Confessions from ‘A Case of Exploding Mangoes’
Found a great excerpt from Mohammed Hani’s novel, A Case of Exploding Mangoes where he recounts on his time at the Pakistani military academy during General Zia’s regime.
ONCE UPON a time, when I was 18, I found myself locked up in Pakistan’s military academy’s cell along with my friend and partner-in-crime, Khalid. We had thought we were doing charity work but the Academy officers obviously didn’t share our ideals. We had been caught trying to help out another classmate pass his chemistry exam, something he had failed to do twice already and this was his last chance to save himself from being expelled. The logistics of our rescue effort involved a wireless set improvised in the Sunday Hobbies Club, a microphone concealed in a crepe bandage around the left elbow of our academically challenged friend, and a Sanyo FM radio receiver. We were running our operation from the rooftop of a building next to the examination hall. We were caught red-handed, whispering a reversible chemical equation into the transistor. We were in breach of every single standard operating procedure in the Academy rule book, and faced certain expulsion. We had just started our glorious careers and now we faced the prospect of being sent home and having to explain to our parents how, instead of training to become gentlemen-officers, we were running an exam-cheatingmafia from the rooftop of the most well-disciplined training institute in the country.
For two days, while we waited in that cell to find out about our fate, we planned our future. Khalid, always the worldly-wise one in this outfit, immediately decided that he was going to join the merchant navy and travel the world. I tried hard to think what I would do. I came from a farming family where even the most adventurous members of our clan had only managed to branch out into planting sugarcane instead of potatoes. Education, jobs, careers were absolutely alien concepts. The Academy was supposed to be my escape from a lifetime that revolved around wildly fluctuating potato crop cycles. And here I was, already a prisoner of sorts, facing a journey back to a life I thought I”d left behind. Maybe I’ll become a teacher,Â I said vaguely. The farmers in my village used to show some vague respect to teachers in the primary school I attended.Or a mechanic.Â I was a member of the car-maintenance club in the Hobbies Club, after all. It was considered an elite club since there was no car to maintain. It was basically a Hobbies Club for people who hated hobbies.I can’t even change a bloody tyre,Â Khalid reminded me. We managed to stave off the impending expulsion through a combination of confession and denial: we lied (we were listening to cricket commentary on the transistor radio), we grovelled (we were ashamed, ashamed, ashamed of our un-officer like behaviour) and we pleaded our undying passion for defending the borders of our motherland. They looked at our relatively clean records, our sterling academic achievements, let us off the hook and awarded us a punishment considered just short of expulsion. We were barred from entering the Academy’s television room, and from walking, for 41 days. During the punishment period, we had to stay in uniform from dawn till dusk and whenever we were required to go from point A to B, we had to run. Khalid went on to become a fairly good marathon runner (before, years later, dying in an air crash, while trying to pull a spectacular but impossible manoeuvre in a Mirage fighter plane). I discovered the library. I had barely noticed that the college had a very well-stocked library. We knew it was there we occasionally used it as a quite corner to hatch conspiracies Â but I had never noticed that the long, rambling hall was lined with cupboards full of books. All the cupboards were locked but you could see pristine, untouchable books behind their glass doors. The librarian, an eagle-nosed old civilian, walked around with a large bunch of jangling keys although his wares were not in any danger of being stolen. I was to find out later that he was quite a professional. The library was immaculately catalogued. You could, of course, go to him, fill out a form and request a book. But I never actually saw anybody fill out a form. I spent some afternoons staring at the books from behind the glass doors as my classmates watched videos in the television room (including the fellow who had scraped through his chemistry exam and survived, but would die years later in our current president General Pervez Musharraf’s moronic military adventure in Kargil). HOW DO you ask for a book when you are 18, and have been brought up in a household where the only book was the Quran and the only reading material an occasional old newspaper left behind by a visitor from the city? I want that book, I told the librarian, pointing tentatively towards a cupboard which contained a thick volume of something called The Great Escapes. The librarian, relieved at having found a customer, took out his bunch of keys, removed a key and asked me to go get it myself. I took my time and browsed for a long time before filling out the form and borrowing the book. So grateful was I for getting that book that I brought him a samosa and a cup of tea the next day. That turned out to be a very good investment as the librarian handed me the bunch of his keys as soon as I entered. I browsed randomly, recklessly, read first paragraphs, authors bios and made naÂ¯ve judgments. The Cross of Iron wasn’t ‘eligious thriller but a war novel. Crime and Punishment had very little crime in it. Was Rushdie related to the famous pop singer Ahmed Rushdie? What kind of names were Mario Puzo and Mario Vargas Llosa? Someone called Borges had written Dr Brodie’s Report which had a scary skeleton on its cover. Abdullah Hussain I had heard of. A whole shelf devoted to Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Was that little book about the wrecked ship really a true story? I didn’t know which one was a thriller and which one was literary. As I Lay Dying sounded like a nice title so I read it. So did Valley of the Dolls. There was a whole cupboard full of our dead military dictator Field Marshall Ayub Khan’s masterpiece, Friends Not Masters Â a passionate explanation of his relationship with America. I wondered if our then military dictator General Zia knew that he was there, in a book called Shame, as a very thinly disguised military officer, Talwarul Haq. Discovering books was like stumbling on a second adolescence. I discovered new sensations in my body. It was even better. It was guilt free and I could show off. And then one day, in an attempt to improve my knowledge of geography I picked up a book called Tropic of Cancer. Now this was a library where Readers Digest arrived with all adverts featuring female models torn out, where chapters dealing with reproduction in the biology books were stapled together and if Raquel Welch sneaked into a film advert, the censors made sure that her legs were covered with black ink. No wonder that Tropic went on to become the most borrowed book in the academy during that year. OUTSIDE THE library, the world revolved around the parade square, hockey fields and a series of punishments and rewards that didn’t seem very different from each other. The vocabulary used to run the Academy comprised of about 50 words, half of which were variations on the word ballsÂ. Everyorder began or ended with balls; it was used as verb, adjective, qualifier or just simply a howl. Balls to you.Balls to motherÂ, my ballsÂ, I’ll cut your balls…Â Every order, every threat, every compliment was a variation on the same testicular theme. Now that I look back, it is quite obvious that this place was drowning in its own testosterone. From outside, life could seem orderly. Uniforms were starched, rifles were oiled and sessions on the parade square were hard and long. I yearned for that jangling of keys in the library corridors. Once I was caught in my Navigation class reading Notes From Underground, hidden under a map that I was supposed to be studying. After our second year at the Academy, there were sudden attempts to turn us into good Muslims. Compulsory prayers. Quran lectures. Islamic Studies classes. In the third year, we were caught stealing oranges from a neighbourhood orchard and as a punishment we were sent to a mosque outside the Academy where a bunch of tableegis (Muslim cousins of Jehovah’s Witnesses) taught us how to knock on random doors and preach Islam. But they are all Muslims,Â I had protested.So are you,Â came the reply. And look at yourself.Â At that time I didn’t realise that we were an experiment in the Islamisation of the whole society. General Zia was a distant presence. He was our commander-in-chief and the permanent President of Pakistan. He thought he was never going to die. So did we. Years later, sitting in the officers mess of a Karachi air base, we heard about the plane crash that killed him and several other generals. We were sad about the pilots and the crew of the plane. To drown our sorrows, we pooled our meagre savings, ordered a bottle of Black Label whiskey and, instead of hiding in our bachelor quarters as we normally did, we opened the bottle in the officers mess TV room and discussed our future. I left the Air Force a month later. Hanif is the head of BBC Urdu in London.