Exploding Mangoes (14-07-08)

Rover’s diary

By Babar Ayaz


When the truth about a historical event is shrouded in top secret files, the flight of imagination of people conceives many conspiracy stories. The killing of President General Zia-ul-Haq along with top military brass and the American Ambassador Arnold Raphel in August 1988 has been the subject of many conspiracy theories in Pakistan and abroad.


Twenty years down the chequered history lane of Pakistan nobody knows who killed the General along with his closest henchman in the Afghan adventure – General Akhtar Abdur Rehman? Who killed Ambassador Arnold Raphel? The government that followed under President Ghulam Ishaq Khan and General Aslam Beg’s nexus tried to bury the case as an accident. Nice and simple! Now nobody talks about it. Even the worthy sons of the two generals, who remained federal ministers a couple of times, have not indicted anybody. The Americans also decided to keep the FBI’s hands off from the killing of their Ambassador and a Brigadier General. What is it that everybody wants to hide?


This mystery has caught the imagination of my friend Mohammed Hanif, who has weaved a story around a historic incident. Most of his characters in the novel are real but what they did and said is partially real and partially fictional. He has done it so cleverly that most the time an ordinary reader would find it hard to sift reality from fiction. 

The story is however narrated by an Air Force cadet Ali Shigri, who perhaps is the writer himself. As Hanif has been an Air Force cadet, he could create Ali Shigri and his surroundings with ease.


A lot of facts which have been used to build his conspiracy theory or should we say fiction are real life facts. It is a fact that in his last days President General Zia felt that the junta is not behind him anymore. His handpicked Prime Minister Junejo was encouraged by some generals and the Americans to enter into Geneva peace talks with the Afghani government. Something, which Zia despised.


That was the first incident pronouncing that the ruling junta was not monolithic. I am tempted to quote an anecdote in this regard. When I pushed Zain Noorani, who was Minister of State on Foreign Affairs in Zia’s government into telling that what gave him courage to sign the Geneva accord, which his master Zia was opposed to. He privately admitted after some coaxing that it was the Junejo government that had support from within the establishment and the American’s. Then after a few days the Indian Ambassador when provoked by me at a reception dropped a hint that the top brass is not monolithic anymore and the cracks are evident. And then above all on August 14 1988, both Wali Khan and General (Retd.) Tikka Khan at a rally at Liaquat Bagh roared at the GHQ telling Zia that the presence of this massive gathering clearly proves that Zia’s constituency (meaning army) was not with him. Three days later President Zia’s plane exploded in the air at an army base. His chief did not even care to land back and check-out the situation. He instead flew to Islamabad and arranged a smooth take over of the government by the man for all seasons Ghulam Ishaq Khan. Please notice how smoothly and conveniently everything fell in the right slot. Although in normal circumstances there should have been some confusion and panic even is for a short while.


The FBI team which flew from the US for investigation was called back by the Americans, in spite of the fact that a President of the country, their own Ambassador and a Brigadier General were killed.  All this shows that the establishment has been trying to suppress the facts.


Hanif’s “Exploding Mangoes” is set in this political backdrop. He has knitted his story using the yarn of all these facts. Using his usual wit and sharp journalistic eye he has tried to link the same fictional situations and imaginary characters Ali Shigri, Obaidullah and Bannon to advance his conspiracy ploy.


As the plot thickens it is found that a variety of people wanted to kill for a number of reasons:   the narrator Ali Shigri because his father who was a dedicated ISI man was killed in mysterious circumstances; Shigri’s friend at the academy Obaid, who is an idealist in love with Romanist poetry; the blind woman who was raped but was vicitimised by Zia government’s anti-women hudood ordinance; the Maoist trade union leader and above all General Akhtar.

Taking a creative writer’s license Hanif’s story talks about a failed attempt on General Zia by Ali Shigri but clearly points a finger at General Akhtar. How General Akhtar also worked in the death trap set for Zia is however not very convincing to the reader.


Will Zia and General Akhtar’s relations mainly react to this book is a big question, although the British and the American edition have pasted indemnifying clause. One view is that they will not. A senior journalist at the book launch event at 2nd Floor said when they did not raise the issue after


their fathers’ assassination, why they will come out in the open now.” Sound logical. But I wish it provokes them and the historical truth come out in the open.


The problem is that while we are still groping in the dark about Zia and his colleagues and the guessing game is on some blaming the coup within and others the usual suspect in Pakistan the Americans. Ms. Bhutto’s assassination is too fresh, where evidence was hosed down to the drains after the incident. Such inefficiency has been witnessed only twice by the people of Pakistan – once on 18th October and then on 27 December – both


when Ms. Bhutto was involved. UN or no UN I am quite sure we would only live by various conspiracy theories. Or may be Hanif would attempt another novel on Bhutto’s killing this time. There is no bound to his imagination.


What he is trying to convey is that over the long Zia period everybody got sick of him, from a blind woman to his wife; his American promoters and old colleagues.


Hanif is well-known in Pakistan as a journalist who first made his mark writing for an independent monthly magazine Newsline. He then moved on to work for BBC Urdu service, where he became its editor at a young age. (ayazbabar@gmail.com)

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