A case of exploding mangoes

Mohammed Hanif

Book - 2008

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New York : Alfred A. Knopf 2008.
Main Author
Mohammed Hanif (-)
1st U.S. ed
Item Description
"This is a Borzoi Book."
Physical Description
323 p. ; 21 cm
Contents unavailable.
Review by New York Times Review

NO more tragic or romantic institution emerged from the Jim Crow era of American life than the Negro Leagues. African-Americans were banished from the majors in 1884, and a few seasons later from the minors as well, under a "gentleman's agreement" between white owners and players. None would return until Jackie Robinson signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers some 60 years later. Black baseball players scrambled to make a living any way they could. In 1920, Rube Foster, star pitcher, manager and owner of the Chicago American Giants, banded eight leading black teams from around the Midwest into the Negro National League, and a legend was born. Over the next 40 years, and through three more segregated major leagues - a second Negro National League, the Eastern Colored League and the Negro American League - African-Americans invented a whole new brand of baseball on the outskirts of town, one that was usually faster, tougher, more merciless than the game played in the white leagues. When black players, led by. the likes of Jackie Robinson, Larry Doby, Willie Mays, Roy Campanella, Frank Robinson, Bob Gibson and Roberto Clemente, were finally allowed into the white game, the intelligence and ferocity of their play frequently overwhelmed the opposition. "We are the ship; all else the sea" was how Rube Foster described his new league, and Kadir Nelson takes the phrase for the title of his riveting picturebook introduction to the Negro Leagues. It was a ship always on the verge of foundering. Players made little money and barnstormed constantly between league contests, sometimes logging as many as three or four games in a day. They traveled everywhere jammed into well-worn buses or private cars, often arriving in a town after many hours on the road only to find that there was no place, in the segregated America of their time, to get a room, have a meal, use the bathroom. They slept in their uniforms, bought their bats at a store and played in fields that were little more than roped-off cow pastures. Owners operated on a shoestring. A harried Foster was committed to a mental asylum, where he died in 1930; his league collapsed a year later. Players were left with the bitter realization that they would never compete on a bigger stage. And yet, as was the case with many Jim Crow improvisations, African-Americans transformed a white institution into something of their own - something better. Many Negro League teams were owned by blacks; one owner, a hard-edged numbers king by the name of Gus Greenlee, even built his Pittsburgh Crawfords team its own park, in the middle of the Depression. Black managers and players came up with daring new plays and pitches, they performed at dizzying speed, and they regularly beat white teams - perhaps as much as 60 percent of the time - in the postseason exhibitions they put on. The painter Kadir Nelson has illustrated several award-winning children's books, including some on black history. This is the first book he has both illustrated and written, and it's absolutely gorgeous. He uses the conversational, first-person voice of a fictional, anonymous player. It's a device that generally works well and allows him to include many of the great old tales of the Negro Leagues; he conveys the humor, showmanship. and joy that were an integral part of the game, without soft-soaping how hard it all was. Nelson bolsters his text with an index and endnotes, for the readers who will be drawn by his work to learn more. There is the occasional gaffe. White ballplayers in the 1940s did not make $7,000 a month - more like $7,000 a season - and he goes too easy on the black owners of the Negro League teams who were also running numbers rackets on the side. Tre, such men had limited opportunities in apartheid America, but they were still gangsters, vultures who preyed upon the desperate hopes of their own communities. Nelson's visual narrative is nothing short of magnificent. His paintings include numerous portraits and action scenes, as well as facsimiles of baseball cards, a ticket to the "First Colored World Series" and a beautifully drawn, melancholy sign for a "colored" inn. Particularly enthralling are his full-page portrayals of a white "House of David" ballplayer (from a religious colony in Michigan) with his trademark beard and long hair; an outfielder in an old park during the last days of the black leagues ; a double-page spread of Foster's American Giants stepping down from a Pullman car; and, especially, an early Negro League game played at night. JAMES STURM and Rich Tommaso's "Satchel Paige: Striking Out Jim Crow" offers a different approach to the subject, but it's every bit as engrossing. Both veteran writers and illustrators, Sturm and Tommaso tell the first-person story of a (fictional) black ballplayer who has a heady game against the Birmingham Black Barons in his first weeks of Negro League ball - he doubles off the legendary pitcher Satchel Paige - but then must return to the suffocating, racist world of Tuckwilla, Ala, a small cotton town dominated by an arrogant, white planter family. It's a haunting story in which Sturm's text poignantly conveys the quiet bitterness of his hero, and Tommaso's spare, two-tone drawings brilliantly contrast the physical beauty of the old, rural South with the savagery of its social institutions. An abiding air of menace hangs over the story like a gathering storm cloud. The authors refuse to look away from anything, not even lynching, although the material remains suitable - even vital - for most children. Paige himself is as elusive here as he was in real life, but Sturm and Tommaso, along with an excellent introduction by Gerald Early, provide a telling glimpse of this consummate showman, entrepreneur and competitor, who pitched into his mid60s and against all odds managed to rise above both the black gamp and the white one. "Don't look back; something might be gaining on you," Satch liked to say, but both of these books offer an invaluable look into the treasured and sorrowful past. Kevin Baker is the author of the historical novel "Strivers Row." He is currently working on a history of baseball in New York City.

Copyright (c) The New York Times Company [October 27, 2009]
Review by Booklist Review

It is 1988, and Pakistan's military government is flush with success. Its coffers are full of U.S. weapons and American dollars, CIA agents are everywhere, and the Russians are beginning to withdraw from Afghanistan. Military strongman General Zia ul Huk is the darling of CIA director Bill Casey, and Pakistan; Air Force underofficer Ali Shigri, a young man of good family, is plotting to assassinate Zia. Shigri has just learned that Zia and his deputies are responsible for the suicide of his father, the much-respected Colonel Shigri. Ali comes under suspicion by the country's dreaded ISI (Interservices Intelligence), and a painful end seems preordained. First-novelist Hanif, who spent seven years in the Pakistani Air Force and currently runs the Urdu service for the BBC, has crafted a clever black comedy about military culture, love, tyranny, family, and the events that eventually brought us to September 11, 2001. His depictions of Zia, Pakistani military life, the machinations of Pakistani military pols, and CIA cowboys are believable and convincingly detailed. Other elements of the book are purely fanciful, but they also work. Entertaining and illuminating.--Gaughan, Thomas Copyright 2008 Booklist

From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission.
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

Pakistan's ongoing political turmoil adds a piquant edge to this fact-based farce spun from the mysterious 1988 plane crash that killed General Zia, the dictator who toppled Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, father of recently assassinated Benazir Bhutto. Two parallel assassination plots converge in Hanif's darkly comic debut: Air Force Junior Under Officer Ali Shigri, sure that his renowned military father's alleged suicide was actually a murder, hopes to kill Zia, who he holds responsible. Meanwhile, disgruntled Zia underlings scheme to release poison gas into the ventilation system of the general's plane. Supporting characters include Bannon, a hash-smoking CIA officer posing as an American drill instructor; Obaid, Shigri's Rilke-reading, perfume-wearing barracks pal, whose friendship sometimes segues into sex; and, in a foreboding cameo, a "lanky man with a flowing beard," identified as OBL, who is among the guests at a Felliniesque party at the American ambassador's residence. The Pakistan-born author served in his nation's air force for several years, which adds daffy verisimilitude to his depiction of military foibles that recalls the satirical wallop of Catch 22, as well as some heft to the sagely absurd depiction of his homeland's history of political conspiracies and corruption. (May) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Review by Library Journal Review

Set in Pakistan in the 1980s, this first novel revolves around the events leading up to the plane crash that killed General Zia, then president of the country. The crash has been the subject of all sorts of rumors, and the author energetically seizes upon them and adds several of his own. The novel centers on Ali Shigri, a junior under officer in the Pakistani air force and son of a high-ranking commander who apparently committed suicide years earlier but whose death is beginning to look more like a political execution. When General Zia comes upon a passage in the Qur'an that he thinks foretells his death, he expands his already severe dictatorship by calling for heightened security. Shigri is taken into custody and given the full interrogation treatment but is eventually released. He then prepares for a demonstration of a military drill with his squad in front of the president himself. In keeping with the novel's somewhat surrealistic approach, a crow that has overheard a blind woman curse the president has flown several thousand miles to intersect with the flight route of the presidential party. Entertainingly bizarre and still seriously literate, this novel is recommended for larger fiction collections.-Jim Coan, SUNY at Oneonta (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

(c) Copyright Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Review by Kirkus Book Review

Journalist Hanif's first novel is a darkly witty imagining of the circumstances surrounding the mysterious plane crash that killed Pakistan's military ruler, General Zia, in August 1988. The central figure is a young military officer named Ali Shigri whose much-decorated father was found hanging from a ceiling fan, an alleged suicide. Ali knows, however, that his father's death was something more sinister, and he sets out first to identify the responsible party, Zia, and then--by way of a loopy plan involving swordsmanship and obscure pharmacology--to exact revenge. The book's omniscient narrator gets into the heads of multiple characters, including that of the General himself; his ambitious second-in-command, General Akhtar; a smooth torturer named Major Kiyani; a communist street sweeper who for a time occupies a prison cell near Ali's; a blind rape victim who has been imprisoned for fornication; and a wayward and sugar-drunk crow. Even Osama bin Laden has a cameo, at a Fourth of July bash. But plot summary misleads; the novel has less in common with the sober literature of fact than it does with Latin American magical realism (especially novels about mythic dictators such as Gabriel Garc"a Márquez's Autumn of the Patriarch) and absurdist military comedy (like Joseph Heller's Catch-22). Hanif adopts a playful, exuberant voice that's almost a parody of old-fashioned omniscience, as competing theories and assassination plots are ingeniously combined and overlaid. Uneasy rests the head that wears the General's famous twirled mustache--everybody's out to get him. A sure-footed, inventive debut that deftly undercuts its moral rage with comedy and deepens its comedy with moral rage. Copyright ©Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

There is something about these bloody squadron leaders that makes them think that if they lock you up in a cell, put their stinking mouth to your ear, and shout something about your mother, they can find all the answers. They are generally a sad lot, these leaders without any squadrons to lead. It's their own lack of leadership qualities that stops them mid-career, nowhere for them to go except from one training institute to another, permanent seconds in command to one commander or the other. You can tell them from their belts, loose and low, straining under the weight of their paunches. Or from their berets, so carefully positioned to hide that shiny bald patch. Schemes for part-time M.B.A.'s and a new life are trying hard to keep pace with missed promotions and pension plans. Look at the arrangement of fruit salad on my tormentor's chest, above the left pocket of his uniform shirt, and you can read his whole biography. A faded paratrooper's badge is the only thing that he had to leave his barracks to earn. The medals in the first row just came and pinned themselves to his chest. He got them because he was there. The Fortieth Independence Day medal. The Squadron Anniversary medal. Today-I-did-not-jerk-off medal. Then the second row, fruits of his own hard labour and leadership. One for organising a squash tournament, another for the great battle that was tree-plantation week. The leader with his mouth to my ear and my mother on his mind has had a freebie to Mecca and is wearing a haj medal, too. As Obaid used to say, "God's glory. God's glory. For every monkey there is a houri." The 2nd OIC is wasting more of his already-wasted life trying to break me down with his bad breath and his incessant shouting. Doesn't he know that I actually invented some of the bullshit that he is pouring into my ear? Hasn't he heard about the Shigri treatment? Doesn't he know that I used to get invited to other squadrons in the middle of the night to make the new arrivals cry with my three-minute routine about their mothers? Does he really think that "fuck your fucking mother," even when delivered at strength 5, still has any meaning when you are weeks away from the president's annual inspection and becoming a commissioned officer? The theory used to be damn simple: Any good soldier learns to shut out the noise and delink such expressions from their apparent meaning. I mean, when they say that thing about your mother, they have absolutely no intention--and I am certain no desire, either--to do what they say they want to do with your mother. They say it because it comes out rapid-fire and sounds cool and requires absolutely no imagination. The last syllable of mother reverberates in your head for a while as it is delivered with their lips glued to your ear. And that is just about that. They have not even seen your poor mother. Anybody who breaks down at the sheer volume of this should stay in his little village and tend his father's goats or should study biology and become a doctor, and then they can have all the bloody peace and quiet they want. Because as a soldier, noise is the first thing you learn to defend yourself against, and as an officer, noise is the first weapon of attack you learn to use. Unless you are in the Silent Drill Squad. Look at the parade square during the morning drill and see who commands it. Who rules? There are more than a thousand of us, picked from a population of 130 million, put through psychological and physical tests so strenuous that only one in a hundred applicants makes it, and when this cream of our nation, as we are constantly reminded we are, arrives here, who leads them? The one with the loudest voice, the one with the clearest throat, the one whose chest can expand to produce a command that stuns the morning crows and makes the most stubborn of cadets raise their knees to waist level and bring the world to a standstill as their heels land on the concrete. Or at least that is what I believed before Lieutenant Bannon arrived with his theories about inner cadence, silent commands, and subsonic drill techniques. "A drill with commands is just that--a drill," Bannon is fond of saying. "A drill without commands is an art. When you deliver a command at the top of your voice, only the boys in your squadron listen. But when your inner cadence whispers, the gods take notice." Not that Bannon believes in any god. I wonder whether he'll visit me here. I wonder whether they will let him into this cell. The 2nd OIC is exhausted from his business with my mother and I can see an appeal to my better sense on its way. I clench my stomach muscles against the impending "cream of the nation" speech. I don't want to throw up. The cell is small and I have no idea how long I am going to be here. "You are the cream of our nation," he says, shaking his head. "You have been the pride of our Academy. I have just recommended you for the sword of honour. You are going to receive it from the president of Pakistan. You have two choices: graduate with honour in four weeks or go out front-rolling to the sound of drums. Tomorrow. Clap. Clap. Tony Singh-style." He brings his hands together twice, like those Indian film extras in a qawwali chorus. They did that to Tony Singh. Drummed the poor bugger out. I never figured out what the hell Tony Singh was doing in the air force of the Islamic Republic anyway. Before meeting Tony Singh (or Sir Tony, as we had to call him, since he was six courses senior to us), the only Tony I knew was our neighbour's dog and the only Singh I had seen was in my history textbook, a one-eyed maharaja who ruled Punjab a couple of centuries ago. I thought the partition took care of all the Tonys and the Singhs, but apparently some didn't get the message. Tony Singh didn't get the message even when they found a transistor radio in his dorm and charged him with spying. "Top of the Pops" was Sir Tony's defence. They reduced the charge to unofficerlike behaviour and drummed him out anyway. A lone drummer--a corporal who, after carrying the biggest drum in the Academy band all his life, had begun to look like one--led the way, keeping a thud, thud, thud-a-dud marching beat. More than one thousand of us lined both sides of Eagles Avenue, which leads from the guardroom to the main gate. "At ease," came the command. Tony Singh emerged from the guardroom, having spent a couple of nights in this very cell. His head was shaved, but he still wore his uniform. He stood tall and refused to look down or sideways. "Clap," came the command. We started slowly. The 2nd OIC removed Sir Tony's belt and the ranks from his shoulder flaps and then he took a step forward and whispered something into Sir Tony's ear. Sir Tony went down on his knees, put both his hands on the road, and did a front roll without touching his shaved head on the ground. The bugger was trying to be cocky even when his ass was raised to the skies. His journey was painfully slow. The drumbeat became unbearable after a while. Some cadets clapped more enthusiastically than others. I glanced sideways and saw Obaid trying hard to control his tears. "Sir, I swear to God I have no knowledge of Cadet Obaid's whereabouts," I say, trying to tread the elusive line between grovelling and spitting in his face. The 2nd OIC wants to get home. An evening of domestic cruelty and Dallas beckons him. He waves my statement in front of me. "You have one night to think this through. Tomorrow it goes to the commandant, and the only thing he hates more than his men disappearing is their clever-dick collaborators. He is looking forward to the president's visit. We are all looking forward to the visit. Don't fuck it up." He turns to go. My upper body slumps. He puts one hand on the door handle and turns; my upper body comes back to attention. "I saw your father once, and he was a soldier's bloody soldier. Look at yourself." A leery grin appears on his lips. "You mountain boys get lucky because you have no hair on your face." I salute him, using all my silent drill practice to contain the inner cadence, which is saying, Fuck your mother, too. I wonder for a moment what Obaid would do in this cell. The first thing that would have bothered him is the smell the 2nd OIC has left behind. This burnt onions, homemade yogurt gone bad smell. The smell of suspicion, the smell of things not quite having gone according to plan. Because our Obaid, our Baby O, believes that there is nothing in the world that a splash of Poison on your wrist and an old melody can't take care of. He is innocent in a way that lonesome canaries are innocent, flitting from one branch to another, the tender flutter of their wings and a few millilitres of blood keeping them airborne against the gravity of this world that wants to pull everyone down to its rotting surface. What chance would Obaid have with this 2nd OIC? Baby O, the whisperer of ancient couplets, the singer of golden oldies. How did he make it through the selection process? How did he manage to pass the Officerlike Qualities Test? How did he lead his fellow candidates through the mock jungle-survival scenarios? How did he bluff his way through the psychological profiles? All they needed to do was pull down his pants and see his silk briefs with the little embroidered hearts on the waistband. Where are you, Baby O? Lieutenant Bannon saw us for the first time at the annual variety show, doing our dove and hawk dance. This was before the commandant replaced these variety shows with Quran Study Circles and After-Dinner Literary Activities. As third-termers, we had to do all the shitty fancy-dress numbers, and seniors got to lip-synch to George Michael songs. We were miming to a very macho revolutionary poem. I, the imperialist eagle, swooped down on Obaid's Third World dove; he fought back, and for the finale sat on my chest, drawing blood from my neck with his cardboard beak. Bannon came to meet us backstage as we were shedding our ridiculous feathers. "Hooah, you zoomies should be in Hollywood!" His handshake was exaggerated and firm. "Good show. Good show." He turned towards Obaid, who was cleaning the brown boot polish from his cheeks with a hankie. "You're just a kid without that war paint," Bannon said. "What's your name?" In the background, Sir Tony's "Careless Whisper" was so out of tune that the speakers screeched in protest. Under his crimson beret, Bannon's face was beaten leather, his eyes shallow green pools that had not seen a drop of rain in years. "Obaid. Obaid-ul-llah." "What does it mean?" "Allah's servant," said Obaid, sounding unsure, as if he should explain that he hadn't chosen this name for himself. I came to Obaid's rescue. "What does your name mean, Lieutenant Bannon?" "It's just a name," he said. "Nobody calls me 'Lieutenant.' It's 'Loot' Bannon for you stage mamas." He clicked his heels together and turned back to Obaid. We both came to attention. He directed his over-the-top two-fingered salute at Obaid and said the words which in that moment seemed like just another case of weird U.S. militaryspeak but would later become the stuff of dining hall gossip. "See you at the square, Baby O." I felt jealous, not because of the intimacy it implied, but because I wished I had come up with this nickname for Obaid. I make a mental note of the things they could find in the dorm to throw at me: 1.One-quarter of a quarter bottle of Murree rum. 2.A group photo of first-termers in their underwear (white and December-wet underwear actually). 3.A video of Love on a Horse . 4.Bannon's dog tags, still listed as missing on the guardroom's Lost and Found notice board. If my Shigri blood wasn't so completely void of any literary malaise, I would have listed poetry as Exhibit 5, but who the fuck really thinks about poetry when locked up in a cell, unless you are a Communist or a poet? There is a letter-box slit in the door of the cell, as if people are going to send me letters. D ear Ali Shigri, I hope you are in the best of health and enjoying your time in . . . I am on my knees, my eyes level with the letter-box slit. I know Obaid would have lifted the flap on the slit and would have sat here looking at the parade of khaki-clad butts, and amused himself by guessing which one belonged to whom. Our Baby O could do a detailed personality analysis just by looking at where and how tightly people wore their belts. I don't want to lift the flap and find someone looking at me looking at them. The word is probably already out. That butcher Shigri is where he deserves to be; throw away the key. The flap lifts itself, and the first-termer shitface announces my dinner. "Buzz off," I say, regretting it immediately. Empty stomach means bad dreams. In my dream, there is a C-130 Hercules, covered with bright flowers like you see on those hippie cars. The plane's propellers are pure white and move in slow motion, spouting jets of jasmine flowers. Baby O stands on the tip of the right wing, just behind the propeller, wearing a black silk robe and his ceremonial peaked cap. I stand on the tip of the left wing in full uniform. Baby O is shouting something above the din of the aircraft. I can't really make out any words, but his gestures tell me that he is asking me to come to him. As I take the first step towards Baby O, the C-130 tilts and goes into a thirty-degree left turn, and suddenly we are sliding along the wings, heading for oblivion. I wake up with one of those screams that echoes through your body but gets stuck in your throat. Excerpted from A Case of Exploding Mangoes by Mohammed Hanif All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.