An Informal Book Review of Mohammad Hanif's "Our Lady of Alice Bhatti."
Mohammad Hanif's "Our Lady of Alice Bhatti" is a book alive with the dangers of Karachi. It maybe rambunctious and vulgar as one reviewer wrote, but also the only contemporary way in which you can really write about Karachi.
A series of shocking events -- visceral, violent, and epic -- A Christian junior nurse slashing a penis thrust in her face; a police helper doing small talk with a suspect about to be eliminated, and seeing him to his last piss or a cigarette; a dead baby's bluish hand hanging from its mother's birth canal like a big wart; an acid death; an assassination at the traffic signal; a villain dying to the sound of blaring horns and a display of bad manners; a mother lost on the slippery marble floors of a bungalow, raped perhaps; an inconsolable Communist chain-smoking doctor injecting mifeprex, inducing abortion because he can't marry a minority girl.
Behind these intermittent episodes is the backdrop of institutionalized oppression. What it means to be a lower caste Christian in Pakistan - a choohra, a junior nurse, a cleaner of clogged gutters. What it is to grow up around abuse and domineering fathers. How violence permeates the life of the poor. How women's bodies are subjected to scrutiny, evaluation, and claimed by violence. How the clutch of caste never permits social mobility. Softly yet, how one Christian bypasses discrimination by passing as Musla while secretly kneeling before Yassoo. How the state's final assertion of power - the Borstal Home - is reserved for the poor.
The book is the absurd documentation of the multiple layers of legal, social and economic oppression experienced by the city's most wretched -- who are invisible to most, and a passing interest to others in the blasphemy section of a human rights report.
But the story is not frightful like a train wreck or the news channels. Miraculously, it is mostly soft and well-paced, with some jitters and turbulence. The brutality is well camouflaged in a story about love; its characters are engrossed in their own humanity. Alice cures; she falls in love; she sways between God and revenge. Noor vigilantly watches over his mother dying of cancer and shares with her a strange humor. The 51 year old thrice married Sister Hina Alvi does her duty.
The main characters are necessarily comic, caricatures of their real selves with extraordinary powers of raising the dead, and being summoned by apparitions of the Holy Mother on the top of the Sacred Heart Hospital, acting often like superheroes, accosting and injuring deceptive men who had it coming; but sometimes real, vulnerable, feeling the pains and sorrows of life.
There are no exceptional elite characters who blur the morality of this narrative with their own -- present only in their distant villainy where you can see only their zippers and their dicks. The other villains are the middle men and the butchers. The casually brutal police officers; their neurotic assistants who accept the worst murders, ethically unhinged but obedient; spineless leftists; miserly fathers who cut women's ears during Partition for gold earrings; the local Diocese that would never accept a choohra for sainthood.
Sometimes, Hanif exaggerates the beauty and the sadness; sometimes he overdoes the meanness. But that is the poignant excitement that makes this story, and the characters that inhabit it. At twelve, the protagonist Alice Joseph Bhatti has lost her mother; as she furiously scrubs a pot trying to be her own mother, her father brings her a baby peacock he salvaged from the gutters, dripping in black filth; at 27 she packs all her belongings, her beggar's dowry, in a gym bag and leaves her choohra father's home to marry a Musla; her husband Teddy stares at her walking around without a shalwar and feels a seething anger.
Alice's body is described in cruel strokes. Her collarbones stick out like sharpened boomerangs; but her breasts have somehow survived lack of proper nourishment. An old nun quips she's a cross with tits when she has her picture taken behind a cross after an Easter play. It seems pornographic except it is a simple statement of a destitute upbringing and the premonition of a sexually violent future. Even possible comrades and faith sisters are middle villains.
The research work done by Hanif; perhaps walks through Neelam Colony in DHA, watching chicken throats cut at Empress market, interviews at the Holy family Hospital in Soldier Bazar, a visit to a woman's hostel -- Hanif has inhaled Karachi and its deep roughness, poverty, and violence, held it in, - presented its politics without romanticism, its conditions without the bandages. He has pinned Karachi down and held a knife to its jagged edge. Graphic and gutsy, this book can only get better in a film where all the glorious Urdu and local details would burst at the seams taking away that slightly sanitized quality English brings.
And in Alice Bhatti's prayer, he even offers a prayer potent enough to make good christians out of all of us. And if not that, then at least revolutionaries and atheists.
She prays like she has never prayed before. Its doesn't matter if there is a God listening or not. She just conjures up her Lord Yassoo and gives it to Him. She Holds Him by His throat till He can't breathe, she hangs from His robe till He can't take a step forward, she grabs His goblet of wine and flings it across the room, she heckles Him when He descends from the Mount of Olives and starts to give His sermon, she snatches the fish from His disciples...She sings Him lullabies. When He washes His disciples's feet, she accuses him of being a deadbeat Lord leaving poor wretched girls to bring dead babies into this world; she actually starts cursing him in Punjabi when he starts to raise Lazarus.