Thursday, 10 November 2011

Our Lady Of Alice Bhatti by Mohammed Hanif – Book Review

Mohammed Hanif is a Karachi based journalist and writer who once trained to be an officer in the Pakistani Air Force. Hanif achieved fame through his debut novel, A Case of Exploding Mangoes, which was shortlisted for the 2008 Guardian First Book Award. It was also the Best First Book from Europe and South Asia for the 2009 Commonwealth Writers' Prize.

Hanif’s signature satire has not deserted him in Our Lady Of Alice Bhatti. Not only is it strong as ever, it is at times overwhelming, especially when mixed up with sarcasm, poverty, pain, violence and nastiness, the one human being to another type of nastiness. The story and plot of Our Lady is very simple. Body builder Teddy Bhatt meets pretty nurse Alice Bhatti, they get married on a submarine and then they don’t live happily ever after. Of course, it is not as simple as that. Teddy Bhatt the body builder also happens to be a police tout. Pretty nurse Alice Bhatti is a Choohra, slang for both Christians and sanitary workers in Pakistan, since a majority of sanitary workers in Pakistan seem to be Christians. At least, Alice Bhatti’s father is one.

A nurse who had her nursing education interrupted on account of a stint in the borstal, Alice is a fighter to the core, the type which fights with one’s nails and fists and if needed, a razor blade, rather than with guns or bombs. The borstal stint came about because Alice was literally left holding a cut vein with a pair of tweezers in an operating theatre when the surgeon had a coughing fit. Alice seems to have been at fault and the patient did die, but the reason Alice ended up in the borstal was more because she was, with some justification, accused of causing grievous bodily harm with intent to murder. We are not told if Alice actually wanted to murder the surgeon, but she did aim the marble flower pot at his head and break his nose and four front teeth. We are told that at her bail hearing in the sessions court, ‘Alice Bhatti carries her handcuffs lightly, as if she is wearing glass bangles. She treats the policewomen as if they were her personal bodyguards, and she looks at the judge as if to say, how can a man so fat, so ugly, wearing such a dandruff covered black-robe, sit in judgement on her?

It’s not just Alice, all other characters in Our Lady of Alice Bhatti are equally unique, slightly eccentric and exceptional, but very much believable. Teddy Bhatt has a job which pays well, but he has irregular hours. A tout who hangs around with the Gentlemen's Squad or G Squad, Karachi Police’s version of Indian encounter specialists, Teddy’s job is to provide ‘valet parking for the angels of death’. When his boss, Inspector Malangi wants to kill someone, it’s Teddy who holds down the victim. When Malangi wants a thumb, Teddy’s provides one. His own. When a prisoner is taken on his final journey, it is Teddy who keeps him quiet and under control. ‘When all else failed, he would tell them cricket jokes, mostly about Imran Khan and his real bat, and they would laugh till their torture wounds would start bleeding and Teddy had to calm them down.’ The G Squad treats Teddy well. They arrange for Teddy’s wedding on the submarine and there’s a warm-up party at a safe house the night before the wedding where Teddy gets to go first with the girl hired for the night.

When Teddy goes to meet Alice and propose to her, he carries a Mauser with just three bullets in it.

Alice’s father Joseph Bhatti, in addition to being an expert on clearing clogged drains, cures stomach ulcers by reciting verses from the Holy Quran, a lit candle balanced on the patient’s tummy. Teddy’s father was a physical education instructor, a strict disciplinarian, a man who would make his wife take off her earrings every morning and give it to him to carry to his school and bring it back, just to make sure no one kills her for her earrings when he is away. Then there’s Noor, Senior Sister Hina Alvi (who is a Christian despite her Musla name), Dr. James Pereira and a few others, each of them as eccentric and interesting as the others.

French Colony where Alice grew up and from where she manages to escape after her marriage to Teddy is not the nicest place in Karachi. Descriptions of French Colony are scattered throughout the book. Here’s one of them:

Alice Bhatti walks past the shop owned by Jesus Bhatti, who sells cigarettes, milk and, when business is bad, pints of his own milk at the Sacred. Next to the shop is an empty shack from where the only entrepreneur in French Colony used to operate, stealing manhole covers and then selling them back to the Corporation. The open drain is clogged, its surface shimmering with all the plastic bags dumped in it. When Alice Bhatti was still a student, she used to mull over this question: if half the population of French Colony is responsible for clearing the garbage from the whole city, how come they can’t keep their own streets clean? Now she knows better and walks carefully trying to avoid the open sewers. She observes a gang of cats jumping the drain, playing a lazy game of catch.

Even more than in A Case Of Exploding Mangoes, Hanif shines a spotlight on Pakistani society, the way it treats women, its Christian minority and anyone without influence and money. There are numerous anecdotes within Our Lady of Alice Bhatti which drive home this point. For example, when a young relative of a VIP patient whom Alice nurses, points a pistol to Alice's head and orders her to give him a blow job, Alice starts to comply and gets the flaccid member ready, but as soon as the blood vessels fill up and it elongates, she slashes it with a razor and calmly suggests that her tormentor go to "Accidents" for help. However, Alice has reason to be worried, because there is no formal complaint filed against her, which suggests that a private revenge is being planned. Senior Sister Hina Alvi helpfully suspends Alice for two weeks, with full pay mind you, in the hope that it would mollify the man and his relatives.

Hanif writes well, extremely well. When Teddy messes up and a prisoner escapes from his control, Inspector Malangi does not scream at him. Instead, he takes him out for breakfast and insists that Teddy eat and eat well and eat some more. The reader actually feels Teddy’s anxiety as he shoves the omelettes, toast and tea down into a quivering tummy. Towards the end, I was rooting for Teddy and Alice though I knew that they were both doomed. When the end comes, it is tragic and doesn’t really make much sense, but then, human behaviour does not always make sense, does it? The plot starts unravelling only from the middle of the 230-odd page book and events move rather fast after that. There were times when I found the sarcasm a mite too much and the darkness too depressing. Nevertheless, Our Lady Of Alice Bhatti is a good read, as good as A Case Of Exploding Mangoes.

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