Link to the original piece, here
Our Lady of Alice Bhatti
by Mohammed Hanif
Random House India, 230 pp., Rs. 595
You know what they say about the best kind of stories: that they are busy plotting their next moves while you are still ensnared by their more immediate charms. Mohammed Hanif’s new novel is that sort of a book—the busy sort. But this novel doesn’t ensnare as much as it detains: you find yourself cooped up inside its terribly messy, horribly disjunct and even farcical reality: it’s bloody, it’s violent, and it’s very, very entertaining.
A few snippets—just to give you an idea.
“Should we let an attacker go just because he hasn’t attacked us yet?” asks Teddy Butt early on in the novel. Teddy is the loony hero of this book, a body builder (Junior Mr. Faisalabad), who works as a tout for the police and, more broadly, as their “crime-scene cleaner, cheer leader, gun-cleaner, doorstopper, replacement court witness, proxy prisoner, fourth card player” and well, much more. He has fallen in love with Sister Alice Bhatti of the Sacred Heart hospital. They meet in unlikely circumstances in the Charya Ward—shorthand for The Center of Mental and Psychological Diseases—where he finds her surrounded by the dozen mental patients she was supposed to inject with lithium sulphate. Teddy rescues her and carries her out of the ward in his arms, loudly whistling iss parcham ke saaye talay, hum aik hain hum aik hain (We are one under this flag. We are one. We are one.)—and convinced that he has found the love of his life.Teddy’s other notions of romantic love involve a story about the moon, his Mauser pistol and wildlife documentaries (he loves NatGeo)—and when he goes to declare his love to Alice Bhatti, he’s thinking of how Komodo dragons hypnotize before attacking their prey.
The situation with the heroine, Alice Bhatti, a Christian nurse, is not a whole lot better either. The novel opens with her waiting in an office in the Sacred Heart hospital. It’s her interview day for the position of Replacement Junior Nurse, Grade 4 and she is being asked to explain all sorts of wrong things—such as her name: Why has she not mentioned her father’s first name—Joseph—as her middle name on the application? Is she ashamed of her family background? (Turns out that there was no slot for the Middle Name on the application form.) The leading interviewer on the panel is a Muslim Orthopedic surgeon, who prefers to be addressed as Ortho-Sir, and cares about flagging his piety and worldly success. He also has a migration to Toronto sorted out.
This is the kind of mess we have on our hands. And I haven’t even told you about the Karachi of this book—the paradoxical police state that runs high on entropy, violence and dysfunction, and governs the lives and loves of Teddy and Alice and others. It’s a lot of fun, as I said.
Reading the initial third of the novel is like watching a scamp running wild, and it unleashes all sorts of unexpected digressions. Such deviations might be disorienting—they break off from the storyline, introduce potentially promising pathways that are not developed (at one point, for instance, Alice Bhatti claims that when she looks at people, she foresees their faces at their moments of death; but this is never brought up again in the book), situations that don’t further the drama or characters—but these apparently random and sometimes downright unhinged sequences also result in some of the most inspired writing in the novel. In one particularly exhilarating tangent, Teddy Butt runs out into the street and with a swimming head and anxious hand, unknowingly presses the trigger of his Mauser. The novel hits the brakes, makes a crazy swerve and dashes off after the rogue bullet to pursue it to its riotous consequences as they pan out in the city over the next two pages or so—beginning with a truck driver’s bloodied arm to a gruesome accident involving school children to ethnic violence to a three day strike in the city. This sequence is strongly reminiscent of many Marquez moments, like the trickle of blood in One Hundred Years of Solitude that journeys across town from Jose Arcadio’s dead body to alert his mother, who at the time is in the kitchen getting ready to crack thirty-six eggs to make bread.
In these early pages, characters exist as little more than hardboiled entertainers whom you watch from a distance for their amusing antics. They do not admit sympathy despite being marooned in pitiable circumstances. This lack of an emotional center of gravity would be a weakness in almost any other novel, but Hanif’s book is an exception because his characters are among the funniest and most cynical bunch to have emerged out of South Asian fiction ever. And irrespective the fact that the novel does not admit emotion in these early parts, it also does not allow a single boring page. And that’s the other special thing about this book: it is consistently funny, often hilariously so.
What sets Hanif’s wit apart from his South Asian peers is its utter lack of sentimentality—often to a degree that is downright ruthless. On the night of the Garden East attacks, which leave many victims dead in their wake, including eight gunny sacks filled with body parts that cannot be identified with any of the deceased, the medico-legal officer of the Sacred Heart hospital has his gloved hands drenched in blood but his coat pockets are overflowing with 500 rupee notes. That’s the money he has received from the families of the dead for not performing post-mortems on the bodies. “Look, we live in a city where you can get someone cut up for a thousand rupees. What is wrong with charging them half that money for not cutting them up? Do they want a post-mortem? No. Are they interesting in the cause of death? No. Does it really matter to them if their lungs gave up first or their heart went pachuk? For them the cause of death is death. For them they died because death arrived in Garden East and they happened to be buying vegetables there. So buying vegetables is as valid a cause of death as any.” This is brilliant and heartrending, as well as hilariously illuminating of so many aspects of life in Karachi: the warped relationship to violence, to death, and more importantly, to justice itself. In such a setting as Karachi’s, legal justice is not an entitlement. It is something you pursue only if you can afford it—and post-mortems can lead to unaffordable situations.
Before sending Sister Alice Bhatti off to the Charya Ward for the first time, Sister Hina Alvi, briefs her about what afflicts men there: “These boys in Charya Ward are suffering from what everyone suffers from: life. They just take it a bit more seriously, sensitive types who think too much, care too much, who refuse to laugh at bad jokes.”
It takes about a good eighty pages or so for this book’s characters to get afflicted with life too; for them to develop a soft underside and get their blood circulations going. Things change. Teddy and Alice fall in love. Get married. At sea. On a boat. (Well, not exactly, but sort of.) But since marriages made at sea lack a firm ground, theirs too runs into early troubles. And that is good news for the novel, because from here onward, the book develops a strong emotional current, a narrative gravity, and yes, a strong forward thrust.
As Alice and Teddy break out of their hardened shells to runaway with the charya called love, they begin to feel exposed to the hazards of the perilous world that they have been navigating relatively effortlessly so far. But more than that: they become creatures of desires and feelings they did not know existed in them before. When Teddy Butt announces to Alice that he has a surprise for her, “she wants a surprise so big and so heavy it could flatten her in the middle of the road. She wants tied-to-a-rocket-and-launched-into-space kind of surprise. She wonders why she isn’t thinking of flowers and candy and why she yearns for large, heavy, speedy objects. It’s futile to predict what love will make of you, but sometimes it brings you things you never knew you wanted.”
Noor, the ward boy, who has been observing the evolution of love between Alice and Teddy, concludes: “This whole business of love is a protection racket, like paying your weekly bhatta to your local hoodlum so that you are not mugged on your own street.”
Noor is right: characters here desire a bit of both from love—madness and security.
Hanif’s characters are all sovereign states of one. They blend history, politics and personal experiences into the narratives of their lives, and they improvise strategies to sustain and safeguard themselves. In other words, they are survivors, and like all survivors, creatures of necessity. They are not moved to action by guilt or morality and they do not evaluate the world in right or wrong, or ought or ought not, but in terms of what needs to be done to survive, and survive best.
Sister Hina Alvi has married thrice (twice to the same man, with the same result); she now carries a gun in her handbag and imagines love to be like your first heart attack: you do survive it, but you don’t outlive it; it catches up with you eventually. Noor, the ward boy, after his stint at the Borstal has trained himself to be a paramedic without attending any medical school; he has made himself an indispensible hand in the Sacred Heart hospital; he also has made important friends in important places to get through rougher situations. Alice Bhatti usually takes care of herself with a ferocious kind of courage that often spills into physical violence, but more importantly, she attends to her image through subtle calibrations to her mannerisms: “She avoids eye contact, she looks slightly over people’s heads as if looking out for somebody who might come into view any moment. She doesn’t want to think that she is alone and nobody is coming for her. She sidesteps even when she sees a boy half her age walking toward her, she walks around little puddles when she can easily leap over them, she thinks any act that involves stretching her legs might send the wrong signal. After all, this is not the kind of thing where you can leave your actions to subjective interpretations. 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.”
This passage is also a splendid illustration of the kind of oppressiveness that these characters must contend. There is very little room for other ways of seeing and being, especially if you are a woman in public. And there is even less freedom for you to go out and explore the world: the world comes out and finds you. Your task is to be ready at all times.
Nabokov once made a remark on the relationship between writing and places: “It had taken me some 40 years to invent Russia and Western Europe, and now I was faced with the task of inventing America.” In other words, one job of great fiction is to invent places that render their actual places legible and comprehensible. Karachi is among the world’s greatest insufficiently imagined cities, and in large part it is still waiting to be invented.
The foremost challenge that Karachi presents to most—whether its residents or visitors—is to their understanding. The city has outgrown the comprehension of most. In many ways, it has turned into a set of ghettos connected via road network, with each part of the city largely disconnected from others and each with its own subculture. Therefore at one level, any act of creating a narrative about the city is really an attempt to understand the city. And this novel, among other things, is a bold and brave attempt to leap over the cavernous void of Karachi as an insufficiently imagined place.
In Toni Morrison’s Beloved there is a little passage that deals with the mess the world is: ‘She is a friend of my mind. She gather me, man. The pieces I am, she gather them and give them back to me in all the right order.’ In this novel, Mohammed Hanif gathers our pieces. He puts them in order and gives them back to us. It may not be the best or an ideal order—and the book may not be the Great Karachi Novel—but at the end of it you are left holding something that is much greater than the pieces. That is the task of a writer. And I tell you: Mohammed Hanif is a real writer.
Bilal Tanweer is a writer and translator.
Published in DAWN’s Books & Authors on September 4, 2011.