Mohammed Hanif has had a diverse career that many would envy: fighter pilot, political journalist, BBC correspondent, playwright, screenwriter and now bestselling author.
His 2008 debut novel A Case of Exploding Mangoes receives much critical acclaim, including being long-listed for the 2008 Man Booker prize and winning the 2009 Commonwealth Best First Book Prize.
However, when speaking at the Singapore Writers Festival earlier this month, the Pakistani novelist seemed unaffected by his accomplishments, describing his life as “pretty dull so far”, without a hint of false modesty, while simultaneously infusing his comments and recollections with the same wry, dark humor that makes his first novel such a delight to read.
“When I was a teenager, I boasted that I wanted to make a play or a movie in Punjabi and I want to write a novel in English… As it happens, that’s how life turned out to be. You read and read, and one day you get delusional and think, I also can actually do this,” he says.
Aside from these teenage dreams, his main priority was simply to get out of his hometown, a small Pakistani village where he says life “revolved around potato crops and weddings” and “one didn’t know anything about anything” unless guests from the city left a newspaper behind. So when at 16 years old, he saw in one of these rare newspapers that the air force was recruiting fighter pilots, he decided to apply.
“It seemed a very glamorous thing… but, as soon as I got in, I realized I had left one closed community for another, one with gates and guns,” he says.
Although the army proved to be an awkward fit – “I wasn’t very good at anything, especially the things officers are supposed to do” – he endured seven years, gaining a military education and finding solace in the surprisingly well-stocked army library, reading everything from Frederick Forsyth to Dostoevsky.
When he left, as he was “only good at reading and writing”, he found himself “drifting” toward journalism.
“I had a friend who was freelancing for various magazines, and I thought he wrote pretty badly, so I thought if he could do it, I could do it too,” he says.
Based in Karachi, Hanif made his name interviewing fashion models and writing entertainment reviews. He soon branched out, when struggling actor and director friends begged him to try his hand at writing plays and scripts.
He was also approached by a small, “fiercely democratic” political magazine run by women, where he worked for around seven years as the only male journalist, marrying a colleague (and “closet actress”), until 1997, when the BBC offered him a job in London as an special Urdu correspondent.
While in London he began to take his first steps toward literary greatness. Although he admits he tends to be one of those people who’d “pick up a book and say, *this is a creative writing product’, and then put it aside”, he became interested in studying a Master’s degree at the University of East Anglia (UEA), which boasts one of the UK’s most respected creative writing programs.
“One of the things that I’d lacked in my life was that I’d never been to a proper university. The only education I’d had was at the military academy, and military academies all over the world are not known for their intellectual rigor,” he says.
UEA was especially appealing as one of his favorite novelists, Patricia Duncker (Hallucinating Foucault), taught there.
“I spoke to her for five minutes and I thought it would be nice to occasionally talk to this person and the only way to do that was if you were in that department.”
Although he claims he was much older than his classmates (late 30s to their early-mid-20s), he says he thoroughly enjoyed the university experience, from the cheap beer in the student union to the mad sorts that eternally haunted the campus, as well as the fact of being surrounded by like-minded wannabe writers, which gave him the confidence to be more open about his novelist aspirations.
“I became quite shameless, telling people I’m writing a book, so what?” he says.
The subject of this book was one he had in his mind some time: the enduring mystery of the 1988 airplane crash that killed Pakistan’s then dictator, General Zia ul Haq, along with several other top army generals and an American ambassador.
“I grew up during his time, and he was one of those typical boring dictators whose face was always stuck on the TV, this constant drone that goes on in the background,” he says.
Hanif says he was intrigued that nobody in Pakistan ever seemed interested in finding out who might have done the deed, despite the obvious suspiciousness of the incident.
“More than the murder mystery, I think that kind of attitude, that sort of *he’s dead, good riddance, let’s get on with our lives’ – that attitude intrigued me more than the mystery itself.”
Writing the book was a 30-month process that involved much scribbling in cafes and pubs, wrestling with his “short-attention span” and a sticky Internet research incident on an American army website where he accidentally implied that he was planning a terrorist attack.
“I had registered myself as Mohammed, and said *Can someone tell me the preflight checks for the *Hercules C130, the plane General Zia died in*? I mean, I didn’t think of it at all… within 10 minutes there was so much abuse; I was sitting in my house, thinking what the hell have I done?… That cured me of any more research.”
Once it was completed, he says he managed to get it published in the UK by lying.
“I contacted *the agent* and said *I met you last year’. Which I hadn’t. But we were in the same building, so we could have, and if I’d had the guts, I could have gone up to her and said hello. So I said last year, we met, now I’ve finished my book, could you read it? So she said, yeah, send it.”
Evidently, she liked what she read, as she found him publishers in the UK, USA and Canada.
However, getting published in Pakistan was another story. Hanif says he sent it to four publishers without any luck, with most admitting the book’s subjects – foolish dictators, homosexual romance – were too controversial.
“The publishers were scared… and they were wrong. They are small businesses, why would I expect somebody to risk their livelihood for a trifling little novel? So that is understandable. But they all want to publish my second book!” he says, adding that the novel topped the bestseller lists in Pakistan for more than a year.
Hanif, who returned to Karachi last year with his wife and son, notes that the tense political situation in Pakistan was probably why his book failed to ignite much controversy, as the publishers had feared.
“By the time the book came out, Pakistan had such huge problems that nobody was going to worry about a book.”
While he dismisses the fact the international media often places Pakistan at the top of “most-dangerous countries” lists – “If you were going to make a list by popular consensus of the top 10 most dangerous countries then probably most people would include the USA” – he says his homeland is in a lot of trouble, facing similar problems to Indonesia, just “multiplied by 10”: too many years of military rule; a dynastic approach to democracy (thanks to the systematic martyrdom of the Bhuttos); and increasing Islam extremism, none of which he feels reflects popular attitudes.
“It’s always been a Muslim country, and there’s never been any real problems before… whether you wanted to go to the mosque or get smashed in the evening… it’s all your own business… the state and the society was open enough for both to exist side by side.”
He adds democracy in Pakistan has yet to have a chance to develop and flourish.
“In 62 years we’ve only had one parliament which completed its run… even that ended in tragedy.”
But while he’s a cynic by nature, he retains a basic optimism that things will improve, saying he would have no justification for remaining in the country if he didn’t.
In the meantime, he’s working on his second novel, a “civilian” love story set in Pakistan.
Although the focus is once again Pakistan, Hanif says he remains open to all genres, topics and settings.
“There’s always outer space!”