06 December 2011

Our Lady of Alice Bhatti

This review first appeared in The Asian Review of Books

Mohammed Hanif’s clever, fast-paced and relentlessly sarcastic second book deserves to be judged purely on its own merit. But it never will be. A book like A Case of Exploding Mangoes is a hard act to follow, and Our Lady of Alice Bhatti cannot help but suffer the injustice of unwelcome comparison, thanks to the expectations that inevitably accompany such a sparkling debut, and it cannot help paling in that comparison.

Alice Bhatti is a story of miracles—miraculous loves, miraculous births and miraculous deaths—largely set in the Sacred Heart Hospital for All Ailments in Karachi, where the eponymous heroine returns, after a brief interlude in prison, to take up a position as Senior Nurse. Alice begins an unlikely love affair with Teddy Butt, a trigger-happy muscle-builder (“Junior Mr. Faisalabad”) who roams the halls of the hospital, but it is a relationship doomed from the start.

Hanif writes protagonists who are easy to fall in love with. Alice Bhatti, who is almost always referred to by her full name, is tough, weary and by no means an underdog—which, of course, is not to say that she is never the victim. She fights back compulsively: she bludgeons a malpractising surgeon who attempts to frame her for his carelessness, attacks overzealous Muslim classmates at nursing school who petition against “pornographic” anatomical charts and, in the book’s most harrowing and gratifying section, slashes the penis of her rapist with a razor that appears to be in her pockets for just such purposes. This streak of fearless righteousness is both brilliant and richly rewarding.

She conforms as much as she fights, though: "… she walks around little puddles when she can easily leap over them; she thinks any act that involves stretching her legs might send the wrong signal… She never eats in public. Putting something in your mouth is surely an invitation for someone to shove something horrible down your throat."

In sharp contrast, Teddy is an aspirant to the Gentleman’s Squad, an unlisted operation of the Karachi police force. He dislikes violence, but is frequently courted by trouble: one of the most powerful passages in the book is a description of a three-day riot accidentally set off by a frustrated, love-struck Teddy. He is frequently foolish, easily misled and in possession of a child-like charm that belies his thuggish exterior. His distaste for militancy is so strong that his role in the G Squad is largely that of a clean-up guy: “Basically, he only provides valet parking for the angels of death.”

The story is colourfully supported by such eccentric characters as Joseph Bhatti, Alice’s father who cleans drains and cures stomach ailments, Noor, Alice’s naive young friend from prison, and Sister Hina Alvi, the head nurse and Alice’s unexpected supporter. While he exists only in the framework of the main plot, it is Noor who is the most fully-realised of all the characters in this vivid, searing book. His relationships with Alice Bhatti, with Teddy Butt and especially with his blind dying mother Zainaba are all compellingly developed.

Several agendas are crammed almost forcefully into the telling of Alice Bhatti’s story—religion, caste, politics, sainthood and the state of the health-care industry—so much so that the book seems to be more about broadcasting this laundry list of problems than the plot. What stands out, though, is the gender discourse: Hanif’s caustic portrayal of a misogynistic society hits hard and cuts very deep.

He also dauntlessly engages with the resigned anger of the Catholic choohras of Pakistan: “Choohras were here before everything,” Joseph Bhatti tells his daughter, “Choohras were here before the Sacred was built, before Yassoo was resurrected, before Muslas came on their horses, even before Hindus decided they were too exalted to clean up their own shit. And when all of this is finished, Choohras will still be here.” To which Alice Bhatti’s response is sharp and telling: “Yes, when everything is finished, Choohras will still be here. And cockroaches too.”

The style is impertinent and pointedly profane, teeming insistently with metaphors that manage to be simultaneously unsentimental and evocative: “Teddy Butt can see all the way up between her legs where a few wiry hairs jut out of her white panties. He feels a mixture of disgust and desire, like a devout person who is hungry but can't decide whether the fare on offer is halal or not.” Still, the book doesn’t achieve the careless irreverence or comic brilliance that characterised A Case of Exploding Mangoes.

Nor does it have the fine cohesiveness that held Exploding Mangoes together. Several seemingly important plot lines are opened but never explored. We are told early in the book, for example, that Alice Bhatti can look at people and prophesy their deaths, but this skill of hers, if indeed it exists, is never again referred to. The result is chaotic and unreliable. Equally, the end feels rushed, and the concluding plot device contrived. It is a book that fully intends to end with a bang, yet only manages a whimper.

The Karachi that Hanif paints—peopled with memorable characters and telling exchanges—is the real takeaway from this unusual book.

29 September 2011

As Though She Were Sleeping

An edited version of this review appeared in The Asian Review of Books.
Postmodernist fiction tends to be suspicious of populist scholarship, seeking alternates in the unreliability of individual memory and collective conscience. The strength and, indeed, the fallibility of first-hand experience make us necessary curators of everyday history. As Though She Were Sleeping by Elias Khoury (translated from the Arabic by Humphrey Davies) is a work that seeks to make just such borderless transgressions.

The book stands on the precipices of magic realism and the stream of consciousness. It is divided into three sections that chronicle three nights in the life of its protagonist, Meelya. The three nights are spent in a hospital bed in Jaffa in December 1947, just before the birth of Meelya’s child, and each night deals with fragmented dreams and recollections that the reader must piece together. Meelya is born in Beirut and moves to Nazareth in 1946 when she marries Mansour, a Palestinian. The move from Nazareth to Jaffa, where charged political tensions between the European Jewish settlers and the dispossessed Palestinians have already resulted in the death of Mansour’s brother, sparks off a series of intensely mythic visions in Meelya’s sleep.

The book is non-linear and repetitive - a twice-edged sword. Stories are played out over and over again, encircling Meelya’s moments of slumber and wakefulness with sharp new recollections that texture her existing, often disjointed, memories. Through a process of constant reinvention and expansion, the stories shift and crystallise slowly, sometimes even displacing earlier versions of themselves. What emerges is a dense layering of complex detail. Each time Meelya harks back to an incident, additional information is revealed, knotted up in the unclear divisions between the real and the unreal. Pointedly ambiguous, the book lays its stories out on a hybrid plane that suffuses dream and reality on the one hand and past and present on the other.

The ambiguity endows the book with a vagueness that is best described by the author when Meelya tries to explain her dreams to Mansour: “She tried to tell him the story and it came out in no particular order, so he understood nothing… She’d skate from one word to another, or from one word to a series of images, and then be unable to recover the end of the string that they call the story’s beginning. Her string had no end; she told stories like someone winding string, and would keep going without being able to tie things one to another.”

Khoury’s often purposeless ramblings are, in fact, like many strings left hanging loosely in the air, as though the author just let himself go completely without controlling the flow of interior discourse. Often, it is control that is sorely lacking in the new proponents of the genre, when compared to their precursors (I’m thinking of Joyce, Garcia and Borges, two of whom, like Khoury, I have only read in translation).

Khoury’s text is heavy with religious imagery that lends further indistinctness to his characters. Where the book is problematic, though, is not in its intentional ambiguity, but in the simple aspect of readability. There are several chunks of long-winded text, especially in the second and third parts, that simply do not contribute to plot progression and are characterised by little more than the indulgence of laboured description. When the formless gives way to the structureless, literature begins to tread dangerous grounds and the decoding process can be disorienting and tedious.

Contemporary surrealism necessitates allegory and, in this case, political discourse. Meelya’s persistent stupor is both an escape and an affliction. She finds herself overwhelmingly affected by the tragedies of life within the Palestinian state and the formation of Israel (which coincides with the birth of her child). She becomes so dependent on her dream-world that she is unable to step back into reality at all. Ultimately, her escape needs to be a return to reality. Through her dreams, she investigates the past, foretells the future and often entirely misses the present, as though it is far easier for her to pilot herself in such a world than in her own. Indeed, that is what all fiction is about.

16 August 2011

Beautiful Thing

An edited version of this review appeared in The Asian Review of Books.

Note: I received an "uncorrected proof copy" of the book intended for review purposes only. All quotations are from this copy and may have been altered in subsequent editions.

Through peepholes and conversations, Sonia Faleiro grants her reader a piercing insight into Bombay’s dance bars, particularly through one beautiful bar dancer called Leela. Beautiful Thing, a work of narrative non-fiction, is a portrait and a chronicle. The book is written in two parts -- one that covers January 2005, a time when dance bars in Bombay were prolific and lucrative, and one that covers September 2005, after the Maharashtra government’s abrupt decision, in a misguided attempt at ‘morality’, to shut down its dance bars, suddenly rendering around 75,000 women unemployed.

At the very start of the book, Faleiro deftly tosses her reader straight into what the book subtitles as "the secret world of Bombay’s dance bars" without introduction or initiation. It is a subculture that is brutal and glamourous in equal parts - and glamourous only because, frequented by gangsters, policemen and beautiful women and propelled by sex, alcohol and money, it is a scene so reminiscent of ‘item number’ sequences in Indian cinema.

By Faleiro’s account, the industry is simultaneously mercenary and excessive, generous both in reward and punishment. It is a sector that converts a service into a product, objectifying beauty and commodifying sex appeal. Circumscribed by multiple pay-offs, bribes and middlemen, the bar dancer, on whose skill the entire industry thrives, is ultimately only a small part of a composite hierarchical structure. Its nature is directly exploitative, but it is this commerce that allows a girl like Leela to find a profession outside sex work (and often make more money than in professions that are perceivably more ‘respectable’).

Early in the book, Faleiro delivers an incisive and brilliant portrayal of her relationship with Leela: "Leela wanted only to be heard. And the best way to accomplish that, she knew, was not to change the subject if the subject was her. So our often one-sided relationship may be characterized thus: I called Leela. She ‘missed-called’ me." But unmistakably, Sonia Faleiro is Leela’s friend. She comes to care for Leela, to respect her and to cherish their layered and unusual, if one-sided, relationship. And while that might make the author a biased storyteller, the reading experience is all the richer for it.

Leela is mired in several complex love-hate relationships - with her mother, Apsara, who is "fat" and "simple", with her best friend Priya, who is “bootiful”, with her lover and employer, Purushottam Shetty, and with her surrogate mother, a beguiling hijra named Masti Muskaan (formerly Krishna). But the people who really fill her days and nights are her "kustomers", the men who desire her and abuse her, who spoil her and cheat her, who chase her and discard her, all in the same breath.

For all her feisty pride and independence, Leela is desperately lonely and dreams of being married or going abroad. She is optimistic and cynical in turns, resigned to her "fate", but determined to make something of herself. She tells Sonia, "Every life has its benefits. I make money and money gives me something my mother never had. Azaadi. Freedom. And if I have to dance for men so I can have it, okay then, I will dance for men." Still, Leela considers herself a "barwali" (bar woman) more than a "dhandewali" (working woman).

In the second part, the book turns murkier. Unemployment, disease and sudden poverty render Leela and her former colleagues more vulnerable than ever before. The new law ruptures Leela’s financial independence and her spirit, but never her courage. Faleiro obligingly takes the book to an open end, giving us one last, unforgettable glimpse of Leela’s dance with hope and fate - her nakhra.

Through dance bars, red light districts, bacchanalian pilgrimages, hospital HIV wards and brothels, the book snakes through a Bombay that many have heard of, but few have seen. Faleiro lovingly records these moments with a wisdom endowed by immediacy and memory, unafraid to step into her story as a character, but also unwilling to become central to it. She is rather like that sensitive bartender one always hopes to run into. She listens sympathetically, reserves judgement and mixes that odd cocktail of subjectivity and objectivity.

Faleiro’s tone is remarkably confessional - about everything. Her propensity for detail is nicely complemented by her deeply personal style of storytelling. She has the skill of a novelist, the intimacy of a conversationalist and the scrutinising eye of a journalist. Most of all, she is unfailingly tender.

What proves to be irksome, though, is the jarring patois that she attempts to replicate in direct speech - "kustomer", "bootiful", "hensum", "bijniss", "wedge" (vegetarian - it took this reader a few moments to figure this one out!). The use of pidgin in an otherwise respectful book borders both on kitsch and mockery.

Aside from this, Faleiro manages to steer clear of tawdry sensationalism in this vivid book. It is disturbing, but never uneasy; dramatic, but never shocking. Since much of the world is seen through the author’s eyes, her sense of understanding and appreciation is somehow transferred to the reader; we may never fully be able to empathise with Leela, but this knowledge grants us momentary cognition. We are never allowed to transgress from viewer to voyeur, and this, perhaps, is Faleiro’s greatest accomplishment.

01 July 2011

The Cloud Messenger

A slightly edited version of this review appeared in The Asian Review of Books.

The Cloud Messenger by Aamer Hussein is one of those rare books whose cover -- an exquisite work of art, design and typography -- is as stunning as the pages within. It is far more telling than the blurb and, indeed, far more inviting. We are very much in the age of beautiful book design, but even in such an age where custom stales infinite variety, we must pause to gasp at the sheer brilliance of this book cover.

Then, there is the evocative title. We are as clouds – a generation plagued by indecision and restlessness, ever moving, never belonging; light, wispy and carelessly in transition. This gorgeous, precipitous cloudburst of a novel takes its name from a poem in Sanskrit by Kalidasa, Meghadootham (which literally translates to ‘the cloud messenger’). But where Kalidasa’s poem is about a longing for home and beloved, Hussein’s book is more of a search, a restless, feverish wanderer’s search, for these things.

The book begins by describing the childhood of Mehran, its protagonist, in Karachi and Indore in a series of fond recollections. Mehran’s erudite, artistic family fills his days with music and poetry. Perhaps as a direct consequence of this, later, in London, Mehran quits a potentially lucrative career in finance to study Urdu and Farsi – and to fall in love. The narrative progression into adulthood becomes more personal, charting relationships and journeys. His life crumbles in many ways and blooms in other ways and the tone grows profoundly melancholy, telling tales of tragedy wrought out of inertia and a deep sense of wistfulness, rather than catastrophe or heartbreak.

The book’s narrative twists between the third and the first person, making Mehran a narrator and a hero in alternate turns. In the third person, the author is a chronicler, recounting Mehran’s story with the matter-of-fact tone of conversational familiarity. But when he slips into the more confidential, less expansive first person, the words overflow with feeling and momentous sentiment. Just as intricately, the novel seems to flit from autobiography to fiction (the author candidly admits in his final note, that the novel is ‘the story of some of the paths (he) might have taken’), from one space in time to another, from the present tense to the past tense and even from one language to another.

Much like the poetry that Mehran gives himself to, Hussein’s writing is lyrical and graceful, snatching hungrily at all that is fine in the languages we speak; it is a delicate intermingling of many languages, many memories and many loves, allowing the loveliness of one to wash easily over another; it weaves poetry into a sequence of events that would be insufferably prosaic without the sympathetic sensuousness of the way they are told; but its brilliance is truest and most terrible in its description of places and the nomad’s agitated and rootless drifting from one to another.

Mehran is never as easily torn between people as places. He coasts from city to city – Karachi, Indore, London, Rome, Delhi – and wretchedly misses a place as soon as he leaves it. The narrator writes: ‘His life in that rainless place of his birth was filled with a longing for rainy places: but now that he lives in a city where it rains all year, he dreams of the desert and the sea, and the smell of warm raindrops on wet earth. He wants another, redder moon, longer days in winter, and in summer an early, flagrant sunset.’

The people who wrench his love are mirrored in these places. The mysterious, unattainable Riccarda, whom he loves violently, is defined by Rome (‘I remember Riccarda well, wandering around the streets of Rome in cotton trousers, her hair windblown, her lips and skin unpainted.’) and London (‘whenever Riccarda was in town, I discovered a city I had hardly charted, hidden within the London I thought I knew well.’) Equally, Marco, Mehran’s companion in wanderlust and sometime friend, is defined by their time in Delhi (‘Over the next few days (in Delhi) he took me to places and showed me things I wouldn’t have seen without him’). But the strongest, most volatile relationship is with the broken woman Marvi, a drifter as itinerant and rootless as Mehran himself. ‘I spend my life longing for the place I’m not in, but when I go back I never fit,’ she tells Mehran and he deeply echoes the sentiment.

Especially during the university years, the book is also a tender critical discourse on literature and all that it has come to mean to those of us who still cling, often desperately, to the eloquence of tongues that came before us. This is as much a mystic Sufi style retelling of a wanderer’s journey as a pastoral European style classicist’s romantic remembrances of lost loves. In yet another poignant parallel to the literature that Mehran reads, the author mingles the two to create a grammar of his own.

Mehran’s limited perspective never allows any of the other characters in the novel to ever fully develop or come into their own. What drives the novel forward is neither plot nor characterisation, but the skill of storytelling. This is a slow book, lacking urgency in dialogue and plot progression, and acutely invested in individual moments and peculiar details. Here again, it is like a journey through clouds – quiet, fleeting, interspersed with events that seem unrelated and memories that seem extravagant, and still only a passing fancy. 

No review does as much justice to this book as its title – or its cover.