Tuesday, May 27, 2008

A Case of Exploding Mangoes - A Book Worth Reading

EXCERPT: The invisible hand
Dawn, May 25, 2008
Excerpted with permission, the novel re-imagines the conspiracies and coincidences leading to the mysterious 1988 plane crash that killed Gen Zia.

A Case of Exploding Mangoes by Mohammad Hanif
Knopf, May 2008

YOU might have seen me on TV after the crash. The clip is short and everything in it is sun-bleached and slightly faded. It was pulled after the first two bulletins because it seemed to be having an adverse impact on the morale of the country’s armed forces. You can’t see it in the clip but we are walking towards Pak One, which is parked behind the cameraman’s back, in the middle of the runway. The aeroplane is still connected to an auxiliary fuel pump, and surrounded by a group of alert commandos in camouflaged uniforms. With its dull grey fuselage barely off the ground, the plane looks like a beached whale contemplating how to drag itself back to the sea, its snout drooping with the enormity of the task ahead.

The runway is in the middle of Bahawalpur Desert, six hundred miles away from the Arabian Sea. There is nothing between the sun’s white fury and the endless expanse of shimmering sand except a dozen men in khaki uniforms walking towards the plane. For a brief moment you can see General Zia’s face in the clip, the last recorded memory of a much photographed man. The middle parting in his hair glints under the sun, his unnaturally white teeth flash, his moustache does its customary little dance for the camera, but as the camera pulls out you can tell that he is not smiling. If you watch closely you can probably tell that he is in some discomfort. He is walking the walk of a constipated man.

The man walking on his right is the US Ambassador to Pakistan, Arnold Raphel, whose shiny bald head and carefully groomed moustache give him the air of a respectable homosexual businessman from small-town America. He can be seen flicking an invisible speck of sand from the lapel of his navy-blue blazer. His smart-casual look hides a superior diplomatic mind; he is a composer of sharp, incisive memos and has the ability to remain polite in the most hostile exchanges. On General Zia’s left, his former spymaster and the head of Inter Services Intelligence General Akhtar seems weighed down by half a dozen medals on his chest and drags his feet as if he is the only man in the group who knows that they shouldn’t be boarding this plane. His lips are pinched and, even when the sun has boiled everything into submission and drained all colour out of the surroundings, you can see that his normally pale skin has turned a wet yellow. His obituary in the next day’s newspapers would describe him as the Silent Soldier and one of the ten men standing between the Free World and the Red Army.

As they approach the red carpet that leads to the Pak One stairway you can see me step forward. You can tell immediately that I am the only one in the frame smiling, but when I salute and start walking towards the aeroplane, my smile vanishes. I know I am saluting a bunch of dead men. But if you are in uniform, you salute. That’s all there is to it.

Later, forensic experts from Lockheed will put the pieces of crashed plane together and simulate scenarios, trying to unlock the mystery of how a superfit C130 came tumbling down from the skies only four minutes after takeoff. Astrologists will pull out files with their predictions for August 1988, and blame Jupiter for the crash that killed Pakistan’s top army brass as well as the US Ambassador. Leftist intellectuals will toast the end of a cruel dictatorship and evoke historic dialectics in such matters.

But this afternoon, history is taking a long siesta, as it usually does between the end of one war and the beginning of another. More than a hundred thousand Soviet soldiers are preparing to retreat from Afghanistan after being reduced to eating toast smeared with military-issue boot polish, and these men we see in the TV clip are the undisputed victors. They are preparing for peace and, being the cautious men they are, they have come to Bahawalpur to shop for tanks while waiting for the end of the Cold War. They have done their day’s work and are taking the plane back home. With their stomachs full, they are running out of small talk; there is the impatience of polite people who do not want to offend each other. It’s only later that people would say, Look at that clip, look at their tired, reluctant walk, anybody can tell that they were being shepherded to that plane by the invisible hand of death.

The generals’ families will get full compensation and receive flag-draped coffins with strict instructions not to open them. The pilots’ families will be picked up and thrown into cells with blood-splattered ceilings for a few days and then let go. The US Ambassador’s body will be taken back to Arlington Cemetery and his tombstone would be adorned with a half-elegant cliché. There will be no autopsies, the leads will run dry, investigations will be blocked, there will be cover-ups to cover cover-ups. Third World dictators are always blowing up in strange circumstances but if the brightest star in the US diplomatic service (and that’s what was said about Arnold Raphel at the funeral service in Arlington Cemetery) goes down with eight Pakistani generals, somebody would be expected to kick ass. Vanity Fair will commission an investigative piece, the New York Times will write two editorials, sons of the deceased will file petitions to the court and then settle for lucrative cabinet posts. It would be said that this was the biggest cover-up in aviation history since the last biggest cover

The only witness to that televised walk, the only one to have walked that walk, would be completely ignored.
Because if you missed that clip, you probably missed me. Like history itself. I was the one who got away.

What they found in the wreckage of the plane were not bodies, not serene-faced martyrs, as the army claimed, not the slightly damaged, disfigured men not photogenic enough to be shown to the TV cameras or to their families. Remains. They found remains. Bits of flesh splattered on the broken aeroplane parts, charred bones sticking to mangled metal, severed limbs and faces melted into blobs of pink meat. Nobody can ever say that the coffin that was buried in Arlington Cemetery didn’t carry bits of General Zia’s remains and what lies buried in Shah Faisal mosque in Islamabad are not some of the remains of the State Department’s brightest star. The only thing that can be said with certainty is that my remains weren’t in either of those coffins.

Yes, sir, I was the one who got away.

The name Shigri didn’t figure in the terms of reference, the investigators from the FBI ignored me and I never had to sit under a naked bulb and explain the circumstances that led to me being present at the scene of the incident. I didn’t even figure in the stories concocted to cover up the truth. Even the conspiracy theories which saw an unidentified flying object colliding with the presidential plane, or deranged eyewitnesses who saw a surface-to-air missile being fired from a lone donkey’s back didn’t bother to spin any yarns about the boy in uniform with one hand on the scabbard of his sword, stepping forward, saluting, then smiling and walking away. I was the only one who boarded that plane and survived.

Even got a lift back home.

If you did see the clip you might have wondered what this boy with mountain features is doing in the desert, why he is surrounded by fourgenerals, why he is smiling. It’s because I have had my punishment. As Obaid would have said, there is poetry in committing a crime after you have served your sentence. I do not have much interest in poetry but punishment before a crime does have a certain sing-song quality to it. The guilty commit the crime, the innocent are punished. That’s the world we live in.

My punishment had started exactly two months and 17 days before the crash when I woke up at reveille and without opening my eyes reached out to pull back Obaid’s blanket, a habit picked up from four years of sharing the same room with him. It was the only way to wake him up. My hand caressed an empty bed. I rubbed my eyes. The bed was freshly made, a starched white sheet tucked over a grey wool blanket, like a Hindu widow in mourning. Obaid was gone and the buggers would obviously suspect me.

You can blame our men in uniform for anything, but you can never blame them for being imaginative.

[* * *]

General Zia always felt a holy tingling in the marrow of his backbone when surrounded by people who were genuinely poor and needy. He could always tell the really desperate ones from the merely greedy. During the eleven years of his rule, he had handed out multimillion-dollar contracts for roads he knew would dissolve at the first hint of monsoon. He had sanctioned billion-rupee loans for factories he knew would produce nothing. He did these things because it was statecraft and he had to do it. He never got any pleasure out of it. But this ritual of handing over an envelope containing a couple of hundred rupees to a woman who didn’t have a man to take care of her made him feel exalted. The gratitude on these women’s faces was heartfelt, the blessings they showered over him were genuine. General Zia believed that Allah couldn’t ignore their pleas. He was sure their prayers were fast-tracked.

A television producer with an eye for detail walked up to the Information Minister and pointed to the banner that was to serve as the backdrop for the ceremony.

President’s Rehabilitation Programme for Windows, it read.

The Information Minister knew from experience that a spelling error could ruin General Zia’s day and his own career. General Zia photocopied the newspaper articles, even those praising him, and sent them back to the editors with a thank-you note and the typos circled in red. The Information Minister placed himself strategically in front of the banner and refused to budge during the entire ceremony. This was probably the first and the last time that the Information Minister was not seen in the official TV footage in his usual place and in his usual mood; he had always stood behind his boss with his neck straining above General Zia’s shoulders and always grinned with such fervour that it seemed the nation’s survival depended on his cheerful mood.

‘Pray for Pakistan’s prosperous future and my health,’ General Zia said to a 75 year old widow, a shrivelled apple of a woman, a deserving veteran of these ceremonies and hence the first one in the queue. ‘Pakistan is very prosperous,’ she said, waving the envelope in his face. Then she pinched his cheeks with both her hands. ‘And you are as healthy as a young ox. May Allah destroy all your enemies.’

General Zia’s teeth flashed, his moustache did a little twist and he put his right hand on his heart and patted the old woman’s shoulder with his left. ‘I am what I am because of your prayers.’

General Zia, occupied for the last few days with the security alert triggered by Jonah’s verse, felt at peace for the first time in ages. He looked at the long queue of women with their heads covered, with eyes full of hope, and realised they were his saviour angels, his last line of defence.

Brigadier TM stood out of frame and bristled at the way these women were disobeying his instructions. But the camera was rolling and Brigadier TM had enough television manners to stay out of the picture, control his anger and focus on the end of the queue where a catfight seemed to be in progress.

Most of the women in the queue knew why it was taking the President so long to hand out a few hundred rupees. The President was in a talkative mood, enquiring after the health of each woman, patiently listening to their longwinded answers and asking them to pray for his health. The one hour and thirty minutes scheduled for the ceremony were about to run out and more than half the women were still waiting in the queue. The Information Minister thought of stepping forward and asking the President if, with his permission, he could distribute the rest of the envelopes, but then he remembered the misspelt word he was covering and decided to stay put. Brigadier TM looked at his watch, looked at the President chattering away with the women, and decided that the President’s schedule was not his problem.

The First Lady wasn’t getting the sisterly support she had expected from the other women in the queue. ‘Begums like her bring us a bad name,’ the woman in front of the First Lady whispered to the woman ahead of her, making sure that the First Lady could hear. ‘Look at all the gold this cow is wearing,’ the woman said, raising her voice. ‘Her husband probably died trying to keep her decked out in all that finery.’

The First Lady pulled her dupatta even further over her head. She tightened it across her chest in a belated attempt to hide her necklace.

Then she realised that to these women she must appear a fraud, a rich begum pretending to be a widow coming to feed off the official charity.

‘My husband is not dead,’ she said, raising her voice to the point where ten women in front of her could hear. The women turned round and looked at her. ‘But I have left him. And here, you can have these.’ She removed her earrings and unhooked her necklace and pressed them both into the reluctant hands of two women standing in front of her.

The whisper travelled along the queue that a woman at the back was distributing gold.

General Zia’s right eye noticed the pandemonium at the back of the queue. With his left eye he sought out the Information Minister. He wanted to find out what was happening, but the minister was standing in front of the backdrop as if guarding the last bunker on a front line under attack.

An incredibly young woman, barely out of her twenties, shunned the envelope extended towards her by Zia, and instead removed the dupatta from her head and unfurled it like a banner before the camera.

Free Blind Zainab, it read.

General Zia shuffled back, Brigadier TM rushed forward with his right hand ready to draw his gun. The television cameras cut to a close-up of the shouting woman.

‘I am not a widow,’ she was shouting over and over again. ‘I don’t want your money. I want you to immediately release that poor blind woman.’

‘We have set up special schools for the blind people. I have started a special fund for the special people,’ General Zia mumbled.

‘I don’t want your charity. I want justice for Zainab, blind Zainab. Is it her fault that she can’t recognise her attackers?’

General Zia glanced back and his right eyebrow asked the Information Minister where the hell he had got this widow. The Information Minister stood his ground; imagining the camera was taking his closeup, his mouth broke into a grin. He shook his head, and composed a picture caption for tomorrow’s papers: The President sharing a light moment with the Information Minister.

[* * *]

Zainab didn’t feel like the other inmates on death row; they prayed, they cried, they obsessively followed the progress of their petitions for mercy, and after their last appeal was denied, they turned their attention to the afterlife and started seeking forgiveness all over again. Zainab had committed no crime and she was comfortable in her cell — called the black cell because it accommodated deathprisoners — and she lived in it as if it was her home. She had woken up this morning, cleaned her cell, massaged her pregnant cell mate’s feet and put oil in her own hair.

After feeding the birds she would visit other cells, which were not black cells, and massage the feet of two other pregnant prisoners. ‘Why would anyone want to kill a poor blind woman?’ was her recurring answer to all the excitement that her lawyer and other women’s groups outside the jail were creating about her death sentence. Even the jailer respected her for her politeness, the way she helped other prisoners and taught their children to recite the Quran.

Zainab was the jail superintendent’s favourite prisoner and it was she who had given her the pair of sunglasses that so infuriated General Zia. ‘They will protect you against the sun.’ Zainab had accepted them with a smile without complaining, without showing any self-pity, without pointing out that sunlight couldn’t enter the dead white pools that were her eyes. Behind the plastic sunglasses her eyes were all white. She had been born without corneas.

There was the obvious talk of bad omens when she arrived in this world but her face was so luminous and her other faculties so intact that she had been accepted as an unfortunate child and she had made the most of her circumstances.

Even now that she had become the first woman to be sentenced to death by stoning under new laws, she had shown a puzzled fortitude that baffled women activists who were fighting her case in the courts and on the streets. ‘Stoning?’ she had asked after she was sentenced. ‘Like they do to the Devil in Mecca during Haj? They have been doing it to him for centuries and they haven’t been able to kill him. How are they going to kill a healthy woman like me?’

After wearing the sunglasses for a few days Zainab had started liking them; they helped her with the headaches she got after standing in the sunlight for too long. And the other prisoners’ children always giggled when she took them off to show them her milk-eyes.

Zainab heard a pair of wings flapping, heavier than the wings of the sparrows. She heard her sparrows flutter in a panic but they didn’t fly away. Some hovered in the air, others moved away from her. Her hand stopped throwing the crumbs for a moment, feeling protective towards her sparrows, not wanting to give to the crow what was theirs. Then she remembered a crow from her childhood who had kept her company on many a dark day. Another bad omen, the villagers had said, but it was good company for her and she would always save some bread for him. Could it be the same crow? Her hands started to break the jail bread and throw it out again. What if the crow was really hungry? All the prisoners and even some of the jail staff, she knew, fed these sparrows.

She heard the jailer’s footsteps coming towards her. She could tell from the way she walked that the jailer was bringing bad news. She tried to ignore the guilt in the approaching footsteps and continued to feed the bird. She could tell that the crow had taken over the area. The sparrows had flown away except for two who were still skirting around the circle claimed by the crow, rushing in to pick on a piece when the crow’s back was turned and dashing back to a safe distance. She could feel on her fingertips that their wings were poised for escape. She could also tell that it was more of a game they were playing, to see, if one distracted the crow, how close the other one could get.

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For accompanying Book Review in Dawn, click here

1 comment:

Mobin said...

Hi, is this book available here in Pakistan.. Islamabad perhaps?