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.