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Islamizing Regime Through The Reluctant Fundamentalist

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Numerous works had been written criticizing the Islamizing regime of Zia-ul-Haq and his fiercely misogynistic Hudood Ordinance, as noted by the Sri-Lankan critic, Neluka Silva in his examining of two texts of 1980s: Shame by Salman Rushdie, and We Sinful Women by Rukhsana Ahmad. One novel that completely stood out from among them was first political satire in Pakistani-English literature, A Case of Exploding Mangoes. Mohammad Hanif based the plot of his novel around Zia-ul-Haq’s regime and its absurdities. 

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The tale is framed by the mysterious air crash in which Zia, his senior officers, and the American ambassador were killed and which is popularly believed to have been caused by a bomb placed in inside the mango crates. This provides the title to Hanif’s novel, winner of the 2009 Commonwealth Writers Prize for the Best First Book and the Shakti Bhatt Award. Hanif had headed the BBC Urdu Service for several years before he started writing fiction. It is at this point that he realized that “writing a novel is the opposite of journalism”.

In the novel, Hanif recreates a host of real life characters , ranging from Zia-ul-Haq, his wife Begum Zia, Arnold Raphael, the American ambassador to General Akhtar, chief of Inter-Services Intelligence. The lives of these powerful figure is juxtaposed with the ordinary life of Ali Shigri, a middle-class, powerless narrator, posted as a cadet in PAF Academy. 

The novel asks: Who killed Zia-ul-Haq? This gives birth to a wide range of suggestions and interepretations of the event that led to his death. Hanif “gleefully thickens the stew of conspiracy theories” and gives everyone a motive and an opportunity. Furthermore, Hanif’s “contextualization and representation of Pakistan provide a remarkable insight into how it came to be the nation that it is today”.

As admitted by Hanif, the novel was inspired by The Feast of the Goat by Mario Vargas Llosa which tells of the last days of Trujillo’s dictatorial rule. Both the works thereby portray a ruler clinging to reins of power with the help of soldiers, censorship, corruption, and state persecution—while the American presence hovers on the edges. A Case of Exploding Mangoes belongs to a group of incisive Pakistani-English novels such as Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Shamsie’s Burnt Shadows, and Aslam’s The Wasted Vigil, which explore Pakistan and America’s involvement in Afghanistan. 

His tale however is structured around the fateful Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, the country whom the US saw as the “evil empire”, and against which US found an eager ally in General Zia-ul-Haq. Zia-ul-Haq thinks himself to be chosen by God to Islamize Pakistan, and aspires to win the Nobel Peace Prize for his role in Afghanistan.

Haq also has many enemies, one of whom is Ali Shigri, who is bent on killing him to avenge his father’s death. His father, a patriotic military officer was found as having committed suicide after he refused to dispatch a suitcase containing twenty-five million dollars. Bannon, a key CIA man, reveals that they were unable to investigate into Colonel Shigri’s murder because “the orders came from the top” and they didn’t want to rock the boat”. Bannon’s Vietnamese background, his belief that Communism is the ultimate enemy and the concept that the end justifies the means, echoes the portrayal of Americans, David Town, James and Christopher Palatine in Nadeem Aslam’s The Wasted Vigil.

The central metaphor in the novel is the Quran’ic story of Jonah, which haunts Zia, who was caught by a whale and stayed therein till God forgave him. The C-130 Hercules airplane in which Zia is killed resembles a whale. The novel is filled with images of darkness, powerlessness and blindness. Ali Shigri is blindfolded and kept in a dungeon to make him confess his crime. His fellow prisoners include Blind Zainab, a woman charged for adultery as she could not furnish the name of her attackers. Through the character of Blind Zainab, Hanif comments on Zia’s laws marginalizing women and minorities. Zainab’s curse, however, plays a pivotal role in the dictator’s demise.

The themes of power and powerlessness, and marginalization of women and minorities are continued by Hanif in his second novel, Our Lady of Alice Bhatti. Though less cohesive than the earlier work, the novel is a much darker comment on the tyranny of ordinary people, like doctors and nurses, police inspectors, etc. Noor—the son of Blind Zainab from Mangoes—grows up to become a Jack of all trades in the hospital he works. He becomes an important catalyst in the life of Alice Bhatti, a Christian belonging originally to Choorah caste of Hindus, the lowest rung of Untouchables. 

Hence she is the most “disadvantaged of the disadvantaged”. Alice is exposed to dangers from predatory men in a patriarchal society, and has been to prison on false charges because she rejected the advances of a doctor. Through Alice’s husband, the novel highlights the riot-riven Karachi and a unclear world of law enforcement, which is inextricably linked to the hospital they work in. Hanif uses comic power in fiction to chronicle a hapless people overtaken by events beyond their control.

The event of 9/11 became the focus once again in the novel Home Boy by H. M. Naqvi. Naqvi measures the change in identity and status of US Muslims as a result of the Twin Tower attacks. Similar to the hero of The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Naqvi’s hero, Chuck (his real name is Shahzad), is a Pakistani emigrant who has come to America with the dream of having a job in the prosperous finance sector. Chuck’s initial days in US are full of misadventures, through which he depicts the country’s colours, sounds and sights. He and his friends Jimbo (Jamshed Khan) and AC (Ali Chaudhary) fancy themselves as “boulevardiers, raconteurs, and renaissance men”. 

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