The publication of a Mohammed Hanif novel should be nothing short of a national event. A notification should be issued, giving us three days to consume and exchange notes on his latest offering. His new novel, Red Birds, is most suited to such treatment as it offers the greatest rewards for a nation suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. I don’t say this to elicit self-pity, but to understand that “those under assault from outsiders take it out on their own.” This, and many other life lessons delivered by a flea-bitten stray dog called Mutt, allows us to artfully navigate our national impulses through the lens of Hanif’s lacerating humour.
Red Birds, Hanif’s third novel, takes place in an unnamed desert location. I would encourage you to assume it is in Pakistan, as Hanif’s familiarity with the Pakistani psyche can’t but inform his writing. He is in familiar territory here, as the characters emerge from the intersection of the United States’s geopolitical interests and the Near East, much like in A Case of Exploding Mangoes.
Ellie, a US air force pilot (a dying breed in modern-day warfare), has crash-landed in a desert located within what was once enemy territory in a now forgotten war. He wanders aimlessly through the desert, desperately sifting through his racially tinged military training to find something that may assist in his survival.
Mutt, our saviour in mangled form, stumbles across the hapless survivor after escaping a brutal assault brought on by the national impulse mentioned above. This results in a rescue by Mutt’s entrepreneurial teenage owner Momo, resident of a nearby refugee camp and occasional assaulter of stray dogs.
Momo, like most of us, has a low opinion of everyone but himself. “This place is full of thieves,” he says of his own people, reserving his greatest scorn for the “international-aid types, nice smelling do-gooders who obviously were the greatest thieves of them all.” As with many residents of the camp, Momo is missing a family member. He yearns for Brother Ali, who disappeared into a mysterious US facility known as “The Hangar”, often revealing his own sense of inadequacy. Momo’s age and ‘loss’ make him an ideal candidate for trending studies. He relents to being interviewed by a USAID consultant — derisively dubbed Flowerbody by Momo’s grief-stricken mother — under the belief that she would come in handy in future rehabilitation projects that may or may not include a rescue of his brother.
Momo’s family, with whom both Ellie and Flowerbody eventually take up residence, are an unlikely bunch. Father Dear is an obsequious collaborator with whatever occupying force happens to take interest, whilst Mother Dear is driven by grief, talking truth to power when faced with Flowerbody’s appalling cognitive dissonance: “First they bomb our houses, then they take away my son and now you are here to make us feel alright.”
“Things happen on both sides,” is Flowerbody’s unfailing response. Nicely done, Hanif.
Ellie and Flowerbody display an institutionally instilled propensity for ‘othering’. Ellie reflects on his Cultural Sensitivity training that dictates “they hate us … [for] … our love for our pets” when rescued by Momo and Mutt. Meanwhile Flowerbody is all geared up to “use this community as a laboratory” to collect “cultural capital” which Momo feeds with “imagined medieval trivia.”
These are the dredges of a once flourishing warfare economy that dropped bombs and limitless aid supplies, provided local employment and wowed with heavily armoured military convoys. Where once cattle were airdropped pink salt to lick and protect from war-related disease, now Mother Dear struggles to prepare food without so much as a hint of salt.
Father Dear, who is widely believed to have sold his son to the Americans, should be most embittered by this abandonment, but he continues to remain hopeful and compliant, sheltering Flowerbody and referring to her as a “co-worker” despite the absence of his former overlords or any remuneration.
Doctor, who occupies a minor role in the novel, is my favourite character. He exhibits ambivalence towards the war since environmental degradation will wipe us out more effectively. Veering between laudable instincts and pedantry, he lives a life of self-imposed rules and red tape. Scavenging for food is more honourable than queuing for rations; an imagined oath prevents him from administering aspirin to dogs in pain. With these attempts to elevate himself, Doctor, observes Mutt, “thinks he’ll escape the apocalypse because he has a conscience and a bottle of low-lead petrol.”
Red Birds is the story of us. It is a surprisingly empathetic portrayal of poverty, opportunism, racism and death that have forged our identity for over four decades. Hanif challenges us to recognise the absurdity of what we have become while making us laugh at our own demise. The tragedy of war is just as much in the forgetting as it is in the waging and only the most astute observers of the human condition can build an unforgettable premise around that.