As It Happens

Pakistani author says an Urdu translation of his satirical novel has been seized by officials

Mohammed Hanif's A Case of Exploding Mangoes was an international hit. But now that the satirical novel has been translated to Urdu for the first time, he says Pakistani authorities have seized the newly-printed books from his publisher.

A Case of Exploding Mangoes is a parody about a former Pakistani dictator

Mohammed Hanif says Pakistani authorities seized copies of his satirical novel A Case of Exploding Mangoes from his publisher. (Aamir Qureshi/AFP/Getty Images)


Mohammed Hanif says Pakistani authorities have seized the Urdu translation of his bestselling novel A Case of Exploding Mangoes. 

The British-Pakistani journalist and author said a group of people identifying themselves as members of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency walked into the Maktaba-e-Danyal publishing company in Karachi on Monday, and seized newly-published copies of the novel. 

The book is a parody about the country's former military dictator Zia-ul-Haq. It became an international hit when it was first published in English in 2008. But the allegedly seized copies were the novel's first print run in Urdu, Pakistan's official language.

An ISI told The Associated Press Hanif's claim is a "cheap attempt to gain popularity by hurling false accusations on a national institution." 

Here is part of Hanif's conversation with As It Happens host Carol Off.

What have you learned so far about why they seized your books?

Officially, there has been no ban on the book, so I don't know. I

This book has been around for about 11 ½ years. It's been a bestseller in Pakistan. It's got really, really good, nice, dream reviews in Pakistan. It's being taught in schools and universities.

The only thing that's changed is that the book was translated into Urdu, which is supposedly our national language. And that edition came out a few months ago and we've had events all across Pakistan. We promoted this book and nobody's ever objected.

So I think there's someone who thinks that you can read this book in English, but you can't read it in Urdu. I think that seems to be the problem.

Hanif says the novel only became a problem once it was translated into Urdu. (Aamir Qureshi/AFP/Getty Images)

For those who have not read A Case of Exploding Mangoes, it's very funny and very satiric. And it's a look at Pakistan's former dictator General Zia-ul-Haq, from your point of view. He was, of course, the man who dominated the country for years until he died in an airplane crash. So for people who haven't read it, just give us a taste of what that book does that you published in 2008?

It's a simple murder mystery story. We had a military dictator in Pakistan who was around for 11 years. I grew up in his time, and he died 30 years ago, more than 30 years ago, in a mysterious plane crash.

We never found out who has done it. And the book sort of fictionalizes his assassination of who might have killed him. It seemed there were lots of people who wanted to kill him.

But the important thing is that he's been dead for 30 years. There is no monument to him. Even the Pakistan army, which he was the head of, they have distanced themselves from him. There is no national commemoration for him. Basically, there seems to be a consensus that he wasn't such a nice man.

And in the book he's a fictional character. He's not the real Zia. And some people have told me that in the book he's actually much nicer than he was in his real life.

Hanif says the fictitious character in his novel is only based on General Zia-ul-Haq. (Stringer/AFP/Getty Images)

We should point out it was nominated and won various prizes. It was quite celebrated. So the issue seems to be not what you wrote. The issue seems to be who is going to get to read it. So what message does that send to Pakistanis that they could read your book, but they can only read it in English?

I think this is a very sad message, but it's also probably true about lots of countries — that there is a certain kind of elite, which can read this book. 

So until the time that the joke stays within ourselves, that's fine. But as soon as the joke gets out to the public, in a language that they can understand, then it becomes an insult. I think that's my takeaway from this.

An insult to Pakistanis who can't read this book in their own language, only if they read a language that, well, people who are well-educated speak in Pakistan. But not if you're just an Urdu speaker.

Yes, I think that's the idea.

Do you know if there was anybody behind this? Because I understand that just recently the son of General Zia-ul-Haq served notice legal notice of defamation against the book. Do you think that that may have influenced the decision?

It can't be a coincidence that for 12 years there's a book, which is being sold, and as you said, celebrated. And suddenly, the book comes out in Urdu, and the son of the dictator — who's been around, who's been in power for many, many years himself — he suddenly decides to sue the publisher and me and the translator, and then four days later, there are these raids by Pakistan army.

What does this say about the authorities?

There's a general clampdown in Pakistan. They've been after newspapers. They've been after TV channels. And I think novelists were kind of left alone for a bit because they assumed that nobody reads novels in Pakistan. So I think now they're coming after novelists. Next, I guess, it will be poets.

And what alarm bells does that sound off for you?

It makes you scared for your family. But it also is a complete distraction. I'm a working writer. I'm working journalist.

For 12 years, the state doesn't do anything to you because they think that you're fine. Maybe you're a bit of a joker. But you're OK. They don't bother you.

And then suddenly they say that no, you are a threat to the state. So I think that that's a bit scary for any person.

Written by Kevin Robertson and John McGill. Interview produced by Kevin Robertson. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.


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