Published by Vintage Books and Random House
A plane is parked on a runway, and a group of men is walking towards it. They include General Zia ul-Haq, the President of Pakistan; Arnold Raphael, the American Ambassador to Pakistan; and General Akhtar Abdur Rahman, the head of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Pakistan’s secret service. The date is 17 August 1988. As those familiar with recent history will know, the plane exploded in mid-air, killing all of those on board.
The reasons for the explosion were never fully explained. A board of inquiry set up to look into the crash concluded that the most probable cause was sabotage. That is the premise that Mohammed Hanif builds his novel on.
The main narrator is Ali Shigri, an officer at the Pakistani Air Force Academy. One morning—two and a half months before the crash—Ali wakes up to find his roommate and friend, Obaid ul-Ilah, otherwise known as Baby O, missing. It turns out that Baby O had stolen a plane, and Ali is asked to account for his friend’s movements.
Ali denies all knowledge of his Baby O’s whereabouts. The intelligence service is not convinced: Major Kiyani of the ISI comes for him and locks him in the historic fort, which doubles as a torture prison for the ISI. He is interrogated but released after a few days.
In the meantime, General Zia is getting increasingly paranoid—he is sure that someone is going to assassinate him. He refuses to move into the Presidential palace, preferring to stay in the Army House, meant for the head of the Pakistani army.
It seems that several people want Zia dead. Ali is haunted by the suicide of his illustrious father, Col. Quli Shigri and is convinced that his father was actually murdered on orders from Zia. He throws his energy into plotting his revenge on the General.
Blind Fatima, a poor woman who was gang-raped, has been imprisoned for adultery while the rapists walk free. When the New York Times runs a story on her, the authorities are worried about her growing fame and move her to the fort. Unhappy about the move, she curses the person responsible.
Then there is the overweening ambition of General Akhtar, who thinks he would make a far more effective president than the General.
There is also a mysterious crate of mangoes that is loaded onto the General’s plane just before take-off, a present from the Mango Growers’ Association. Could this be linked to the note to the Association that was smuggled to Ali while he was in the fort, and which Ali delivers after his release?
It is never clear who—or what—was ultimately responsible for the crash, and Hanif leaves the field wide open.
The story moves between Ali’s first-person, rather sardonic, narrative to third-person narrations of Zia’s last days. This book had me laughing and wincing at the same time. The American Ambassador throws a Fourth of July party with a Texas-Kabul theme. Almost all the guests come dressed as Afghans, except for one man who arrives in a suit: “a lanky man with a flowing beard”, who introduces himself as OBL of Laden & Co. Constructions. He wanders in but clearly is of no particular interest to anyone.
Hanif has a knack of describing people in a few words that make them come alive. Major Kiyani has a “cruel stillness about him”. After he is released from the fort’s dungeons, Ali looks at the prisoners in the fort as they are brought outside: “They look like betrayed promises, broken and then put back together from memory, obscure names crossed out from habeas corpus petitions, forgotten faces that will never make it to Amnesty International’s hall of fame, dungeon dwellers brought out for their daily half-hour in the sun.”
This is a sharply observed, very enjoyable satire that spares no one, no matter how important.