoes explode because of the fraternity between the All Pakistan Sweepers Association and the All Pakistan Mango Farmers Cooperative (the Sweepers’ general-secretary, incarcerated at the ISI’s dungeon at Lahore and mercilessly killed by Major Kiyani, sends a letter to the Cooperative, mailed by Shigri on his behalf)?
  • 4) Is it the president’s close confidante of yesteryears who had helped him liberate Afghanistan and brought General Zia close to winning a Nobel Peace Prize (does the former ISI head, whom Zia kicks out of office making him a ceremonial Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff, really take the nod of the CIA’s station chief seriously when the latter winks, “Go get him”)?
  • 5) Or, perhaps, it is Zia’s obnoxious, Rayban-wearing, vice chief of army staff who connives with the CIA to eliminate the decade-long trail of the Afghan jihad (another real-life character who dodges sitting in Zia’s plane knowing its fate, but ends up sacrificing the U.S. ambassador and defence attaché in the run as collateral damage)?

Even if having failed in convincingly putting across the “case,” the enriching language and flow of the book makes it emotionally moving, grippingly intriguing and curiously interesting. The reason I remained glued to the pages, wondering what would happen next, was an expectation to get an unexpected and thrilling finale. It is the presence of real-life players of Pakistan’s establishment in the narrative that makes a reader sit up and read the whole book in one go. Hanif is said to have been taken aside by Pakistani generals, asking, “So what is your source, son?” Dismayingly, the novel ends without a bang but a whimper, leaving the reader disappointed and discontented.

Hanif’s account dwells less upon General Zia’s assassination and focuses instead on the ethos, thinking and behaviour pattern of Pakistan’s armed forces, including the ISI. Since the authorities assume that an ordinary Pakistani cannot understand the larger geo-political games and conspiracies hatched against a geo-strategically significant Pakistan, a discourse on national security is generally discouraged – if not outright forbidden – in the country. Nevertheless, and as might be expected, undermining Pakistan’s armed forces remains a constitutional offence.

The author admits (when the CIA’s lieutenant informs Shigri as to who killed his father): “Sometimes there is a blind spot right under your gaze”, which I referred to as the “enemy within” in my opening poem. Nonetheless, Hanif’s air force training should have imparted within him a sense that despite its flaws, you do not ridicule the institution you once served.

While discussing sensitive national security issues, one should be mindful of the establishment’s predicaments too. In the fog of war, especially the one fought on your own soil, the enemy often gets blurred, forcing you to take extraordinary measures under exceptional circumstances. You need to sometimes break the rules, creating a few anew. Major Kiyani counsels Shigri, “Eliminate the risk. Tackle the enemy before it can strike. Starve it of the very oxygen it breathes.” Finally, the major ominously concludes, “Like in the palace of mirrors, you look up and see your face staring at you from thousands of mirrors. But these mirrors are not reflecting your face. They are reflecting the reflections of your face. You might have one enemy with a thousand faces.”

And that remains Pakistan’s eternal dilemma – the enemy within with a thousand faces.


Adnan Qaiser can be reached at: 

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