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LOVE AND LONGING IN KARACHI

A review of Our Lady of Alice Bhatti

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Our Lady of Alice Bhatti By Mohammed Hanif Pan Macmillan 240 pages, Rs 499

Mohammed Hanif has the gift, like Begum Akhtar, of being able to transform pain into beauty. Our Lady of Alice Bhatti is an ode to suffering, where everyone is a victim, and the culprit is life itself. But somehow you are not bogged down, even in the darkest moments, because Hanif's unparalleled humour and his deep empathy keep you afloat. Indeed, with this second book, a searing, mesmerising tale set in Karachi, Hanif comfortably establishes his position as one of the master-storytellers of our time, reminiscent of that other great writer, Saadat Hasan Manto.

The novel's main character is 27-year-old Alice, the spirited daughter of a retired municipal janitor, who works as a junior nurse at Sacred Heart public hospital, a place that permanently reeks of stale blood, stale food and cheap antiseptic, where damaged cats crawl out from under beds and nurses are sometime required to administer, along with medicine, sexual favours on ruthless patients. "Life has taught Alice Bhatti that every little step forward in life is preceded by a ritual humiliation. Every little happiness asks for a down payment. Too many humiliations and a journey that goes in circles means that her fate is permanently in the red."

Surrounding her are a cast of wonderfully crafted characters who are so vivid, so visceral, it's almost as if you have encountered them down the road at the local cop station or municipal hospital when covering some crime story. There is the paan-chewing, bossy matron, Sister Hina Alvi who harbours a strange secret, and the young teenaged ward boy Noor, who knew Alice when they both served a sentence at the Borstal Jail for Women and Children - he as the son of a petty thieving blind beggar woman, she for attacking a renowned surgeon after he wrongfully blamed her for a case of medical negligence.

We also meet the utterly hapless Teddy Butt, a small-time police fixer who does the force's dirty work. And therein lies an utterly amazing tale of love and loss - the story of Alice and Teddy. Before he met Alice, Teddy's relationship with women is brilliantly described thus: "He has been a customer of women and occasionally their tormentor, but never a lover. He believes that being a lover is something that falls somewhere between paying them and slapping them around. Twice he has come close to conceding love. Once he gave a fifty-rupee tip to a prostitute who looked fourteen but claimed to be twentytwo. Encouraged by his generosity, she also demanded a poster of Imran Khan, and that put him off. Teddy promised to get it but never went back because he had always believed that Imran Khan was a failed batsman masquerading as a bowler. "

And so on. So, we have Teddy falling in love - (whatever that means) - with Alice, after he rescues her from being attacked by the inmates of the Charya (mentally unstable) ward. He approaches her with something that falls between a proposition and a threat. They get married inside a police boat, a submarine to be precise, all in keeping with Hanif's mad, magical, almost dream-like narrative style which conjures up bizarre images with deadpan ease - not just submarines but also peacocks and wooden crosses - and inserts them into the book like startling symbolic 3-D cut-outs.

In the second half of the book, the pace picks up and a series of dramatic events unfold, overlap and lead to a deadly climax that has the makings of a movie. You are left gasping. How could that happen? And then it slowly dawns on you that what you are reading is happening all the time around us, in Karachi, in Mumbai, under our noses, sometimes even by us. And we are inured. It's like having bomb blasts taking place in your neighbourhood and carrying on with your breakfast of egg and toast as if you have merely been disturbed by two crows fighting outside your window

So, underlying this book is anger towards a society that is brutal on every level - with its women, with its poor, with its minorities, even within the family. Violence is the subtext, but again without really hitting you in the face. It's always around but it's normal. Our Lady of Bhatti is a dark commentary on the way we live and the way we die. It is also a story about how life just carries on.

It's easy to write a great first book. Hanif's bestselling debut A Case of Exploding Mangoes was widely and uniformly acclaimed. In a recent interview, when asked how he dealt with writing his second novel after the incredible success of the first, Hanif said he briefly considered dairy farming for a bit but then decided to stick to what he knew. While Hanif would no doubt have been exceptional with buffaloes, it is an enormous relief that he chose writing.

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