02 November 2011

Our lady of Alice Bhatti by Mohammed Hanif

The wrath of god's henchmen
Mohammed Hanif writes beautifully. His sentences are spare and clean, and evoke strong imagery and caricatures. He is cynical, and deeply witty, and he paints a vivid picture of Pakistan and all its beauty, savagery, and incongruity.
Alice Bhatti is a trained nurse in the Sacred Heart Hospital in Karachi, a place where grand old ladies in luxurious private rooms defy death and wear two-toned shatoosh shawls which cost as much as a two-bedroom house, something sweet, spunky Alice could probably never aspire to. Her best friend is the boy Noor – he's not just a little boy, but a respected ward boy. His name is not on the employees’ list but he has more responsibilities than any paramedic with a full-time, pensionable job – and he puts food on the table even though there is no table. (He hasn’t read Gray’s Anatomy, but there is nothing in that fat book that he hasn’t seen strewn on the floor of A&E.)
At the Sacred, religion is as pervasive as elsewhere in the country. Some of the 'Musla' girls petition against anatomical charts in classrooms, describing them as pornographic and against the decent behaviour prescribed not only by Islam but by every other faith as well. When their petition is denied, reproductive organs from the charts began to disappear: ovaries are ripped out, black ink thrown on mammary glands and penile depictions mutilated.
Somehow Alice finds herself in the eye of a miracle. The Catholic Church has adopted a number of borderline pagan habits and fallen into the local custom of burning incense at the mention of anything holy and covering every slab of marble that carried a saint’s name with garlands of marigold. However, it had never allowed a female member of its congregation any role that didn’t involve carrying a bowl of holy water, washing the dead, or preparing the native cuisine for visiting clergy (Goan prawn curries for foreign bishops and aloo gosht for common priests from Punjab). You will have to read this book to find out who Alice marries and why, and what happens to her in the end.
Like Our Lady of Alice Bhatti, Mohammed Hanif’s last book, A case of exploding mangoes, was also one of those dark satires which, even more than this one, could be confusing to someone who didn’t realise that it was supposed to be funny. After reading and enjoying it, I interviewed Mohammed Hanif for my Sunday Mid-day column. In answer to my question
You’ve managed to write a book that’s Pakistani only because the story and characters are Pakistani, but is truly international in style, language and plot in a relaxed and friendly way. How about some advice for the thousands of writers from the subcontinent who are trying to achieve something similar?
He mailed me this lovely reply:
Are there really so many of them? I think the only advice I can give is that they should read, they should read a lot. And if they are lucky enough to get the inspiration and actually write something then they should print it out, and read it and see if it’s as good as it sounded in their head.
I had an amusing experience while reading Our Lady of Alice Bhatti. I happened to be reading Serious Men by Manu Joseph aloud to my friend Gladys at the same time. I had read, enjoyed and admired it very much a few months before and was getting a chance to do so again, and was very happy to see Gladys listening with rapt attention, admiring the turn of phrase and bone-accurate descriptions of Bombay life, and completely absorbed in the plot from one week to the next.
Manu Joseph is also a journalist, very expressive, and extremely funny; these basic features are common to both writers. However, reading Mohammed Hanif’s book and observing Gladys’s reaction as I read her Manu Joseph’s, I felt a bit as if I was watching an Indo-Pak cricket match and thinking, “Yay! We’re winning! We’re winning!”
One of the little things I enjoyed in Our Lady of Alice Bhatti is the use of the expression Charya Ward. The Charya Ward is a forgotten loony bin (no easing-in time, no guided tours, no orientation course). I recognized ‘Charya’: it’s a Sindhi word, and I knew what it meant, along with all its implications and baggage, and felt happy to see it written down in a book that would be read by many people all around the world.

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