Archive for the Current Affairs Category

A Case of Exploding Mangoes by Mohammed Hanif

Posted in Action / Thriller, Current Affairs, Debut, Diaspora, Dictators, Espionage, Farce, Historical/Biographical, Humor, Military, Mystery, Nobel Prize, Pakistan, Presidents, Satire, South Asian, Terrorism, World with tags , on August 3, 2008 by Ishrath Farhana

A Case of Exploding Mangoes
Category: Contemporary Fiction
Format: Hardcover, 336 pages
Publisher: Random House
Price: $29.95

Many people compare A Case of Exploding Mangoes by Mohammed Hanif to Catch 22, but I don’t recall enjoying Heller as much as Hanif. There are far too many pages where I was snorting and cackling and laughing till my sides ached. To desi readers, the cultural perspective lends exquisite piquancy to this tale of Who killed President Zia ul Haq? Twenty years to the date, it is still anyone’s guess why Pak One fell from the sky that summer, and Hanif steps forward with a multi-starring cast of possible assassins, with their own reasons to hate the dictator.

Underofficer Ali Shigri, the son of the revered and much-decorated, late Colonel Shigri, is our main narrator. He doesn’t believe that the colonel, found hanging by his bedsheet from the ceiling fan, has committed suicide. But he is in worse trouble when his roomate and best friend, Obaidullah goes missing, and he is hauled into interrogation into a Mughal dungeon by Major Kiyani of the dreaded ISI.

The most  engaging parts of the book are undoubtedly those that depict Zia, whose years of power have left him “fattened, chubby-cheeked and marinating in his own paranoia.” His piety is a chilling contrast with his violence, much like the opposing directions of his slightly cockeyed gaze. The man who breaks down during his prayers is the same despot whose prisons are full of dissenters. His frequent consultations of the Quran for meaning doesn’t mean he won’t order the stoning of a blind rape victim for adultery.  Was he a pious Muslim controlling what he saw as Pakistan’s moral decay, or an opportunistic leader who manipulated Islam to remain in power?

However Hanif also presents Zia sympathetically. There is something childlike about his need for attention from the First Lady, and his dependence on his ambitious and treacherous inner circle. His security chief “has done such a good job of conducting him  through the milling crowds, General Zia had started to think of himself as a man of the people.” America had made him into a hero in their proxy war against the Soviets, one of the 10 men standing as a bulwark between Communist expansion and the free world, so that he fancies himself as a receipient for the Nobel Peace Prize.

It is hard not to feel sympathy for the slightly henpecked husband, squabbling with his wife. And how can you really hate a President who is forced to prop his chin on the national flag while having a taciturn doctor giving him a rectal exam?

Hanif makes brilliant sketches of the coterie surrounding General Zia. The information minister is “a devious bastard with a fake MBA, making his fortune by ordering useless books that never arrive for military libraries.” Military officers are the kind of men “who pick up a phone and a bomb goes off in a crowded bazaar.” And famously, The only person who voiced his thoughts was General Akhtar, a former middle-weight boxer, a clean shaven man of tribal origins, who was packed with so much dignity that he could have been born in any country in any of the five continents and he still would have become a general. His ability to carry himself with martial grace and his talent for sucking up to superiors was so legendary that according to a joke popular in the trenches, he could wipe out a whole enemy unit by kissing their asses.”

Mohammed Hanif exploded on the literary scene suddenly, putting Pakistan on the map, and the deceased dictator firmly into our collective consciousness. By now we have all heard about how he trained as an Air Force pilot, pounded the beat as a journalist, then moved to London to become the head of BBC’s Urdu Service. However, nothing one can say about Mohammed Hanif beats what Hanif has to say about himself, “Once upon a time, when I was 18…

If a book can make a wave, A Case of Exploding Mangoes has been creating turbulence ever since it arrived. It is not being published in Pakistan, where it may have ruffled a few feathers. Of course, there are omnious parallels with the present situation in the country – the war in Afghanistan, Americans running all over the place and another General as President. The powers-that-be do not like to be reminded of their blatant hypocrisy or deep-rooted insecurities. It has also made it to the Man Bookers Longlist this year, and I am rooting for this book.

Then there is that intriguing first line, “there is an ancient saying that when lovers fall out, a plane goes down.” I was reminded of Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s words about Pakistan’s souring love affair with America. They have  been  rendered immortally by Noor Jahan here:

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The Toss of a Lemon by Padma Vishwanathan

Posted in Brahmin, Canada eh?, Caste Relations, Current Affairs, Debut, Diaspora, Historical/Biographical, India, India / Indian, Prejudice, Racism, Southeast Asia, Untouchability, Women, World with tags , on April 11, 2008 by Ishrath Farhana

Hardcover, 640 pages

Random House Canada

Price: $34.95

In her debut novel, Vishwanathan tells the tale of Sivakami, a child bride in the 1950’s, and her early widowhood. She is married to Hanumanthrathnam – an astrologer with a reputation for healing, with an unconventional friendship with siddhas. Hanumantharathnam dies promptly on the date he predicted, leaving Sivakami to care for a daughter, Thangam, and their son, Vairum.  

Sivakami’s oddessey extends into several generations of children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

One expects The Toss of a Lemon to seize the issue of caste relations in its teeth, because there is simply so much to say about the recognition of caste injustice in Tamil Nadu, the formation of a Dravidian consciousness, the backlash against Brahmins. However,  Vishwanathan prefers the minute day to day activities of a Brahmin household and describes everything with rigorous and relentless domestic detail, and glides over the larger issues of the day, quite a feat in 600 odd pages.  

With Bapsi Sidhwa’s Water, we are sensitized to the plight of the widows, but one finds it extremely hard to feel sympathy for Sivakami because of her extreme orthodoxy. It is difficult to look upon her as a victim, because her caste and her harsh observance of its tenets gives her a sense of inviolable superiority over everyone.

From an anthropological point of view, this is a detailed day to day chronicle of Brahmin life. The most uncomfortable aspect is the whole idea of how every other thing “pollutes” you, how touching even her children during daylight hours pollutes Sivakami’s madi state, sipping chai from a cup will pollute you, putting lips to tumbler is polluting, the shadow of a lower caste person will pollute you, and if someone throws somethng as unchaste as a slipper at a Brahmin, he is positively uncasted.  

One does not know what a reader who is not from India will take away fom this book, but an Indian will struggle for  objectivity. A non Brahmin, and possibly Brahmins from our generation will have to contend with the distaste that the apparent racism-as-a-way-of-life that this book generates. Perhaps one will be forced to recall old indignites at Brahmin friends’ homes, where an aunt or a granny may have barred one from the kitchen.

It is a tough book to read, and bitter to swallow. However in the way it deals with such issues it is a book that simply does not live up to its promise. The promise of a fresh and exciting new voice to the firmament of Indian fiction. The promise of sinking one’s teeth into the touchy subject and pernicious continuity of caste injustice in India.

The Hungry Tide by Amitav Ghosh

Posted in Amitav Ghosh, Current Affairs, Diaspora, India, India / Indian, Literary fiction, Southeast Asia, World on February 13, 2008 by Ishrath Farhana

Ganga flows, tamed by Shiva’s locks, across northen India. Where Shiva’s jata ends, Ganga erupts out of the fringes and empties into the Bay of Bengal. 

The river delta creates a vast archipelago of islands, the Sundarbans, where mangrove jungles grow quickly on land not reclaimed by the tide. The tidal surge from the sea can cover three hundred kilometers, constantly reshaping or devouring islands, with just the tops of the jungles often visible at high tide.

It is home to the Bengal tiger, huge crocodiles, sharks, snakes, impenetrable forests – and a few people trying to scratch out a living. I did not know much about the Tide Country, but after having read The Hungry Tide, I find it imposible to forget. It is a compelling story, full of ideas and no easy answers. 

Piyali Roy is an American scientist who has come to study the rare Irrawaddy dolphin which lives in the rivers of the tide country. Kanai is the owner of a successful translation business in Delhi and comes to the island of Lusibari. He is being summoned by his aunt, Nilima because of a package left to Kanai by her late husband, Nirmal, which has just been found some 20 years after his death.

Nirmal and Nilima came to the Sundarbans when his revolutionary ideas became too dangerous in Calcutta. Nilima founded a cooperative which brought help, medicine, and ultimately a hospital to Lusibari, while Nirmal spent his career as headmaster of the local school.

For a short time while Kanai was visiting his aunt and uncle as a youngster, a young woman named Kusum passed through their lives. The package now left to Kanai contains an account of the events at the end of Nirmal’s life, which revolved around Kusum, her son Fokir, and the catastrophic struggle of the dispossessed to form a new society on the island of Morichjhãpi.

Of Morichjhapi, Lotus Reads says,

Morijhapi forms the most powerful backdrop to events and issues addressed in the novel. Morijhapi was declared a protected area by the Union government as part of Project Tiger launched in 1973 to preserve and protect the dwindling number of tigers in Indian forests. In 1978, the island was taken over by a group of poor and defenceless Bangladeshi refugees, seeking to set up an egalitarian world, free of maladies of class, caste, religion and poverty that had plagued them till date. But it was not to be. Clashes ensued between the State and the settlers. The Left Front government of West Bengal was determined to evict the human inhabitants in favour of its animal populace, which finally resulted in a police shoot out that killed scores of these helpless settlers and forced the rest to flee the island. The memories and memoirs of Morijhapi form a haunting prelude to the novel.

Piya is a woman used to the solitude and rigors of the life of a scientist working in the field. Piya often works in areas where she knows neither the customs nor the language, and can survive for days on just energy bars and Ovaltine as she studies river dolphins, and here she falls into the company of Fokir, who is fishing for crabs with his son. Fokir brings Piya to Lusibari, where the paths of Piya, Kanai, and Fokir all merge.

Ghosh creates a setting where everyone is on an even footing. The hostile environment erases all societal strata because everyone is an equal in the struggle to survive. This is a life Kanai doesn’t understand. In the Sundarbans, his wealth, servants, and pride have no value. While he feels himself to be superior to Fokir, on the river he needs Fokir’s skills to provide for his survival. Piya, who feels closest to the animals she studies, needs Kanai’s translation skills and Fokir’s local knowledge of the river and wildlife for her to do her research.

At the center of all these relationships is Fokir, perhaps the truest soul in the novel. He’s an illiterate man, but possesses more knowledge of the river and its wildlife than all the outsiders who don’t understand him.

Piya feels an affinity for Fokir and his life which matches the rhythms of his environment. Kanai, attracted to Piya and envious of Fokir, decides to accompany them on a trip up the river to study the dolphins. The three of them embark on a trip into the heart of the tide country which will bring lasting change to all of their lives. 

The book has been reviewed here by Qalandar at Mount Helicon.