On 17 August 1988, a plane carrying General Zia ul-Haq, the military ruler of Pakistan since 1977 and America's staunchest ally in the first Afghan war, went down in flames, killing everybody on board. Zia was accompanied by some of his senior generals, the US ambassador to Pakistan and the head of the US military aid mission to Pakistan, all of whom died. There was no real investigation and no culprit was ever identified or, at any rate, announced. Conspiracy theories abound, implicating the CIA, the Bhutto family, Indian intelligence, rogue elements within the Pakistan Army or the Soviet Union. In this entertaining novel, Mohammed Hanif, a former Pakistan Air Force officer, now head of the BBC's Urdu Service, imagines what might have happened and why. It begins with Junior Under Officer Ali Shigri being hauled for interrogation. Shigri's room-mate, the poetry-loving cadet Obaid, has gone Awol and, reportedly, tried to fly off using Shigri's call-sign. When the local bosses fail to get anything out of Shigri, the under officer is put in a dungeon under Lahore Fort and threatened with torture.
Meanwhile, General Zia, suspecting that Allah had sent him a message through the Qur'an that his life is in danger, raises his security level to red. The Afghan war is almost over and Zia, dreaming of the Nobel Peace Prize, knows he is surrounded by enemies. (He also has a severe rectal itch, which isn't improving his temper.) General Akhtar Abdur Rehman, the ambitious head of Inter-Services Intelligence, is happy to enhance the general's already heavy security.
Hanif's novel is really a series of darkly comic vignettes about the investigation of Obaid's disappearance and the preoccupations of General Zia and his generals. There are sharply observed sketches of toadying ministers, mindlessly efficient security chiefs, filthy prison cells, sex-mad Arab sheikhs and erudite communist prisoners (who hate Maoists more than mullahs). Zia's limited intelligence and unlimited paranoia are portrayed with great glee. The only women of any significance are Zia's wife (who, after seeing a picture of her husband gazing into the cleavage of an American journalist, declares that he is dead to her) and a blind prisoner, sentenced to death by stoning because she had been raped. There is also a rather interesting mango-loving crow, who might have had something to do with several events.
Although framed as a mystery and ending with rational explanations for Obaid's disappearance and Zia's plane crash, A Case of Exploding Mangoes is less Le Carr (who praises the author's "lovely eye... and even better ear") than Private Eye. The tension does not build up until the final chapters and is then released far too quickly. The novel spends far more time exposing the stupidity, brutality and hypocrisy of Pakistan's military rulers. Whether such revelations can shock any longer is, of course, doubtful but as a piece of political satire, A Case of Exploding Mangoes deserves a high mark.
Chandak Sengoopta teaches history at Birkbeck College, London