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'A mullah general can only happen in a Bollywood film'

June 19, 2008
Mohammed Hanif currently heads the BBC's Urdu Service in London. In an earlier avatar, he has been part of the Pakistani military machine, specifically its air force, a career which he forsake some years ago to be one of the sub-continent's most articulate journalistic voices, telling stories of tumult and change with distinctive elegance and insight.

To desis and others unfamiliar with his journalism, Hanif will soon be a name spoken alongside Salman Rushdie and Kiran Desai, Amitav Ghosh and Vikram Seth, classified as one of South Asia's finest story-tellers.

His A Case of Exploding Mangoes (Random House India), a fictional account of the mysterious and still unexplained death of Pakistani President Zia-ul Haq 20 years ago this August, is clearly among the year's best fiction. Mangoes at one level is a satirical glance at a dictator's final days; at another, the novel dissects the Pakistani military mindset in a way that neither Brian Cloughey or Stephen Cohen, master chroniclers of that nation's army, have done.

In this e-mail interview with's Nikhil Lakshman, Hanif sets out his vision of his first novel, rebuts the thesis that Pakistan is a failed State hurtling to doom, and provides a breathtakingly hilarious glimpse of its current leaders.

Exclusive on The day Zia died

Where do you see Pakistan going from here? Will the turbulence of the last few years eventually settle down as a civilian administration comes to terms with the aspirations of its people and the challenges posed to the Pakistan nation-State by the angry forces of Islamic fundamentalism? Or do you see anarchy and chaos in Pakistan's destiny for some more time to come?

Do you have any hopes from the current government in Pakistan? Why? Why not?

Like most Pakistanis I have high hopes and very low expectations from the current government. It has been in power only for a few months and already journalists like us are accusing it of everything under the sun. The real divide in Pakistan is not between the fundamentalist and the moderates. It's between the extremely rich and extremely poor.

India has probably become desensitised to that narrative. But when I was growing up I repeatedly heard that nobody goes to sleep hungry in Pakistan. And that in India people did. I think now it's true about both the countries. But Pakistan is one tenth of India and for last thirty years it has been a frontline state for various wars. That has to change before Pakistan can become a stable country.

Every few years to the world outside it seems the people of Pakistan tire of military rule -- be it Zia-ul Haq's then or Musharraf's now -- hunger for democracy, then come the likes of Bhutto/Zardari and Sharif, and after a few years of their suffocating presence, Pakistanis yearn for a calm, honest presence at the helm, someone who, as it has happened, comes from within the military. Is this past tableau now ripe for change?

If the current political dispensation fails to deliver, will its successor come from a new source -- maybe, from the ranks of hard-line Islam -- and not from the army? Or will the army ensure that whoever rules Pakistan not undermine its influence or sources of income? Could we one day have a mullah general as Pakistan's ruler?

A mullah general can only happen in a Bollywood film.

As far as I know there is not a single beard in Pakistan's top army command. The last story we covered was that some officers were punished for growing a beard without permission. In fact the new debate is that whether generals should be allowed to have a moustache. Because someone has come up with a theory that only generals with moustache have dictatorial tendencies. And our current commander in chief is clean shaven.

And by the way Bhutto/Zardari, Sharif have only come to power through a semi-decent democratic process. And for their sins they have been hanged, assassinated, jailed, exiled. But they seem to have learnt from their past mistakes, and tribulations. Or so one hopes.

About your theory of hardline Islamist taking over through democratic process you only have to look at the election results in the Frontier province. One decent elections and people have voted for the Awami Nationalist Party, a Left-leaning nationalist party with some retro-Gandhian ideals.

As a neutral observer I think India has a far bigger problem with religious elements. Just look at Rediff message boards.

Image: Pakistani army chief General Ashfaq Kayani at the presidential palace in Islamabad after retired General Pervez Musharraf took the oath of office for a five-year term as a civilian president, November 29, 2007. Musharraf took office as a civilian a day after shedding his uniform as head of the military, handing over the post to General Kayani, who had been the Pakistani intelligence chief. Photograph: John Moore/Getty Images. Inset: Mohammed Hanif. Photograph: Nimra Bucha

Also see: Mohammed Hanif on On the plane with Nawaz Sharif

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