Published on Chowk.com on Dec 12th 2011
You don’t know till you are half way through the book that the protagonist in Mohammed Hanif’s Our Lady of Alice Bhatti, is beautiful – and you don’t figure out till the end how symbolic her beauty is. The novel itself is everything that a piece of literature has to be – It has four of the strongest characters; it has the whole spectrum of love, life, disease, violence and death; it has a very memorable setting of a hospital called Sacred Heart of All Ailments and has a social artifact – A minority religion in a fundamentalist and overbearing Muslim culture.
Both the minority and majority religion are described with so much astuteness that it is often comical. “The driver puts on a tape and a Musla anthem starts to play. There is no music, just a bunch of men shouting at the top of their voices demanding to be teleported to Mecca.”
In his book launch Mohammed Hanif claimed that the book is about a woman “who happens to be a Christian.” This is true: In the world that is painted, what happened to Alice Bhatti would probably happen to any women, even non-Christian, provided she was from the less privileged class whose family finds occupation cleaning the streets and gutters of our metropolises boiling over with people and their excretions. But Alice Bhatti gets into trouble twice, and the first time it is specifically because she was a Christian.
What happens to Alice Bhatti is unfortunate because she had categorically made it part of her schema that she did not want to be “those women” who she would find admitted to the Sacred Heart Hospital for treatment of some form of violence or the other. Alice Bhatti was so conscious in protecting herself that she went as far as avoiding stepping over puddles in fear that her legs would stretch too much, or would not eat in public afraid that that would inspire lewd thoughts in men who form a society known for its extreme perversion. But these minute precautions did not prevent her from looking at marriage itself as a threat.
She allowed herself to be swept by the passion of Teddy Butt, the bodybuilder from Rawalpindi. And why wouldn’t she – he was strong and cleanly waxed and had no hesitation in carrying her away from a mad mob in the psychiatric ward. She forgave him for the fact that the only communication he knew was with the prop of his gun? She could tame him, or so she thought – A mistake that most strong and empowered women working in hostile environments are often found making.
The novel does not follow the typical three act structure but can certainly be called gripping. Early on, Alice Bhatti is established as someone who is complex, not your typical non-layered woman. She seemingly has no specific goal except that she rediscovered her healing powers, not just as a nurse but as a spiritual guide. The apple does not fall too far from the tree. Her father, Joseph Bhatti is a Christian who practices Muslim spiritual healing. Whatever she is or becomes, she is genuine, in her religion and in her identity.
The book, unconstrained by the propriety most known to the upper classes, is bold and even vulgar. But it is equally sensitive to the pain of Alice’s odds as a young girl who loses her mother when she was little. She also has a strong sense of conviction and resilience. Throughout the read, there are details that become ever so relevant to the plot as the book concludes.
Mohammad Hanif’s debut The Case of Exploding Mangoes was a masterpiece, which was about General Zia’s plane crash, but in this novel he has woven a different but equally important snapshot of Pakistan – Its minority, which since Zia’s era has been marginalized and overshadowed by the state religion.
Like Mohsin Hamid’s Reluctant Fundamentalist, this too should be converted into a film for cinemas globally. Mohammad Hanif would then have something in common with another Pakistani filmmaker, Mehreen Jabbar who made Ramchand Pakistani about a Hindu boy who ends up in Indian prison. The systemic discrimination against Pakistan’s minorities at least gets highlighted though these mediums to a largely ambivalent Pakistani middle class.
Our Lady of Alice Bhatti is about merging the holy with the feminine as a refuge from bigotry and misogyny. Her story stays with you long after the last page is turned.