For once the hyperbole of blurb reaches appropriate justification in the excellence of this debut thriller. Apart from a small quibble with the feebly punning title, this is a terrifically well crafted and mischievous depiction of Zia ul Haq's assassination. The story begins with a news clip (later pulled out, in order not to demoralise the Armed Forces) of dead men walking. They consist of President Zia, the Head of the Inter Services Intelligence agency, and the US ambassador to Pakistan, straggling across the heat of the tarmac at Bhawalpur air force base, unwittingly about to embark on Pak One, the plane that will explode on take-off and finish them off.
The narrator is fleetingly glimpsed in the clip — the man who got away — a young Pakistan air force cadet who is the only surviving witness, perhaps even the perpetrator. There are plenty of contenders for this honour, but the latter's voice, dry, edgy, world-weary, instantly engages the reader and carries him into the heart of darkness which stains the murky corridors of power in Pakistan’s military dictatorship. Mohammed Hanif, the author, has done his homework assiduously (and even trained as a pilot in the Air Force). A graduate of the elite University of East Anglia creative writing course he has a safe house within the BBC in London. Understandably, his novel couldn’t find a brave enough publisher in Pakistan where it is blacklisted. Hanif’s dexterity of plotting, his facility of language and pace of storytelling are as crisp and professionally acute as any of the best thriller writing today. Along with his familiarity with technicalities of military hardware and functioning, and the intricacies of Pakistani politics, he gives the reader immediate confidence without which necessary suspension of disbelief would be impossible; that is possibly Hanif’s greatest strength, a surefootedness which allows him to mix imagination and fantasy with known fact and provide one with the comfortable assurance that he is a writer whom one can trust on a rollercoaster.
The portrait of Zia whose innards are being slowly consumed by worms, crumbling under the weight of political stupidity and fundamental caprice, is a masterpiece of comic invention. At one stage in his paranoia, Zia decides to wobble off on a gardener’s bicycle, disguised in his mother-in-law’s shawl, in order to play Haroun-al-Rashid to the unsuspecting and sleeping populace of Islamabad.
When he had covered about half a mile without seeing a single person, a strange feeling began to set in; what if he was ruling a country without any inhabitants? What if it was a ghost country ? What if all the statistics from the census said that one hundred and thirty million people lived in the country, ninety eight per cent Muslim, were all the work of his over-efficient bureaucrats? What if everyone had migrated somewhere else and he was ruling a country where nobody lived except his army, his bureaucrats and his bodyguards? He was breathing hard and feeling amused at the bizarre conspiracy theories one can harbour if one is a commoner on a bicycle, when a bush on the roadside moved and a voice shouted at him: “Come here old man. Riding around without a headlight? Do you think this road belongs to your father? Isn’t there enough lawlessness in the country?”
The bathos of the situation takes over. “His head was buzzing with excitement at his first encounter with one of his own subjects, without any security cordons separating them, without any guns pointed at the person he was talking to. Standing on the footpath General Zia realised the true meaning of what the old Dracula had told him…he realised that Ceausescu’s advice that he hadn’t understood before this adventure. What is democracy? What is essence? You draw strength from your people and you become even stronger…watched over by the silent hills surrounding Islamabad, a very ancient ritual was taking place: a ruler and his subject were face to face….”
Zia’s talent for banality provided credence to his fanaticism; and Hanif brings in plenty of grist to the merry-go-round of mockery. There is the instance of the First Lady’s ample derriere, the barbecue at the American Ambassador’s, whose wife’s p.c. attempts at ethnic diversity turn to farce, and where Osama BL tries to engage guests in cocktail chatter about his construction business.
Obviously, Hanif has gone where others shiver to tread — homosexuality in the forces, ISI torture chambers under the Lahore Fort, the absurdity of certain aspects of Sharia, and his claims about the identity of Zia’s murderer — among other topics — have assured him a place in the hall of infamy.
Three cheers for a clever, well-written novel that will entertain a wide audience and deserves to be included in many literary shortlists.
The writer is the author of Goodbye Shahzadi: A Biography of Benazir Bhutto