Alice Bhatti, heroine of Mohammed Hanif’s powerful second novel, is a “low-caste” Catholic nurse in a run-down Karachi hospital. Her impetuous nature and “free-floating anger” is the engine of the plot. She is fearless, and where others would cower before inept bureaucracy, the lawless rich or nonsensical religious dictats, Alice refuses to submit. She bludgeons a corrupt surgeon with a marble flowerpot and is sent to borstal; she fights with Muslim girls at nursing school after they attempt to outlaw “pornographic” anatomical charts; she dismisses God for his “glacial incompetence”. Pressed to administer oral sex at gunpoint, she applies a razor to her attacker’s penis. The 200 pages spent in Alice Bhatti’s presence are distressing, illuminating and often funny.
Alice, the child of a sewer cleaner, has injustice written into a body so thin that the tailor who measures her wedding suit can see “she comes from the kind of household where starvation is passed off as fasting”. Because she is a woman, “lewd gestures, whispered suggestions, uninvited hands on her bottom are part of Alice Bhatti’s existence”. As a Christian, she is “spat at”. At college she is “expelled, readmitted, investigated, warned, warned again”.
Hanif shows what life is like when Alice conforms to the behaviour expected of a woman of her class. “She sidesteps when she sees a boy half her age walking towards her … She never eats in public. If you show your hunger, you are obviously asking for something.”
Alice’s transformation from a mute woman who doesn’t want to be noticed to the valiant nurse she becomes at work is reminiscent of a comic book metamorphosis and at times she comes close to being a Pakistani caped crusader. But Hanif resists magnifying Alice into the superhero of an underclass. If, to a western reader, the novel’s dauntless heroine seems improbable, that is because, by comparison, we lead such protected lives. When I was writing a book on the Indus valley I described Karachi’s sewer cleaners and interviewed many women from that community. At first I was surprised by their pride and defiance, given the routine discrimination they suffered. But I came to see that they had little to lose by rebelling. The same is true of Alice Bhatti.
Hanif’s first novel, the prizewinning A Case of Exploding Mangoes, dissected the culture of General Zia’s military dictatorship with panache and precision. Our Lady of Alice Bhatti feels chaotic by comparison: it dodges backwards and forwards, between Alice’s childhood and love affairs, from hospital to home, in and out of the thoughts of her friends, family and colleagues, and through the desperate hospital procedures that make up her short career. Yet the unruly structure underscores the hectic nature of the hospital itself: a surreal place, yet archetypal, fantastic both for what it achieves against the odds and for what it fails to, for reasons of systemic indifference and lack of money.
Both novels pillory religion with relish. Alice’s father writes to the Vatican, protesting at the prejudice and deviousness of the local priests. “Raising your arse to the sky has never seemed the best way to express … your devotion,” Alice muses upon Muslim prayer time. When a communist doctor gets her pregnant and finds he can’t marry her because she isn’t Shia, let alone Muslim, Alice reflects: “He seemed to have discovered that the only chains he couldn’t lose were those forged centuries ago in some tribal Arab feud.” Our Lady of Alice Bhatti is full of tart summations that voice Hanif’s own anger.
“It’s a nation of perverts, I tell you,” says Alice’s colleague. In this bold, uncompromising novel, Hanif draws a compassionate and despairing portrait of a nation in bedlam.
Alice Albinia is author of ‘Leela’s Book’ (Harvill Secker)
Our Lady of Alice Bhatti, by Mohammed Hanif, Jonathan Cape, RRP£12.99, 240 pages