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Review: Red Birds by Mohammed Hanif

Reading Mohammed Hanif’s Red Birds is a deeply cathartic exercise in a world gone strange and incomprehensible

books Updated: Oct 12, 2018 20:14 IST
Revati Laul
Revati Laul
Hindustan Times
Manto,satire,Red Birds
A vintage WW2 poster of the US Marines. A more contemporary model crash lands in a camp somewhere in Pakistan in Red Birds.(Corbis via Getty Images)


304pp, Rs 599; Bloomsbury

I want to have whatever he is having. Ever since A Case of Exploding Mangoes turned our eyeballs inside out (in 2008) with its ridiculously excitable satire, Mohammed Hanif has risen out of the subcontinent like a giant. A colossus of a writer who makes you laugh your way to tears; whose words burn and lacerate till you can’t hold it in anymore and you have to stop just to start again. Red Birds, his third novel, does not disappoint. For consumers of his craft in India, at a time when a biopic of Saadat Hasan Manto has hit cinema screens, there is a special reason to laugh. At how much the Partition has really done us in. We in India with our phallic egos who imagine we are great because we are what Pakistan is not. Now, in 2018, when we’ve spent 71 proud years laughing from the other side of the Great Divide, we can truly ask – what are we really? Has the blinding pride and self-love that we call nationalism made us lose our ability to call out the absurd in ourselves? Well, we sent Manto over to the other side because…because. And now his ghost is sitting inside Mohammad Hanif and calling out the world’s madness. The asylum-world that we live in, this side of the sub-continent as much as that.

Look inside Red Birds for that catharsis that can be the only deliverance to us from ourselves. Look away from the oh-so-literal-and-serious treatises we’ve produced of late. But we don’t dare; we do not dare write or speak like Hanif. We haven’t learnt to laugh like that here, not in English. But it would be diminishing to call Hanif just a sub-continental writer like we don’t think of Gabriel Garcia Marquez as just Colombian. They each have tools to shake the insides of the world and make its wars fall out. Here’s a line from Red Birds to prove it: “They’re going to retire me and replace me with a Geek in Houston who remote controls drones, someone who can fight a one-handed war while dipping his fries in barbeque sauce.” And here’s another serving: “…the international aid types, nice-smelling do-gooders who obviously were the biggest thieves of them all…” And one last one because I cannot resist: “I am the Young Muslim Mind that will pay for her six-handed massages and her toned skin… I get PTSD, she gets a per diem in US dollars.”

In the book, Ellie, an American air-force pilot crash lands in a camp somewhere in Pakistan. The story is told through Ellie’s eyes and also Momo’s. Momo is a 15 year old going on 50 whose brother has disappeared and who fantasizes about big money-making schemes to be made from the wreckage of a non-stop war. And there is a third protagonist - Mutt. He is Momo’s dog and also the seer; the faux-saint whose take on the world is magic-real in the most laughably tragic way, showing you the innards of war. How pointless and utterly bereft of all reason it actually is. Momo delivers lines that remind you why we all need satire. “What’s worse than somebody unilaterally defining your own good for you?” he asks with reference to America’s unending War on Terror. And then he answers it. “The stench of certainty, the rot of unshakeable faith.”

Author Mohammed Hanif (Alamy Stock Photo)

Hanif takes you on an emotional roller-coaster without really telling you that you are on it. You expect the laugh. You don’t see what sits under it, peeling the flesh off your face. “It was the worst day of my life,” says Mutt. “But who knows maybe it was the best day of my life.” Stealth. That is Hanif’s weapon.

There are just a few places in the book where if you nit-pick as I do, you will find the odd line that may be a bit over the top, a tad over-done. “People who boast of their sexual exploits usually have bad teeth and shrivelled testicles.” I have no problem with balls that have shrunk but I do need my punches to be not in the ‘ha-ha look he slipped and fell so let’s laugh’ space. And just a few times, they are. And there is this one line that I see feminists like myself calling out as a ‘WTF’ moment. “When women are telling you stories about history, they are telling you about the present, something that started a long time ago but is not likely to end any time soon.” Really?

Read more: Mohammed Hanif on the futility of satire and the making of his new novel ‘Red Birds’

But these are stray sentences in a book that is rich in the dark mirror it holds up. Essential in the viscera it curates and deeply cathartic in a world gone strange and utterly incomprehensible. So whatever drug, aperitif, brain-f**king psychotropic substance Mohammed Hanif is taking, I’ll have some.

Revati Laul is a journalist and film-maker and the author of `The Anatomy of Hate,’ forthcoming from Context/Westland in November 2018. She lives in Delhi.

First Published: Oct 12, 2018 20:14 IST