From reading about Mohammed Hanif’s book launch in Karachi to having attended the same event in Lahore, it’s clear that his former masterpiece A Case of Exploding Mangoes has left a legacy of sorts that may be hard to follow with his latest offering Our Lady of Alice Bhatti. Perhaps a plane crashing mid-air with spurts of deep yellow were more fascinating to look at than a tattooed valentine cover.
On a more tangible note though, a simple point in comparison: while A Case of Exploding Mangoes was welcomed by a packed audience in a spacious auditorium at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (Lums), most of whom had already devoured the book and consistently pestered Hanif on the exact percentage of fiction that existed in the script — a question that still follows the author wherever he goes. Alice Bhatti, on the other hand, has not hit that kind of chord. And perhaps may not, despite the fact that it is, at heart, a love story about a girl with a troubled past.
“I don’t quite know what it is,” says Hanif candidly. “So I’ll stick to the love story line. I’d like to believe that both books are completely different, but sadly they’re not,” confesses Hanif in his characteristic sardonic humour that makes him such an endearing scribe. He may also be right, given that both books have protagonists in uniforms; “I may have a uniform fetish,” he reluctantly admits.
What added spice to the evening, however, was the moderator Bilal Tanweer, an aspiring writer and academic, whose camaraderie with Hanif made the audience feel as if they were prying into an intimate drawing room conversation between, arguably, two of the most important literary figures of our times (sure it will take Tanweer time to get there but he has already shown promise with his short stories). Both kept pulling each other’s leg and Hanif really caught Tanweer when he spoke of the insidious mention that the two military officials in his former book could have been homosexuals. “There he goes defaming the Pakistani Army again!” remarked the novelist, who is also a special correspondent for BBC Urdu.
Clearly then, considering that`Our Lady of Alic Bhatti’s launch was hijacked by the military — as a nation we love conspiracies more than love stories — poor Alice’s humble launch at the National College of Arts (NCA) quaint auditorium was studded by questions pertaining to how embellished A Case of Exploding Mangoes was? Mohammad Hanif’s answer reveals his capricious nature — at once admitting but simultaneously denying — and that adds more to the charm of him being a man with a secret, and more enticingly so, as a man with a book full of secrets.
However, since there is no secret in Alice Bhatti, audiences and readers didn’t feel the need to probe much into it. And when Hanif went on to read a delicious vicious letter drafted in Urdu by a fictitious Defence resident, requesting Nizam-e-Adl, it was abundantly clear: the author’s audience (even though he denies the claim) is far more captivated and interested in his political satire than anything else. With that cleverly penned letter, Hanif also effectively demonstrated how critical it is for writers to be multilingual. “You have more names for things when you know more languages,” says the novelist matter-of-factly.
Urdu, Sindhi, Punjabi and of course English, all allow him to think more widely and he uses Sindhi and Urdu quite prolifically in his writings. But the uniqueness of Hanif’s varied linguistics is not a result of confused Minglish, but rather sentences like “Love is a runaway charya” which hit the nail on the head — describing precisely a particular thought without making that word seem discordant from the rest.
Hence, his advice to every budding writer, even though he admits he’s very ‘impressionable’ is simply to “read and nothing more”.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 14th, 2011.