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Jonathan Swift in Karachi

A FEW CHAPTERS into Our Lady of Alice Bhatti, the titular protagonist relaxes on a stretcher between shifts at the chaotic Karachi hospital where she is employed as a nurse. On the wall behind her, a torn poster reads, Bhai, your blood will bring a revolution. Someone has scribbled under it with a marker: And that revolution will bring more blood. Someone else has added Insha’Allah, in an attempt to introduce divine intervention to the proceedings. Some more down-to-earth soul has tried to give this revolution a direction, and drawn an arrow underneath and scribbled, Bhai, the Blood Bank is in Block C.

One could reasonably suspect that this “more down-to-earth soul” is the author Mohammed Hanif, making a Hitchcockian cameo appearance, for it seems to be just this gift for applying logic to absurdity that has allowed him to compose a comical love story out of a frothing, roiling sea of rage in an extravagantly dysfunctional society. And this is not one of those uplifting, life-affirming stories of love, salvation, and the innate dignity of the human condition amidst suffering and degradation, either. No, here the ceremony of innocence is officially drowned. Drowned? People are wading through the water trying not to get electrocuted.

Hanif’s new novel, which follows on his wonderful debut, A Case of Exploding Mangoes, centers on Alice Bhatti, a janitor’s daughter and a Christian in a country increasingly consumed with fanatical bigotry. (Last year Pakistan witnessed the assassinations of the Governor of the Punjab, and the Minister for Minority Affairs, for daring to speak up on behalf of Pakistan’s beleaguered Christian community.) Alice is a Pakistani “untouchable,” if not formally by caste as in India, then by default. With hypocrisy being religious zealotry’s most natural ally, she is not quite untouchable enough; the pious Muslim men who refuse on principal to share a drinking vessel with her have no such qualms about trying to cop a feel on the bus.

Hers is not a piteous tale of victimhood, though. By the time we meet the twenty-seven-year-old Alice, she has already done time at a juvenile correctional facility for assault, and later, when sexual favors are demanded of her at gunpoint, she takes a razor blade to her attacker’s favorite appendage. Not that she deliberately puts herself in these situations, mind you. Street-smart and self-possessed, she makes every effort to keep her head down, having spent “not a single day” working in Accidents & Emergencies, “when she didn’t see a woman shot or hacked, strangled or suffocated, poisoned or burnt, hanged or buried alive.” Even without following the news, “it seemed the city was full of serial killers.” She knows better than to have expectations of legal recourse, observing that “nobody was surprised; there were no police detectives sitting around matching clues, no parliamentary subcommittees discussing ways of saving this endangered species.”

Hanif’s magnificently acerbic critique of the sorry state of women’s rights in Pakistan is possessed by a Swiftian spirit. Alice “looks at these battered bodies on the floor of the A&E and tries to figure out the rules of this sport.” She “thinks she’s identified the type of woman who attracts the wrong kind of attention, who stumbles from one man who wants to slap her to another man who wants to chop off her nose…” As a result, she “tries to maintain a nondescript exterior,” avoiding eye-contact and conversation, along with precautions such as walking around rather than leaping over puddles as “any act that involves stretching her legs may send the wrong signal.” In addition she “never eats in public. Putting something in your mouth is surely an invitation for someone to shove something horrible down your throat. If you show your hunger, you are obviously asking for something.”  

But she does accept a proposal of marriage—throwing caution to the wind, as marriage has been known to be a leading cause of grievous bodily harm and death among Pakistani women. While the Muslim groom, Teddy Butt, seems to make for an unlikely beau—he falls on the somewhat unreconstructed, not to mention mildly deranged, side—he is an oddly endearing man, in fact the novel’s most endearing character. While we see plenty of Alice, she is a surefooted heroine who can sometimes be so sensible as to verge on the remote. We get Teddy warts and all. He is a body builder (“Junior Mr. Faisalabad”) and a police informant. The job options that he has rejected include bodyguard to rich kids and fitness trainer, which seem to him “a bit effeminate.” With “almost no flair for physical violence,” he himself is not a killer, merely one who provides “valet parking for the angels of death”; his experience of escorting one such victim to his grave makes for one of the novel’s high points.

Teddy is made flesh and blood by his vulnerability, by his almost constant air of mild bewilderment. Alice, at the bottom of the food chain, is able to take a coldly analytical view of society. Teddy has so far not felt any great need to do so. He has formed his code of conduct, his understanding of human nature, in particular of sexual relationships, from what is considered the norm for a Muslim man in his position. His worldview is an amalgam of snippets he can retain from newspapers and dodgy advice administered by his police squad colleagues. And so he is deeply bewildered. His experiences with “romantic love” are so barbaric as to induce pity for him along with the women in question. “Twice he has come close to conceding love. Once he gave a fifty-rupee tip to a prostitute” and another time he “only pretended to take his turn” with a prisoner offered to him after being gang-raped by the police.

During his courtship of Alice, hopped up on love—an inexplicable new emotion—Teddy fires a bullet into the air, which causes a car accident, mobilizes a lynch mob, and manages to set off a three day riot leaving scores dead. Its telling is as amusing as it is tragic for being an entirely plausible scenario in a city where countless numbers are routinely lost to utterly random violence, a city where everyone seems pent up enough to eternally be a hair’s breadth away from erupting.

As for Pakistan’s upper classes, they make only rare appearances in this novel, and always as vile sexual predators, insulating themselves from Alice Bhatti’s life with small battalions of private guards, hidden away on the other side of doors that close with “a discreet, expensive VIP click.” Our Lady of Alice Bhatti inhabits a world where “I found a baby in the main drain at the Ideal Housing Society” is an acceptable opening gambit over a meal. It is a world where a fading, cancer-ridden woman’s son is asked by the hospital to check if his mother’s dead yet, as the bed is needed. All the animals that wander into the story are maimed, bloodied, and mad with hunger, with half-torn ears and protruding ribs. This is no place for those who rely on the goodness of human nature, or indeed, the humanness of human nature. Hanif’s disgust is evident throughout, “Beggars were trying new tricks every day, pretending to be white-collar workers fallen on bad times … to soften hearts that had hardened in the face of the bottomless greed of half-naked children and droopy, blind old women.”

Innovatively structured, in loose, almost episodic chapters, every section of the book has its own self-contained narrative. While Hanif’s humorous colloquial tone and his deftness at juxtaposing brutality and farce are his biggest gifts, the jokes are occasionally piled on too thick. There are moments when the temptation to apply a mallet to a nail already hit on the head would have been better resisted. But these are quibbles. In the hands of a lesser writer, a novel dealing with these themes would run the risk of turning didactic and self-righteous. But Hanif’s skewering wit and his acute journalistic sense of observation consistently shine through. This is a brisk, biting narrative, entirely shorn of sentimentality and exoticism, and fuelled by an anger born of deep compassion.

Faiza S. Khan is a Karachi-based columnist and literary critic, and editor-in-chief of The Life’s Too Short Literary Review: The Magazine of New Writing From Pakistan.