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Since 1st March, 1999
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‘We had the worst dictatorship in modern times’
Tête à tête

The pigeon pecking at Mohammed Hanif’s feet and persistently looking for crumbs may have stayed well away if it only knew what dark endings the man sitting at the table wrote for pesky birds. The bird to have figured in the novelist’s imagination in this case was not a pigeon, but a greedy crow. Drunk on a feast of juicy mangoes — the season’s first in fact — the crow had flown distractedly into the Hercules C130 aircraft carrying Pakistan’s General Zia and sealed his fate. The poor bird was to become Suspect Number Six in Hanif’s much-acclaimed rollercoaster of a debut novel A Case of Exploding Mangoes which has rocketed straight into the long list of the Booker Prize this year.

We are sitting at the terrace café at Somerset House, the 18th century neoclassical London building that straddles the bustling Strand on one side and the river on the other. Within a few minutes’ walking distance is Bush House, the BBC World Service headquarters, where Hanif, while working at the Urdu service, thought up the plot of the crow and the moustachioed general. “This is such a beautiful place,” says Hanif somewhat dreamily, as he watches the boats sail up the Thames.

The balmy summer afternoon, with its usual gathering of tourists, visitors to the gallery and children playing in the fountains in the courtyard, seems a world far removed from the smoke-filled world of Pakistani generals, discontented army majors and plotting intelligence officers that Hanif conjures up in his novel on the death of President Zia-ul-Haq in a plane crash in 1988. The book has made him the hot favourite to win the Booker Prize in October. If he does, he will become the first Pakistani to win the coveted award. He has fierce competition — Salman Rushdie and Amitav Ghosh, among others — but he’s not really thinking about that now.

What he is worrying about at the moment is his relocation. For Hanif has decided to give up his job as head of Urdu service, and take his wife, actress Nimra Bucha, and 10-year-old son, Channan, back to Karachi, where he plans to do the occasional reporting for World Service and concentrate on writing. His tickets are booked and he is ready to say goodbye to London on August 29.

“I will miss it a lot,” says Hanif. His son is reluctant to leave his friends and go. “But I thought, this is the time to do it,” he says, and adds, “I hope it works!”

Success has come like a flash of lightning for the 42-year-old journalist turned writer who joined the Pakistani Air Force when he was just 16. His family were farmers from Okara in Punjab, and teenaged Hanif was the first person in his family to join the services. “It was not a well thought out decision,” says Hanif. “I was a kid and thought it would be glamorous to be a pilot. I applied and got in. Nobody in my family had been a fauji before.”

Hanif remained at the job for seven years, graduating from the Pakistan Air Force Academy, flying small training planes such as the Mashak. It wasn’t as thrilling as he had imagined it would be. “It was a struggle,” says Hanif. What most boys his age would have found adrenalin pumping made Hanif ill. He had earache and found himself throwing up. “It’s only thrilling if you are good at it,” he says matter-of-factly. “I wasn’t.” He left the Air Force at the age of 23, taking with him, if nothing else, first-hand knowledge of aircraft and life for young cadets in the forces, which were to prove useful years later when writing the book. Hanif changed professional tracks, opting for journalism and working in Karachi for Newsline, one of the country’s premier magazines, before heading for London and the BBC Urdu Service.

“I was one of those people who always knew they wanted to write a book, but didn’t quite know what to do about it. I wanted to write a murder mystery,” says Hanif. “I also knew I wanted to set it in the Eighties, the time I grew up in Pakistan, and slowly things came together.” He already had one-third of the book worked out when he decided to take a sabbatical from journalism and head for the famed creative writing course at the University of East Anglia, Norwich. He completed the book while at the university, sold the manuscript to Random House and hasn’t looked back since.

“This (Zia’s death) was the biggest mystery in Pakistani history and there were any number of conspiracy theories. Of course, my book is a fantasy, but I kept the real names in. It would have been a cop-out if I had changed them. Also, I guess, I was too lazy. After a while, I did what I wanted to with the characters, I stopped researching and stopped caring about historical accuracy.”

That, says Hanif, was liberating. “I did not have to follow BBC’s editorial guidelines, not bother about facts, and that was the fun part,” he laughs.

The book has not found a publisher in Pakistan, but copies of the book are getting around. Hanif has had a surprisingly good reaction from readers in his country, especially those in their twenties. “They have come up to me after the readings and are so eager to learn about the events and what happened. I keep telling them it is a work of fiction, and not to be taken as a lesson in history.”

And what of the army and the intelligence, who are implicated in the book? “I don’t think they have the time to care right now about a book and something that happened 20 years ago,” laughs Hanif. “Nobody has said anything about it. I have even been invited to speak at the Pakistan High Commission and address the All Pakistan Women’s Association. Who would pass that up?”

As a journalist, Hanif has regularly been covering Pakistan. He was on the plane with Nawaz Sharif last year when Pervez Musharraf sent the former Prime Minister back from Pakistan and covered the events after Benazir Bhutto’s assassination. He does not share most people’s cynicism at the present state of the country. “Give them some time,” he says. “We had military rule for the last nine years. We had the worst dictatorship in modern times. To expect politicians who have spent half their lives in jail or exile to sort things out quickly is not realistic. They need time to get things back on track.”

He is looking forward to being able to travel in Pakistan and explore more of the country when he returns to live there. Hanif has the germ of the next book, but feels there is still a lot of work to be done.

For the moment, he has written a 50-minute piece for the Edinburgh Fringe Festival later this month. Called The Dictator’s Wife, it is a monologue. His wife, Nimra Bucha, is acting in it and rehearsals are going on in full force in the family kitchen. If it does well in Edinburgh, he would like to take it to India and Pakistan.

“It is not based on any particular dictator,” says Hanif, whose portrayal of Zia’s wife is one of the funnier portions of the novel. “In the book, I just made up the portions on her. I didn’t know anything about her.”

The Dictator’s Wife is not based on Pakistan’s last general either. For Hanif, it is just a piece of drama on the life of a dictator’s wife, and, he says, there are many in this world. Knowing Hanif, it promises to be a brilliant 50 minutes: funny, incisive, and ultimately quite tragic. Like the story of that funny old crow that fancied some mangoes.

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