Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 3, 2014

Our Lady of Alice Bhatti, by Mohammed Hanif

Our Lady of Alice BhattiOur Lady of Alice Bhatti  is Mohammed Hanif’s second  novel and I’d enjoyed A Case of Exploding Mangoes for its quirky satire, so when I was in the mood for something light-hearted to read,  I retrieved it from the pile.  It was not quite what I expected.

The humour is very black indeed.  Hanif writes in a brisk, sardonic style that juxtaposes violence and horror with dry wit.  His setting is the chaotic city of Karachi, in which his central character Alice Bhatti must somehow try to negotiate a fate between victim and saviour.  Her observers watch but cannot intervene; they are powerless against a culture where women are in peril if they don’t conform.

Alice is a young nurse working in the Sacred Heart Hospital for All Ailments in Karachi, transcending her fate as one of the Untouchables, keeping quiet about her lapsed Catholic faith in an intolerant Muslim society, and – with the judicious use of a razor blade in defence of her own standards – holding her own in Pakistan’s male-dominated world.  But as you’d expect, there have been hurdles along the way, not least a stint in prison on a trumped-up charge and a sour experience at nursing school that made her swear off doctors with leftist tendencies and penetrative sex. (p. 180).

WARNING: SPOILERS

But when it comes to love, sassy, street-smart Alice is a fool.  Seventeen year old Noor, a fellow inmate at Borstal now also working at the hospital, is not very literate, but he’s landed a job as a record-keeper, a steno, a secretary for those who are not budgeted to have a proper secretary. (p. 22).  He has a bad case of puppy-love for Alice, but his cynical advice to her turns out to be prescient.

You probably should get married.  I have heard that a good husband is the only cure for bad dreams. You know why? Because then you are sleeping with your bad dream. (p.43)

Noor, a keen observer of Alice’s fate,  anticipates her peril when she falls for a thug called Teddy.   In any other society Teddy would be a gangster, but in Hanif’s Karachi this narcissistic body-builder is in the ‘Gentleman’s Squad’, a backdoor unit of a corrupt police force which dispenses its own kind of rough justice with torture and middle-of-the-night executions.  Teddy keeps himself nice with a self-deluding description of his job as providing valet parking for the angels of death.

Their fatal meeting occurs when Teddy turns up at the hospital not to be healed but to have his thumb crushed on his boss’s orders: they have a very dangerous suspect and they need proof that he’s dangerous so that the medico-legal niceties can be observed and G Squad can have him for a few days to torture the ‘truth’ out of him.  Noor, who has learnt the art of making friends in jails, and is the one who supplies Teddy with his ‘vitamins’ and other forms of assistance for body- building competitions, gets the job of smashing Teddy’s thumb into multiple fractures.  And thus it is Alice’s fate that Teddy just happens to be there (despite his soiled bandages) to rescue her from the Charya ward, a grotesque psychiatric ward which is no place for a decent woman but – disbelieving – she ventures there alone anyway.  Did she want to be rescued?  No, Teddy carries her out of there kicking and screaming at his effrontery.  (Alice is a bit naïve about what it means when she is picked up and carried by twelve deranged men and put onto a bed.)

Alice is also a bit naïve about what Teddy does on ‘night shift’ but perhaps she might have twigged that his impulsive nature might cause trouble when – after she had initially rejected him – he assuaged his frustration by firing a gun at random, killing a truck driver and sparking three days of ethnic rivalry rioting in the city.  Noor finds the attraction incomprehensible (and so does the reader!)

Noor sees Alice and Teddy walking out of the  Sacred, hand in hand, and starts to suspect that love is not just blind, it’s deaf and dumb and probably has an advanced case of Alzheimer’s; it’s unhinged.  (p.78).

He can’t imagine reading their names together except maybe in a tragic news headline. (p. 83).

Even Alice doesn’t understand it:

She is relieved that everything has happened so suddenly; she hasn’t had the time to examine her own motives, otherwise her love story would have turned into an anthropological treatise about the survival strategies employed by Catholics in predominantly Islamic societies (p. 92).

The plot and its absurdities serve to satirise the sad state of contemporary Pakistan.  Hanif is a Pakistani journalist so his depiction of a dysfunctional society presumably emerges from authentic experience.

During the three-day shutdown, eleven more are killed; two of them turn up shot and tied together in one gunnysack dumped on a rubbish heap. Three billion rupees’ worth of Suzukis, Toyotas and Hinopaks are burnt.  During these days Alice Bhatti is actually not that busy.  When people are killed while fixing their satellite dish on their roof, or their motorbike is torched while they are going to buy a litre of milk, they tend to forget about their various ailments; they learn to live without dialysis for their kidneys, home cures are found for minor injuries, prayers replace prescription drugs. (p.71-2)

When the newspapers proclaim ‘Normalcy limping back to the city,’ as if normalcy had gone for a picnic and sprained an ankle (p.72), one wonders what normal might be like in Hanif’s surreal world – and in his real one.

Other observers of Alice’s fate are her bemused colleague Sister Hina Alvi, and her father, Joseph who performs miracles both in the shambolic sanitation system and with curing stomach ulcers.  But Alice needs her own miracle to survive the fate that awaits her.  You’ll have to read the book yourself to discover the extraordinary ending.

Author: Mohammed Hanif
Title: Our Lady of Alice Bhatti
Publisher: Jonathan Cape, 2011
ISBN: 9780224094085
Source: Personal library, purchased from readings $32.95

Availability

Fishpond: Our Lady of Alice Bhatti


Responses

  1. I’ve encountered the name Mohammed Hanif several times but have yet to read him. I find it difficult to figure out which foreign sounding names to read and which not. That must be my own narrowness.

    • Oh, not at all, it’s just we’re spoiled for choice, and it is very hard to choose.

  2. I picked this one up in a library sale but have yet to read it. You’ve given me a reason to bump it up on the list


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