Our Lady of Alice Bhatti
by Mohammed Hanif
Manreet Sodhi Someshwar
Mohammed Hanif’s debut novel, A Case of Exploding Mangoes, surged him onto the literary firmament, brought him a Booker longlisting, and giddy proclamations of an exciting new voice from Pakistan. Mangoes was that rare thing – a distinctly different voice, wry, satirical, going determinedly against the grain of lush South Asian narratives – which took the mysterious death of General Zia, the President of Pakistan, and converted it into an intriguing examination of the spidery skeins of Pakistani society in the eighties under a corrupt army dictatorship.
Now Hanif is back with his second novel, Our Lady of Alice Bhatti, a book that the jacket cover describes as “written with savage humour and in sizzling prose, a tour de force”. Nothing wrong with that descriptor, picked as it is from a Rolodex of adulatory book blurbs, but it does little to convey the visceral makeup of the book, its simultaneous sense of déjà vu and wonder, its gritty texture and terrifying guts, its godforsaken world created by a God-fearing society.
The book is being described variously as a black comedy, a satire on the bleakness of Pakistan as it exists today. Indeed, it’ll make you sigh, it’ll make you laugh, but most of all, it’ll make you shake your head, especially if you’re a South Asian woman, as you wonder if Hanif leads a parallel life as a ventroloquist. Taking as his central protagonist a woman who is a poor Catholic choohra (a pejorative word for Christians in Pakistan) this male writer from a distinctly different class and strata of that society yanks us into the perverse world of Alice Bhatti, junior nurse and ex-resident of Borstal woman’s jail, penis-slasher and miracle-worker.
Alice Bhatti works at the Scared Heart Hospital for All Ailments, both nurse and institution try to get by, by masking their religious denomination in a Muslim-majority country. “Leave your firearms and faith at the gate, says another sign under a small wooden cross, slightly askew and not painted in a long time, in the hope that people will forget that it’s a Catholic establishment”.
Alice, whose “body is one of those miracles of malnourishment, which has resulted in a thin, brittle bone stucture with overgrown breasts”, is an untouchable hoping “for the only privilege that comes with being one, that people won’t touch her without her explicit permission”. She wears baggy clothes topped by a baggier white coat in the hope that men will not focus on her breasts; she also carries a Gillette razor in her uniform pocket.
Alice has learnt that cutting up women is a sport older than cricket but just as popular in her cricket-crazed nation and she doesn’t want to attract attention. “During her house job she worked in Accidents and Emergencies for six months and there was not a single day – not a single day – when she didn’t see a woman shot or hacked, strangled or suffocated, poisoned or burnt, hanged or buried alive”. Practical Alice wants to stick to her plan of anonymity, temper her feisty choohra self with a nondescript exterior but fate – or the men in her world – has other plans for her.
Enter Teddy Butt, Musla body builder, winner of the title of Junior Mr Faisalabad, police pimp, and honorary member of the Gentleman’s Squad – a group of “like-minded police officers, not really an entity commissioned by any law-enforcing authority”. Teddy is smitten by Alice and lurks around the Out Patients Department hoping to catch her alone. However, since his articulation extends only to cricket, he brings a Mauser to his declaration of love since “people always try to understand when their life depends on listening properly”.
What chance can such an improbable romantic pairing have in a country rife with Islamic fundamentalism, where blasphemy laws have been invoked with increasing impunity against the country’s minority Christian community? In a scene that foreshadows their future together, Teddy Butt rescues a clueless Alice who has been sent to the Charya Ward, their love taking root in a loony bin.
“Just remember it’s called a nuthouse and there’s a reason for that… the whole country is a nuthouse”. Hanif evokes Toba Tek Singh, a lunatic character in a famous eponymous short story on the sectarian Partition of the subcontinent by the Pakistani writer Saadat Hasan Manto. The story, synonymous as it is with Manto, has deep resonance in the region for its vivid illustration of its absurd ways – in an ironic turn of events Manto ended up in a mental asylum himself, admitted there by his family.
But it is not the inmates of Charya Ward alone who are lunatics – entire Karachi is teeming with nutty folks as Alice and Teddy get married on a nuclear submarine; a Christian sweeper cures ulcers through the use of candles and Musla prayers; a man who waxes his body lectures his wife on the appropriate length of her pubic hair – a grain of rice; the leader of the G-squad, enroute to assassinating a man, stops at a phone booth to give his daughter last-minute Math instructions; an apparently still-born baby comes miraculously alive; Sister Alice become our Lady of Alice Bhatti via a can of acid and a detour through the Burns ward …
The narrative itself moves back and forth in time without warning, which can leave the reader feeling gobsmacked, but the grimness of proceedings are leavened by a dry wit and an ironic voice.
Hanif has mentioned in interviews his amazement at the surprising response his first book evoked. Whenever he encountered senior retired folks – bureaucrats, military generals – they quizzed him on his sources because, they insisted, the novel couldn’t be closer to truth.
The author need have no such fear with Alice. When faced with bitter truth, it is a universal human response to deal with it through outright denial, or laughter. No wonder then that Our Lady of Alice Bhatti is being hailed as a black comedy when Hanif, in this coruscating work, is telling it as it is.
This review first appeared in the South China Morning Post on 23 October 2011