‘Everyone is holding a gun to everyone else’s head,” a senior nurse tells Alice Bhatti, “If guns could get anyone to do anything, then this country would be sorted by now. In his latest novel, “Our Lady of Alice Bhatti,” author Mohammed Hanif depicts Karachi as a city on a hair trigger, where a failed romantic overture can spark a deadly three-day riot, and sinister secret policemen mete out harsh punishment under the cover of darkness. He also shows it to be a fascinating and vibrant place where resilient characters strive to find joy and humor amid an oppressive culture. It’s a novel unafraid to explore the contradictions of modern Pakistan with a wry, satirical bent, yet full of earnest love for its captivating protagonist.
Alice Bhatti is a junior nurse at Sacred Heart Hospital and has the deck well stacked against her right from the start. As a Choohrah — a Christian — she’s destined for lower-caste service work in a Muslim-dominated nation. As a woman, she must deal every day with her culture’s dismissive, sexist, and at times menacing attitude toward her gender. “Mostly people call her ‘daughter’ or ‘sister,’ ” writes Hanif, “and then do exactly what they would do with their own sisters or daughters: they treat her like a slave they bought at a clearance sale.” The story follows her first few weeks on the job after emerging from a juvenile detention center, seeking a second chance in a society that never gave her a first one.
Despite such impediments, Alice proves nevertheless a bold, outspoken young woman, determined to carve out a place for herself and unwilling to bend in the face of adversity. In a flashback, Hanif describes Alice’s entrance into a courtroom, where she stood trial during her days in nursing school for assaulting a surgeon who wrongly blamed her for botching an operation. “Alice Bhatti carries her handcuffs lightly, as if she is wearing glass bangles. She treats the policewomen as if they were her personal bodyguards, and she looks at the judge as if to say, how can a man so fat, so ugly, wearing such a dandruff-covered black robe sit in judgment on her?”
Alice has both a natural beauty and confident self-possession that make her instantly alluring; she’s a bright, vivid streak of color in a monochromatic world. She fears, however, that her natural beauty and forthrightness may attract the wrong attention, and that someone may try and blot her out.
“[T]here was not a single day — not a single day — when she didn’t see a woman shot or hacked, strangled or suffocated, poisoned or burnt, hanged or buried alive.” The emergency room of Sacred Heart is full of women who incurred the wrath of men by speaking out, by arousing their interest, by ignoring their entreaties, or by simply existing.
Alice herself is sexually assaulted by the relative of a VIP patient who points a pistol at her head; she escapes by performing an ad hoc circumcision with a razor blade, but the incident makes clear that men feel entitled to her, and that their primary means of relating to women is through violence. Teddy Butt, the bodybuilding secret policeman who falls for Alice, is so nervous about asking her out that he decides the best way to calm his nerves is to terrorize her at gunpoint.
The comedic tone Hanif uses throughout much of the book may seem incongruous with the sad reality of life in a misogynistic culture for women like Alice, but it’s never diminishing. Alice is not defined by these events — she endures them, survives them, and by relying on her deep, inner strength, manages to ultimately transcend tragedy. “Our Lady of Alice Bhatti” pulls no punches, and the entertaining highs make the doleful lows hit even harder.
Michael Patrick Brady is a freelance writer living in South Boston. He can be reached at email@example.com.