Archive for the Humor 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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Mort

Posted in Fantasy, Humor, SF on March 21, 2007 by Ishrath Farhana

Death comes to us all. When he came to Mort, he offered him a job. After being assured that being dead was not compulsory, Mort accepted. However, he soon found that romantic longings did not mix easily with the responsibilities of being Death’s apprentice…

The blurb says it all. And to digress, the footnote:

The only things known to go faster than ordinary light is monarchy, according to the philosopher Ly Tin Weedle. He reasoned like this: you can’t have more than one king, and tradition demands that there is no gap between kings, so when a king dies the succession must therefore pass to the heir instantaneously. Presumably, he said, there must be some elementary particles — kingons, or possibly queons — that do this job, but of course succession sometimes fails if, in mid-flight, they strike an anti-particle, or republicon. His ambitious plans to use his discovery to send messages, involving the careful torturing of a small king in order to modulate the signal, were never fully expanded because, at that point, the bar closed.

God must have intended mankind to have loads of fun, or He wouldn’t have invented Terry Pratchett.

Going Postal

Posted in Fantasy, Humor, SF on December 25, 2006 by Ishrath Farhana

Terry’s loyal guild of fans and disciples needs no introduction to the Discworld. Going Postal is performed by Stephen Briggs.

In Going Postal, an enterprising conman Moist von Lipvig finds himself first hanged (to half an inch of his life) and then coming round in Lord Vetinari’s office. Vetinari is Ankh-Morpork’s Patrician, described by some as a tyrant. Others simply question his parentage. He is also incredibly resourceful, fantastically well-informed and a graduate of the Guild of Assassins. He knows Moist’s real name, his profession and has identified Moist as a fraudster by vocation, a habitual liar and totally untrustworthy. As such, Vetinari has realised that Moist is ideally suited for a job in government and offers him the position of Postmaster General.

Moist could turn the job down; the decision would only cost him his life. However, largely because he doesn’t fully realise what he’s letting himself in for, he accepts the job offer. Although Moist would rather disappear under another false name, Vetinari has wisely appointed a parole officer to him – a very determined golem called Mr. Pump. Neither Moist nor Mr. Pump are going to have an easy time in their new positions – for a start, the Post Office is a mess. There hasn’t been a letter delivered in twenty years – all of them are still in the building, leaving very little room for people and golems inside.

Moist only has two members of staff – an ancient Junior Postman called Groat and Apprentice Postman Stanley (a little odd, though an expert on pins). Mr. Pump indirectly leads Moist to Adora Bell Dearheart, a tall dark-haired woman who works for the Golem’s Trust. She dresses severely, chain-smokes and, and by her own admission, is utterly lacking in a sense of humor.

Moist’s biggest problem is going to be the Grand Trunk Semaphore Company and its new Board of Directors. The Grand Trunk provide a high-speed communication service, better known as the clacks – the Discworld’s version of telegrams. It’s pretty clear the new board have cheated, embezzled and stolen their way to the company, are mistreating the workforce and are generally running things into the ground. Although represented by Mr. Slant (not only a zombie, but also a lawyer), the most dislikeable and dangerous member of the board is Reacher Gilt. Like Moist, he’s obviously a very gifted con-artist. However, it’s his willingness to use buzzwords that really send shivers down the spine. Anyone who has been at a meeting and heard phrases like “core competencies”, “synergistically” and “striving for excellence” will know.

This is not a reading – it is a performance. And it is a tour de force of a performance by Stephen Briggs. It needs a strong constitution to not fall on the floor in gales of mirth when the quavering voice of the geriatric Junior Postman Groat pipes up “I shall leap sir, leap into action, sir.” However, Briggs’ genius finds its pinnacle in the upper-crust tones of Lord Vetinari.

The Well of Lost Plots

Posted in Fantasy, Humor on September 30, 2006 by Ishrath Farhana

It’s hard to imagine why the Thursday Next quartet is not universally known, because it rivals the breadth of creative imagination of the Harry Potter books, with the advantage that it’s amazingly funny! This is the 3rd book in the series, but unfortunately my first, so the story came to me in disjointed bits and I was unable to fully appreciate the many returning characters.

Thursday Next is a literary seluth and agent in training for JurisFiction, and Miss Havisham is her mentor and coach. Pregnant and anxious for a rest, she decides to go with her dodo Pickwick to visit the Well of Lost Plots, where all book characters, plots, and settings reside until they are chosen for novels. Living inside an unpublished crime thriller, Thursday explores the Great Library, where the Cheshire Cat is librarian, sees the workshop for backstories, meets generics [human canvases without paint] and orals [nursery rhyme characters], tours available settings [high-capped mountains, arched stone bridges, ruined castles], and watches as Miss Havisham joyrides in “Chitty Bang Bang.”

Holesmiths work there fixing holes in narratives, grammatacists try to prevent grammacites [gerunds] and mispeling vyruses from infecting novels, and pace-setters, moodmongers, and plot speculators work on new creations. As the Well considers installing the UltraWord operating system, which will expand the basic eight-plot architecture into thirty-two plots, Thursday tries to preserve the memory of Landen [her eradicated husband] fight against her enemies, and win her trial for a fiction infraction.

While Thursday’s role is not always clear, the book frees our imagination and keeps us involved in the literary world with its myriad possibilities. Full of satire, parody, puns, literary jokes and word play, this one provided hours of delight.