Muhammad Hanif’s ‘Red Birds’ is a social commentary concealed with his signature dark humour
Among a stream of endless meaningless tweets fading in to oblivion, when I first came across Muhammad Hanif’s tweet of a picture of his new book, a magnificent renaissance-inspired font and a bright little red bird, I knew I had to get my hands on it. Now I know one is not supposed to judge a book by its cover, and I didn’t either. But judging by Hanif’s previous works, I was especially excited for this one.
Reminiscent of A Case of Exploding Mangoes, Red Bird too centers around (a deserted US) air force pilot, Major Ellie, who prefers the maddening rumble of machine guns and plane jets to the silence of his wife Cathy
Reminiscent of A Case of Exploding Mangoes, Red Bird too, centers around an air force pilot; Major Ellie, who gets stranded in the desert after his plane crashes. The desert, he finds, is every bit as unforgiving as say, a ruthless invading army. What is absolutely outstanding about him though is his honesty with himself and how strongly in-touch he is with reality; he is not under any delusions of grandeur of being a warrior or a savior, a hero or a patriot. He simply volunteers for missions because he cannot bear being home. Ellie prefers the maddening rumble of machine guns and plane jets to the silence of his wife Cathy.
Momo, the young refugee, is a hard character to like, but under his tough exterior is a boy who has lost his brother
Then we are introduced to Momo – a young enterprising refugee who is concerned about two things: finding his brother Ali who has been missing in the wake of war, and making money. While in the former Momo finds himself helpless, he is ferociously driven in the latter with ambition that matches his testosterone-fueled temper. To put it straight, he is the kind of character that is hard to like. He has the pretentions and cockiness of any other teenager but accentuated 10 times over. It is important to remember however, that Momo is as conflicted as he is difficult. Under that tough exterior is a broken boy who has lost his brother. “People who leave you of their own accord, without any external pressure, that is always gonna hurt more” he says, lamenting his brother’s departure.
The philosopher dog Mutt is a victim to his own loyalty, but he forgives his master because in his words, “what is a better pain-killer than unconditional love?”
And the magnum opus character of this book is of course, Mutt – the philosophical dog. A self-described Stoic, Mutt is not one to back away from the reality of his situation. He is Momo’s comrade and the subject to his master’s frustrations. Wise as he may be, Mutt always falls victim to his own loyalty and affection towards Momo. The dog forgives him for the pain he causes because, as he puts it, “what is a better pain-killer than unconditional love?” Mutt perceives the world through smells; “tricks smell like onions,” he summarises, while “delusions smell like synthetic vinegar.” He understands Momo’s mind as well as his own. His nuggets of wisdom and wit throughout the book are refreshing, hilarious, and profound.
But do not expect the book to be just about the characters, rather their stirring reality. And that reality is war and its horrifying impact. Mothers left without their sons, children growing up before their time, and the absurd hypocrisy of the perpetrators. Hanif uses his signature dark humour to make social commentary that not only resonates with readers, but haunts them.