There was another great turnout for Mohammed Hanif, who won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for best first book last night. Ali Ikram was our genial host, doing his duty with aplomb.
Hanif grew up on a farm, joined air force and flew planes before he drove a car. He then worked for the BBC as a journalist. Ikram asked about the significance of mangoes, saying it was not a throwaway title.
Hanif said his publisher told him novels with soft fruit in the title have a different connotation, However, in Pakistan the context is quite clear. The mangoes had a special part in the death of 1980’s bombing of dictator Mohammed Zia Ul-haq’s plane – it was one of the twenty-two theories of how the plane’s demise came about.
The death remains a unsolved mystery, and Hanif says he was a journalist with a day job who didn’t have a story, nothing interesting happened in my own life, and he didn’t have a plot. He wanted to write a thriller, love story and a murder mystery and this story gave that. Sheer laziness led to the story, he joked.
Life in the air force was seven years of tedium, he said, with occasional attempts at flying planes, and he wasn’t very good at that. The prologue details an account t from a person who missed the plane. Hanif said many people in the west had high regard for the dictator and part of his motivation was to give a different picture of the dictator.
But Hanif revealed he wanted to write a love story and joked that “like all love stories, it went wrong somewhere”. One of the sub-plots involves two army officers and a sex scene, he said, had to be done.
Ikram asked if he was being mischievous, which Hanif denied, saying his wife told him the book was “drowning in its own testosterone”. He hadn’t realised he was writing that type of book, and added that it is a reality in Pakistan that society is run largely by military men.
Hanif also is a big supporter of public broadcasting, which received a warm response from the audience. There was great insight into the training of soliders, western support of Pakistan and the current fighting in towns “bursting with aspiration” – a million people have left their homes.
Hanif also said that dealing with terrible situations by making humour is an “irresponsible tradition” he puts himself in. The book has yet to be published in Pakistan, but was distributed there. The session mixed humour, politics, religion, and the idea of grace in a military environment with readings and astute questions from the audience. Engrossing stuff, and Hanif will be on my reading list.
It’s going to be on my list too now after reading this. Fascinating