Our Lady Of
random house india
Rs 499 pp 256
This is not the Karachi novel. Or the Pakistan novel that blurbs keep screaming about in their seasonal squeals. Mohammed Hanif’s second book Our Lady of Alice Bhatti is a great novel that marks the firm establishment of a powerful voice in contemporary literature. It is a frayed, demented vision that Hanif presents in which he updates Saadat Manto with the unstable comic thrill of a Chuck Palahniuk at his best.
Philip Roth, that wry cheerleader of the individual battling against that metaphysical entity called society, put it clearly: “Unless one is inordinately fond of subordination, one is always at war.” Hanif's protagonist, Alice Joseph Bhatti, a junior nurse at the “death hole otherwise known as the Sacred Heart Hospital for All Ailments” is not fond of subordination at all. We find her first applying for the job, facing a panel of interviewers as if she is in a tribunal awaiting a sentence.
Immediately, we are in the middle of a hostile world — not the usually dramatic terrain that readers usually associate with real and literary Pakistan, but the banal one of daily paranoia, warnings and humiliations, a world in which a 27-year-old former inmate of a juvenile prison, hoping to get the job in the Accidents and Emergency ward of the hospital, faces the head of orthopaedics whose eyes are level with her breasts as he asks her, “‘Inverted nipples. How do you deal with them? Should you deal with them? Have you any personal experiences to share?’ Ortho Sir rolls his tongue around his gums as if there might be nipples stuck between his teeth.”
Alice’s adventures at Sacred Heart involve her negotiating with characters such as Senior Sister Hina Alvi (who has 35 years of bedside experience, worked through riots, massacres and saved the life of a foreign minister’s wife), chief medical officer Dr Jamus Periera (a gentle man who once played drums with the jazz band Hawks Bay Kittens) and the piggish ‘Ortho Sir’ (who has just received his Canadian immigration). But this traffic of people thins out as the novel progresses and two other characters form stronger bonds with the nurse who, apart from being sure of her universe that is surrounded by a hyper-chaotic world, has the power of seeing how a person will die by looking at his face.
One of Alice’s two companions is the 17-year-old Noor, a fellow ex-inmate of juvenile prison, who now works at the hospital as a dogsbody, recording meetings and who’s doing what. This boy-man with raging hormones — who, in one passage, “listens and watches Alice Bhatti’s arm which is white and fleshy above the elbow and dark and scrawny below it. He wants to touch both parts to find out if they feel different.” — explores all womanhood through Alice almost as an idea. But playing counterpart to Noor’s attention to lust is his attention to death, focused in the form of his dying, cancerous mother Zainab who is eking out her life in the hospital.
But the man who gets to know Alice more than an idea is the gentle thug and former Mr Faisalabad, Teddy Butt. He, too, is a dogsbody, not in a hospital like Noor but working for a shadowy para-police force that calls itself the Gentlemen’s Squad.
Alice marries Teddy, and seems to have finally settled down at the Sacred Heart. But Hanif does not let the ground stop quivering. We are given signs through the book that this woman has a past from which she has broken away. We also find the future — with Teddy, at the hospital, with her own self, in this world of violent chaos where cause and effect jump like fleas on a mangy dog’s back — hurtling towards her as we turn these addictively turnable pages.
In a dramatic violent scene that convinces me that this novel can easily be a fantastic novelisation of a very bad film, Alice slashes the penis of a man who forces her at gunpoint to conduct fellatio on him — while the elderly aristocratic lady whom the man is looking after is lying in the nearby bed in the VIP hospital room. Hanif’s depiction of violence is hyper-real to the point of being baroque. But never is he short of providing emotional depth — as he isn’t in the scene in which Teddy Butt is accompanying a suspected terrorist accomplice to what would have been an ‘encounter killing’ were it not for the fact that he loses him. The calmness in Teddy’s voice while comforting ‘not Abu-Zar’ (as the suspect insists he’s not the man the Gentlemen’s Squad is looking for, Abu Zar) is echoed in the calmness of Hanif’s sentences.
Apart from the sideward spiral architecture of Our Lady of Alice Bhatti, there is the author’s rivetting chokehold over language. It sits lightly, even as sentences jump out, forming comic parts that form nuts and bolts to a larger, darker whole.
On the surface, it seems that Hanif has taken the earlier setting of a military academy of his first novel A Case of Exploding Mangoes and replaced it with an underfunded, blood-spattered, equally cultish hospital. But he has done much, much more in this book. Sister Alvi tells Alice as she takes her around in the psychiatric ward for the first time: “You have to tell them that everything is normal. They might have buggered their own sister and then buried her alive but you have to tell them it’s normal.”
Which is what Hanif pulls off in this novel — telling us that it isn’t Alice, the rebellious daughter of a Christian municipal janitor, who is mad, bad and dangerous, but the world outside. The final denouement is stunning. And it made me want to go back to the beginning of the story of Alice Bhatti and how she seemingly has her revenge on the world even as Hanif makes it apparent that the world doesn’t care a shit.