humour in uniform
word about letters
By Arif Waqar
Mohammed Hanif was born in Okara, Punjab and studied at M.C.High School. He graduated from Pakistan Air Force Academy as a Pilot Officer but subsequently left to pursue a career in journalism. He worked for Newsline as a senior reporter and won two APNS awards. He has written for India Today, The Washington Post, The New York Times and Counter Punch. His stage play 'Murnay Ke Baad Kiya Hoga' was a minor hit in Karachi in the 1990s and later became a critically acclaimed BBC drama: What Now, Now that We are Dead? His feature film The Long Night has been shown at a number of film festivals. Another stage play The Dictator's Wife was recently staged at Hampstead Theatre London. He is a graduate of University of East Anglia's creative writing programme. He is currently head of BBC's Urdu Service and lives in London.
The News on Sunday: Your debut novel has yet to be launched, but it has already created a stir in the international publishing circles. What do you make of it?
Mohammed Hanif: It's got some nice pre-publication reviews in the trade press and some very fine editors have said some very fine things about it. My favourite bits are a quote by John Le Carre who calls it 'deliciously anarchic' and a random US blogger who has called it 'a whirlwind of a novel'. As a result one can feel a bit smug but I have a straight-talking ten year old son who says that it's just another book with a silly title. So that puts everything in perspective and one gets on with peeling potatoes or whatever other household chore might be at hand.
TNS: How old were you when Zia-ul-Haq's C-130 crashed in 1988, do you remember the exact moment when you heard the news, where were you and what were you doing? What was your instant reaction?
MH: I was twenty two and I do remember the day very clearly. We were in the officers' mess when we heard the rumours. Strangely we didn't think of General Zia first. We were worried about who else might be on the plane. We were of course very concerned about the future of our country, so we pooled our meager savings and ordered a bottle of something expensive. I think the bootlegger gave us a discount to mark the day. We didn't know much about what was happening in the civilian world but during his time, Zia had made some dire attempts to make us better Muslims. When we started our training we had social evening with our college band belting out bad versions of Alamgir. By the time Zia took control we were being subjected to hour long dars-e-Qurans first thing in the morning.
Towards the end of his tenure things got really bizarre. We were caught stealing oranges from a neighbouring orchard once. Our punishment? We were ordered to spend three days with tableeghi jamaat. Most fun a nineteen year old could expect to have in those times. I tried to pick an argument with the very kind elderly dude who was heading our tableeghi mission. I said I feel a bit strange knocking on doors and preaching to people who were very clearly already Muslims. "You are a Muslim and look at yourself," he told me. We protested by escaping our tableeghi camp one night to watch a late night show of Anjuman's latest film and found ourselves sitting next to the very people we had been preaching to during the day. They had a good laugh. To answer your question I think we instinctively knew that we were reaching the end of a farce. We felt relieved.
TNS: Can you compare that raw, passionate, instant reaction of a young cadet to the mature and objective analysis of a seasoned journalist and writer that you are today?
MH: I think Zia had a much more profound effect on civilians than he did on the army. The armed forces are trained to do quick about-turns and get on with their lives. Civilians are a bit slow. After Zia's death I found out that a whole generation of my civilian contemporaries had no clue what they were supposed to be doing with their lives. A lot of my friends spent half their youth waiting for the drug pushers. Others went on to become psychiatrists and advertising executives. I still don't know what was worse. There were obviously heroic attempts at resistance but those were very few. When I drifted into journalism I noticed that for a whole decade you couldn't find a single piece of political analysis not tracing every evil in the land to Zia. That irritated me but also kept my interest alive in the man. And then we ended up with Musharraf who I thought was General Zia on speed, a kind of chest-thumping-instead-of-hand-wringing version of Zia. If Zia was all fake modesty, Musharraf has been all fake bravado. We lived and are still living the same nightmare but probably in reverse. So yes very reluctantly I have to agree with my journalist colleagues who can't do their eight hundred words without evoking Zia's ghost. The man still mocks us from his grave.
TNS: Woven around a real incident that took place near Bahawalpur twenty years ago, your novel will always be subject to who's who type questions regarding the characters. How have you prepared yourself for that onslaught of questions from the (particularly Pakistani) readers? Will you be answering them as a researcher / journalist, or would you rather invoke the 'fiction writer's immunity'?
MH: Of course they are all completely fictional. Any resemblance with any real life characters is only a sign of writer's laziness. Do you really think that such responsible people like Zia and Akhtar would behave in such a silly way? (a deep meaningful smile that develops into a big laughter)
TNS: One of the most pivotal and potent characters, Col. Shigri, appears in the narrative very briefly, through a couple of flashbacks, still it leaves a lasting impression. Can you tell us how you developed this character in your mind?
MH: I am glad you like Colonel Shigri because he is the only character who arrived fully formed. He is the kind of romantic father figure we never have as individuals or as a nation. The kind of fauji who earned the respect of our truckers and bus driver, pak fauj ko salaam type fauji. Since the readers, like his son, don't see him very often I had to build his character through fragments of gossip. He is one of those people who have power and secrets and bizarre principles and bit of a myth in their own lifetime. For example Colonel Shigri has no qualms running a torture chamber because those are his orders but he is also the most honest and upright person you are likely to come across in this book.
TNS: Can we talk a bit on your technique now? At what stage of the story development and on what criterion did you choose this distinctive structure having two voices: one for the narrator and the other for Ali, the protagonist?
MH: The only thing I had in the beginning was Ali Shigri's voice: a brash, super-confident voice that I hoped would begin to crack at some point. I wanted him to get to Zia but as an ordinary subject of a dictator that would take a long time. And I was a bit impatient. I wanted to see where Zia was a few weeks before his death, what was going through his mind. I read up stuff on him, written mostly by people who were sucking up to him during all those years and most of it was so banal that it was fascinating. I tried to spice up his life a bit. And of course they had to come together in the very end.
TNS: Switching between the two voices is so smooth that at times it acquires the clarity and agility of 'parallel cutting' in a screen play. Is it your conscious effort to maintain that swiftness or does it come naturally, thanks to your training as a screen-writer?
MH: In a hopeless kind of way, I believe that readability is very important. I have written a couple of stage plays and it's absolutely heart breaking to sit in the back row and find your audience wondering what the hell is this guy trying to say. I have written a couple of radio plays, and one and a half film script. And all those struggles might have taught me a thing or two about when to shut up.
TNS: What do you read in free time? Other than essential classics like Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Balzac etc, who impressed you as a fiction writer and who is your favourite contemporary novelist?
MH: The best book I have read in any language recently is Ghulam Bagh by Mirza Athar Baig. It's so relentlessly inventive and playful. I can always read Truman Capote who is always profound and funny and anything by Asad Mohammed Khan who just knows how to spin a yarn. I haven't read Balzac yet. I guess I am saving him for my retirement.
TNS: I've kept the most irritable question for the end:
Debut novels are notorious for being autobiographical. To what extent would you take the blame for being Ali Shigri yourself?
MH: I wish I was a bit more like Shigri. He can do stuff with swords and guns and planes which I can't do. My only adventures are usually about getting a paragraph right. I think the only real similarity would be our shared cravings for Gold Leafs.
TNS: And finally, will you please tell us something about your next literary venture?
MH: I am scribbling away lazily about a mother and son story, a very quiet, very straight, very civilian love story with death and sex as its main themes. I was hoping it would be more about sex and survival but it's turning out to be more about decay and death. But it's hardly a venture yet, just some notes and some curiosity about where it might lead.
Pakistan's small world of fiction has found a new, completely original voice
By Arif Waqar
Joseph Heller, the famous author of the legendary 'Catch 22' was once asked by a reporter, "how come in all these years you never again wrote anything as good as Catch-22."
"Did any body else?" came the rebuttal from the author. The reporter had no answer.
But this conversation took place years ago; had it happened today, the reporter would have probably said "Of course Mr. Heller, some body finally did it, not in Europe or America but in an unlikely country called Pakistan, please read -- 'A case of Exploding Mangoes'.
Yes, in its wit and wisdom it is potentially a Catch 22, Pakistani style, but the similarity ends here because in terms of its time, scope and purpose, Mohammad Hanif's novel has much more to it and certainly falls in a different category. Heller's book has the anti-war rhetoric of the 1950s; it is a wild protest on stupidity of war and, in general, on the absurdity of life itself. Hanif's book, on the other hand, is a warm and affectionate tribute to life and a smiling glance at death.
'A case of Exploding Mangoes' is a hilarious comedy on the military culture of Pakistan and a biting satire on American intervention in her affairs. There's no plot as such in the Heller book but Hanif's novel has a plot as compact and taut as that of a suspense thriller or a whodunit.
The time is summer 1988 when Soviets are vacating their last bunkers in Afghanistan and Mujahideen are at the verge of a hard-earned victory.
In Pakistan, army generals are making sure that despite the Soviet wind-up, the unhindered supply of American arms, and more importantly US dollars, continues for as long as possible.
Taking groups of newly trained guerrillas across the border into Afghanistan, and bringing back crates full of dollars, is a high risk assignment but the Pakistani top brass has full confidence in Colonel Shigri, who's been doing the nasty job to their complete satisfaction until one evening when the conscience-stricken colonel thinks enough is enough. The very next morning he's found hanging from the ceiling fan of his room.
His young son Ali Shigri can not believe for a moment that it was a suicide, as the military chiefs would lead him to believe. A senior cadet at the Air Force Academy, Ali Shigri has now a definite mission before him: to avenge his father's cruel murder. He chalks out an ambitious plan to eliminate the kingpin who, according to the young cadet, is the root cause of all troubles.
While half the story is revealed through Ali Shigri's brash but world-weary voice, the other half is exposed by an omniscient narrator who has the inherent power to take us to the remotest quarters of the Army House in Islamabad, where we have the unique privilege to enter Zia-ul-Haq's bedroom, the First Lady's kitchen, the president's guest room, his back lawn and even his bathroom. We are at liberty to eavesdrop on his conversation with his security chief, who's assuring the frightened president that his life is not in danger. We see the browbeaten Zia-ul-Haq standing timidly before the First Lady who is scolding him for being a tit-ogler.
The man we meet in the Army House of Islamabad is not quite the Zia-ul-Haq our media presented to us in the 1980s -- a modest soldier of Allah, quoting generously from the holy Quran in his public speeches, determined to make Pakistan a model Islamic state and a beacon of light for the whole Islamic world.
What we see instead is a man trembling with fear of an imminent death, using the Holy Book as an instrument of augury -- opening and closing it at random, in a desperate attempt to find a good omen. A henpecked husband, a spineless army chief and a caricature of a president whose only obsession is to somehow become a life president of his country.
Of all the leaders in the world, his ideal is President Ceausescu of Romania who's been ruling his country for 23 long years. Zia-ul-Haq envies him and, during an international conference, tries to learn the tricks of the trade from him in a secretive meeting. His mentor advises him never to believe his intelligence agencies and contact his people directly.
On his return Zia-ul-Haq fires his Intelligence chief and decides to mingle with the masses to get first hand information. The result is unpredictably hilarious!
Parallel to this lighter vein of events is a chain of serious, fast-paced developments, each pushing Zia-ul-Haq to his final destiny in a grotesque manner. Every potential assassin of the president has a strong reason for his action. Ali Shigri wants to avenge his father's death, the ex-Intelligence chief is dying to get his unlimited powers back. He can perhaps order the ventilation system of the C-130 to be contaminated with a poisonous gas. The new Intelligence chief is already entangled in an arms deal scandal, possibly involving huge kickbacks. He won't fly with the President; his own Cessna awaits him at the same airport. His eyes are betraying his deadly plan, that's why he has covered them behind his dark Ray Ban glasses.
Among the president's beloved masses, is a blind woman who is accused of fornication and waiting for her stoning to death sentence in a prison cell, after her final appeal has been rejected by the highest authority -- the President of Pakistan. She's been feeding birds in the courtyard of her prison and among the beneficiaries is a crow who would take her curse to a place hundreds of miles away where a C-130 is taking off with the top military brass of the country in it.
The rest is history, but let's not forget that it's Ali Shigri who carries a deadly warning on the tip of his sword that he wields at a parade ceremony; there's also an Arab doctor who told Zia-ul-Haq months ago that he had tape worms in his stomach that would soon eat up his liver and then his heart. As the novel reaches its explosive climax, and we keep guessing who will get to Zia first, we are sure of one thing: Pakistan's small world of fiction has found a new voice which is completely original.
By Kazy Javed
Yousufzai Pathans are known for their fighting skills and gallantry. Ascribing a sense of humour to them may sound far fetched. However, a scion of this tribe has now got himself acknowledged as 'the finest and most distinguished humour writer of our times.'
He was born in Tonk, a godforsaken small town in Rajasthan that produced famous men of letters like Hafiz Mehmood Sherani and Akhtar Sherani in the first half of the previous century. But Mushtaq Ahmad Yusufi was never a formal student of literature. He received higher education in philosophy and began his career as a banker. The fusion of philosophy and banking brought a lot of good fortune to Yusufi who eventually rose to serve as a member of the Pakistan Banking Council and headed five financial institutions.
Mushtaq Ahmad Yusufi says it was his love of Urdu (or was it his hatred for Hindi?) that made him say good-bye to India on June 6, 1949, the day Hindi was declared the official language. He settled in Karachi.
Charagh Talay was his first book that was published in 1960 but the volume that brought him in the limelight was published after eight long years. Khakam ba-Dahan was his second book which established him as a leading humorist.
Attaining this position was no cakewalk. Those were really the golden days of humour in Urdu literature. Giants like Mohammad Khalid Akhtar, Shafiqur Rehman, Colonel Mohammad Khan, Ibne Insha as well as Zamir Jafri were still playing their innings. Although Patras Bokhari, Shaukat Thanvi and Rasheed Ahmad Siddiqui had left the scene, their writings were available and were being widely read.
The Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS), that has grown friendlier to writers since poet Yasmin Hamid joined it as 'writer in residence' a few months ago, arranged an evening with Mushtaq Ahmad Yusufi last week. The event provided a rare opportunity to his local admirers to meet and listen to him. So there were, besides students and teachers, some men and women of letters among the audience. The octogenarian Yusufi was in full form and kept them laughing for full two hours.
He talked about many things. He remembered his old friends like Syed Zamir Jafri and Professor Shanul Haq Haqqi, his good old days spent in various banks and also presented some twenty extracts from his books and articles.
He also read out a recent article about Quaid-e-Azam whom he saw in a court in Agra in 1943. Yusufi says he is now the only living person who watched the Quaid pleading a case in some court of law.
Mushtaq Ahmad Yusufi who seems to have learnt some things from Mark Twain, Anthony Burgess as well as James Joyce, has, like Ghalib, the heart to laugh at himself. He makes us laugh by laughing at himself. He reminds us that laughing is our basic right. "In fact" he once wrote, "it is the faculty of laughter that distinguishes us from all other creatures."
New Punjabi fiction
Maqsood Saqib's Suchet Kitab Ghar is more than a publishing house. It has become sort of a Punjabi cultural centre in Lahore where many intellectuals and writers gather for exchange of ideas. In addition to publishing dozens of Punjabi-language books during the past ten years or so, the Suchet Kitab Ghar also regularly brings out the quarterly Punchem which is generally rated as the best Punjabi journal published from our part of the Punjab.
Okha Kum and Naushahi Phul are the two recent publications of the Ghar. Okha Kum is a collection of twenty Hindi short stories rendered into Punjabi by Javed Boota. It is probably the first collection of its kind in Punjabi. The translator and compiler is not known to many readers and the book, unfortunately, tells nothing about him. Similarly, the Hindi fictionists, whose pieces have been included, should have been introduced.
Notwithstanding these shortcomings, it is a wonderfully interesting volume worth sparing some time for.
The other book, Naushahi Phul, carries Maulvi Siraj Din's poetry composed in devotion of his murshid. Maulvi Sahib is village prayer-leader and Mudassir Bashir has collected his verses, having all the traits of the classical Punjabi poetry, at the insistence of Najm Hosain Syed.