Book Review

Of birds and flights of fancy

  • Mohammed Hanif’s Red Birds is criticism, satire and rebellion against the multi-billion industries of war and humanitarian aid
- Richa Bhattarai
Hanif spits out words staccato style and hits as hard as bullets. Yet, he is also a master of thoughtful, almost delicate sentences bursting with beauty and ideas

Dec 15, 2018-Halfway into the middle of his ill-fated mission, in the middle of a nowhere desert, Major Ellie crashes his plane. Momo, a Cherokee-driving, gun-toting, 15-year-old from a nearby refugee camp, stumbles across him. Bringing them both to each other is Mutt, a philosophical dog who once had his ‘brains fried’ due to a mishap. Mohammed Hanif’s latest novel, Red Birds, unfurls as the three of them begin talking over each other, imploring readers to listen to their version of events and trust no one else.

It is fascinating and perplexing, this multitude of voices—whom should we believe? Major Ellie, trying to live off the very community he was assigned to banish from the face of earth? Momo, the world-wise teenager who can manipulate and trick researchers but is himself quite guileless at times? Or Mutt, seemingly the wisest of the lot, who sees and understands and explains everything, yet prefers to remain in Momo’s shadow? It is only quite late in the book, engrossed in the intricacies of each character that we realise—no one is what they appear. It’s war, and through the use of multilayered, multifaceted, shockingly realistic characters and situations, Hanif makes certain that all of us internalise just how unfair everything is in war.

The novel is criticism, satire and rebellion against the multi-billion industries of war and humanitarian support, along with their skewed aftermath. It is in the way Ellie justifies his uniform and its grisly deeds: “If I didn’t rain fire from the skies, who would need her to douse that fire on the ground? Why would you need somebody to throw blankets on burning babies if there were no burning babies? If I didn’t take out homes, who would provide shelter? If I didn’t obliterate cities, how would you get to set up refugee camps?” A dig at the vicious cycle of money-war-aid-conflict-war-money. And, most chilling of all: “Where would all the world’s empathy go?”

Right from his first novel A Case of Exploding Mangoes, Hanif has been well-known for the cynicism and old-world weariness of his characters, a specialised kind of dark humor that often turns morbid.

But in Red Birds, he’s achieved much more. His words lilt and angle into poetic and thoughtful but unnerving accusations. The people in his novel (and the dog, who is more human than a person can ever aspire to be) are sharp, discomfortingly accurate caricatures: of the forgotten development worker in a third-world country, a mother torn between love for her two children belonging to opposite ideologies, a child who has no home save a camp that has taught him no other way of life except trickery and thievery; illegal trade and unrealistic plans; a researcher pretending to be engrossed in the refugees’ lives but using them merely as a means to further her career.

Through first-person narrations of his immediately recognisable characters, Hanif speaks eloquently for all underdogs, the destitute and the desperate. He creates a world of misery, horror and desolation that is almost too hellish to be true—except such pockets of human despair exist all around us, in the headlines we choose to skip, in TV news smothered by page three celebrities, and in

gruesome photos we are quick to turn away from, reasoning that these things don’t concern us, that it isn’t happening, that such cruelty can’t possibly exist in this world.

Out of this cozy cocoon Hanif shakes us awake, forcing us to open our eyes to the organised, callous, devastating phenomena of modern war and bogus humanitarian aid. The novel’s tone is calculated to deliver an impact and yet, is quite fearless and irreverent, spewing venom outright against the supremacies of the world. If Hanif’s words had a bite earlier, they’ve now also developed fangs that strike at every opportune moment. All of these add up to a gritty, gravelly read, taking readers on a petrifying rollercoaster through modern human civilisation.

The novel is cynical and absurd, accusatory and critical. Hanif spits out words staccato style and hits as hard as bullets. Yet, he is also a master of thoughtful, almost delicate sentences bursting with beauty and ideas. Every few paragraphs, one of Hanif’s characters says something that makes us stop and wonder, reflect and agonise. When Mutt defends Father Dear in a serious tone, we don’t know whether to sympathise or laugh. “Unlike everyone else I am not prejudiced against Father Dear,” explains Mutt, “They are always accusing him of licking white men’s boots—well maybe he likes the taste.” Such sly beauty is aplenty.

But about two-thirds into the novel, something happens—it suddenly changes gears and plunges into a metaphysical, introspective, almost dreamy sequence. The three protagonists make way for the thoughts of a few other characters who were till then lurking in the background. They suddenly come together and squabble with each other and within themselves, in a shrill crescendo, a cacophony that might thrill and satisfy some but for most, will be too much to bear. 

The story veering off to uncharted terrain is not unexpected, considering the novelist’s dislike for the mundane and predictable, but here, it doesn’t work as well as it did in his first novel. After building up like a classic mystery, a taut thriller that is about to let us into a delicious secret, it morphs into something else—not entirely pleasant in a work so superb otherwise.

A little of the novel’s sheen is also taken away by sincere literary efforts that come off as pretentious, almost comical—like ‘lemons camouflaged in white gauge’, as Ellie says. Mutt, for example, has a description for every smell that surrounds him—delusions smell of synthetic vinegar, unhappiness smells of withering jasmine flowers. Even the titular ‘red birds’ relates to an abstract idea the author seems to have created for his own enjoyment and satisfaction rather than for the readers’ understanding. Not entirely incorrect, perhaps, though incongruous and repetitive in this particular work.

But readers will forget these thoughts once they plunge into this novel, so familiar yet deranged, so near yet galaxies away. The way it explodes into being, raging against everything at once with such sincerity and righteous anger, the intimate and expressive routes it takes to encompass discussions on God and fear-mongering, refugees and rulers, power and money—Red Birds is a necessary book to arm oneself with.

Red Birds

Author: Mohammed Hanif

Pages: 283

Publisher: Bloomsbury

Price: Rs 958

Published: 15-12-2018 10:19

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