Review of Mohammed Hanif’s ‘Our Lady of Alice Bhatti’ by Umair Javed
(Our Lady of Alice Bhatti by Mohammed Hanif. 240 pp, Rs. 499, Forthcoming, September 2011. Random House India)
"It’s a love story about a girl who has a troubled past and is trying to resume her life. She looks for a job, finds one and then falls in love and like it happens in real life, she falls for the wrong guy. It’s their story."
At the very heart of it, Our Lady of Alice Bhatti is a love story. The revelation of this heart, however, is a slow, fairly gradual process that appears almost secondary till the final two, maybe three, chapters of the book. Till then, it seems as if the romance between Teddy Butt and the eponymous Alice Bhatti is an add-on for both these individuals, while they grapple with their respective lives - hers as a fresh-out-of-jail nurse at Sacred Heart Hospital, and his as an informal police tout working with the ‘G-Squad’.
A host of other characters, consisting of Alice’s eccentric father Joseph Bhatti, a sweeper for the Municipal Corporation and part-time ulcer healer, Sister Hina Alvi, Alice’s rather stoic, paan-eating immediate superior, Teddy’s boss, the rather sage-like Inspector Malangi, and seventeen year old Noor, who works as a jack-of-all-trades at the hospital, ensure the right amount of complexity to the narrative.
“Less than three minutes in front of the interview panel and Alice Bhatti knows in her heart that she is not likely to get the job advertised as Replacement Junior Nurse, Grade 4. A sharp tingling in the back of her neck warns her that not getting the job might not even the worst thing that could happen here. No questions have been asked yet, but she knows that all the preparation – her starched white uniform, the new file, a faint smudge of mud-brown lipstick, breathing exercises she had done to control her jumpy heart, even the banana she ate on the bus to stop her stomach from rumbling – all seems like wasted investment, halal money down the haram drain, as her father Joseph Bhatti had put it.”
From the moment it starts off with this fly-on-the-wall, lens-inside-the-head account of Alice’s interview for a nursing position, right till the last word of Joseph Bhatti’s open letter to the Vatican, the story weaves itself through both imagination and conscience. There are times when the plot progression appears chaotic, bordering on haphazard, which could leave certain readers exasperated; but the minute it settles back into a more familiar, metronomic rhythm, one realizes the importance of induced, methodical chaos to this particular narration. It is, after all, based in a considerably volatile urban environment.
Despite the insistence in branding this tale as a love story, the author’s channeling of dark undertones becomes much more accentuated in this book. In fact, it doesn’t take much to realize that his two works have very little in common. Chuckles and sniggers gained at the caricaturing of a derided dictator in the first one give way to a mood spectrum that goes from somber to very dark through the course of this particular book - the result being that Alice Bhatti as a character is more defined, more contextualized than the pilot cadet protagonist from Exploding Mangos. And that in itself is understandable given the number of battle fronts she finds herself exposed to - as a Christian in a society hungry for another faith, as a member of the working class in an increasingly polarized environment, and most of all, as a woman in a nauseatingly patriarchal and sexually repressed society.
“The room is a monument to pharmaceutical merchandising: the orange wall clock from GlaxoSmithKline, the calendar with blonde models in various stages of migraine from Pfizer Pain Management Systems, the box of pink tissues promising Dry Days, Dry Nights. The ornamented gold-framed verse from the Quran exhorting the virtues of cleanliness carries the logo of Ciba-Geigy: a housefly in its death throes.”
The torque behind Hanif’s book is a plot that works the imagination at every step, yet remains complemented by invocation of imagery that many readers, at least here in Pakistan, would find very familiar. Sights, sounds, and smells of a run-down public sector health facility, the characteristic police ‘daala’, with a full cache of thuggish looking policemen at the back, the raw power of a notable’s entourage, and given the state of affairs, even a torched mini bus seem components out of everyday experience. On the other hand, the book avoids setting a purely localized stage, primarily through the vividness of its plot and élan of its principle character(s).
Is the book slightly guilty of dabbling a bit too much into imagery and context? Perhaps, but even then, at no point does it devolve into a case of structure driving agency-less characters. Alice Bhatti, despite all those battlefronts, remains an agent engaged with her surroundings, experiencing successes and losses, but never as a dormant, passive ‘acceptor’ of a ready-made fate. Nothing captures this sentiment better than the unorthodox relationship that both Alice and her father have with their own faith. It takes a certain degree of entrenchment, and even life-experience on part of the writer to avoid creating a convenient bi-polarity between Christian and Muslim, and instead make this as much about a character’s relationship with his or her own faith.
What is even more interesting, and this could very well be the result of a completely subjective assessment on the part of this reviewer, is that given the state of minority rights in Pakistan and the recent politics that this state has engendered, there is a distinct under-reliance on Alice’s Christian-ness as a catalyst for her character. More than anything, the book adequately highlights the incredibly somber state of affairs for a working woman from the wrong side of the class divide – an issue that is becoming ever more pressing in the wake of class compulsions and rapid urbanization.
“If Alice Bhatti didn’t want this job so badly, if she hadn’t stretched the gap between her nursing-school years and her first house job to cover the fourteen months that she spent in the Borstal Jail for Women and Children, she could have told what her mother had told many a man in her life: if I shove that mop up your arse, you will walk around like a peacock.”
It is said that a proper review requires a gap between finishing the book, gathering your thoughts and writing it out. You need time to let the author’s offering sink in, to let your mind absorb its contours, and allow your conscience, and more importantly, your imagination, to distance itself from the acquired immediacy that comes with reading an engaging piece of fiction. The case with Our Lady of Alice Bhatti is that Alice, Sacred Heart Hospital, Joseph Bhatti’s words, and even the specter of urban violence, which in itself is very secondary to the book, stay with the reader well after the last page is turned. This is not a fun read by any account. It will never generate light-hearted discussion amongst mutual appreciators. It is, and will remain a caricatured, yet incredibly evocative story of a woman with a troubled past, a troubled present, and an uncertain future. And this is how it lingers on in both imagination and conscience.
Profile of the author:
Mohammed Hanif is a member of a dying breed.
An ominous introduction for a much revered man, but a fairly accurate one nonetheless. As part of the generation that gained consciousness under Zia, he remains one of the few truly bi-lingual writers in present day Pakistan. More than that, the richness of his personal experiences, from his childhood in Okara, to a cadet in the Air Force and then as a journalist in Karachi with Newsline, and later on with the BBC in London, contribute to his ability in creating vivid narratives that engage with the reader’s sense of familiarity and curiosity.
Nearly ever writer would go great lengths to stress the objective, and purely essential nature of his or her writing, but with Hanif, the functionality of reflecting a society’s contradictions, quirks, and un-captured narratives comes by default. This of course, takes nothing away from the gift of enthralling his readership with gripping storylines and dynamic characters. His first novel, A Case of Exploding Mangos, was longlisted for the Booker prize, shortlisted for Guardian’s First book Award, Commonwealth Literary Prize and won the Shakti Bhatt First Book Awards. Many would agree that this was more than just a nice accolade haul for a debutant.
Hanif’s work, both journalistic and fiction is a much-needed bridge between two mediums growing mutually insulated as a result of the language divide. The privatization of education, the suburbanization and atomization of public spaces, means that a suburban kid growing up in Lahore or Karachi could very well spend most of his life without being introduced to the literary or journalistic heritage that previous generations have cultivated.
In such times where television talk shows become the item of choice for popular consumption, and compilation of works by polemical warriors get sold as ‘books’, Hanif is a thoroughly refreshing alternative. One can only hope and pray, that there will be others in times to come.
Originally published in The Review - Pakistan Today, 04/09/2011