"Why keep reading it when you already know that the hero is going to die." asks Ali
"To see how he dies. What were his last words. That kind of a thing" replies Obaid
We know right from the start about the people who are going to die, and the manner of their death. The death of Gen Zia, then President of Pakistan, and the US Ambassador along with a clutch of his Generals , is common knowledge. We know his plane had a mysterious crash that was subsequently put down to some technical fault in the aircraft. This novel is a fictionalised account of the events leading to Zia's death.
An Air Force cadet, Ali Shigri is on the scene of Zia's death with some inside knowledge of the proceedings. He narrates his side of the story in the first person. There is a further account of the goings on in Zia's cabinet in the third person. The devout Gen. Zia is in the habit of opening the Koran at a random page each day and taking the words inscribed therein as a kind of message from the Allah. He is disturbed when he finds himself opening the page describing Jonah again and again. He feels it is a bad omen of some kind and orders his security tightened.
Gradually, we find that Zia's suspicions are not far from the mark. There are several people who are conspiring to kill him. Ali Shigri's father, General Shigri, committed suicide in mysterious circumstances years ago. Ali suspects the hand of his fellow officers in the 'suicide'. The CIA is always loitering around, wanting to swing things in its favor by yet another kill. Zia's Generals have agendas of their own. The leader of the gutter cleaning association wants him dead. So does Zainab, the blind rape victim, who has been awarded a sentance for fornicating and is to be publically stoned to death. Will her curses be powerful enough to kill the President?
The novel has a very good start. The motives of the characters are revealed slowly. In the meantime,
we get a good look at the life inside a military training camp. We get a good look at things in Pakistan as
they were after the coup pulled by Gen. Zia.
The novel keeps us in the confines of the upper strata of the rulers of Pakistan. We do not stray beyond that. Hanif creates a closed space where his characters exist. Like a spotlight in a circus the light seems to fall in and around his characters and keeps all else in darkness. So we live in a pool of light in the Army House where Zia has sequestered himself, with Zia at the center of it. Or we move to the pool of light (and at times, darkness) where Ali Shigri is, in the jail or in the Air Force Campus. At times the spotlight moves and falls on common people going about their lives, but that happens only now and then. At no time do we lose sight of our main characters and what they are up to.
I particularly liked all the passages that deal with Gen. Zia. He is seen as a devout, canny, foolish, foolhardy, cunning, perceptive, trusting and a suspicious person all at once. In short, he is a bundle of contradictions. All the passages dealing with him are so humourous, so darkly humourous that I wanted to read them again and again. In fact, the novel is replete with black humour. You find yourself smiling and chuckling even as a character hurtles to his death.
Mohammad Hanif pulls no punches in describing the political scene in Pakistan. There is no leeway given to politicians or the religious heads. You can see that they are being blamed for the mess that Pakistan is. He writes as if he feels for his country, even as he exposes its warts. He writes as if he wants to heal, and not maim his country. I felt quite envious, I must say. I wish we had such a writer for India as well.
His book is mostly crisp, the language terse. As is usual with books, the middle sags at times, mostly because the motives of Ali Shigri are revealed to us with excrutiating slowness. Once we know what Ali is up to, the book regains its pace and clip clops smartly to the grand finale.
Hanif does like to end his books with a bang. And we are left to scramble back to look at the chain of
cause-and-effect that led to the final blast. This is similar to the situation in his second book, "Our Lady of Alice Bhatti" , which I happened to read first.