Battered Lives

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Pakistani journalist and author Mohammed Hanif hit the ground running with his award-winning first novel A Case of Exploding Mangoes. The intricate and wildly imaginative satire centered on General Zia ul-Haq, the Pakistani President who died in a mysterious plane crash in 1988. But instead of repeating that virtuoso performance, as so many novelists who find success with their debuts are tempted to do, Hanif has written a second novel that is new in artistic trajectory, subject matter and social conscience.

Our Lady of Alice Bhatti is set in modern Karachi, in the Catholic-run Sacred Heart Hospital of All Ailments and in the extremely squalid area called French Colony, where the Choohras (Christian cleaners, the lowest of the low in Pakistani society) live. The book tells the story of its spunky eponymous heroine, who takes a job as a junior nurse in Sacred Heart right after coming out of a reformatory; the reason for her incarceration is not immediately revealed.

Here, her path crosses that of Teddy Butt, a bodybuilder and a member of the notorious Gentlemen's Squad of the Karachi police. "Rent-a-witness. Replacement prisoner. Beat up this little guy while I bugger his sister, that kind of part-time job" is how the G Squad's work is described (although Butt prefers to think of himself as merely providing "valet parking for the angels of death"). Teddy falls in love with Alice. They get married, but their life together unfolds in unpredictable ways. Teddy bungles a job for the G Squad while Alice decides to keep a baby who apparently dies in childbirth only to come to life again as the mother passes away from her labor.

Rambunctious, vulgar, funny and moving, Our Lady of Alice Bhatti wields enormous emotional punch, drawing on a far broader affective palette than Hanif's previous book, and succeeding in making every character credible, even the walk-on parts.

The social concerns around which the novel turns — the shocking plight of Pakistan's women and the culture's entrenched yet casual misogyny — are handled in a way that is never preachy or obtrusive, but woven so organically into the narrative that even to point it out baldly like this seems a disservice to the story. While working in the ER, Alice sees women "shot or hacked, strangled or suffocated, poisoned or burnt, hanged or buried alive" every day. "Suspicious husband, brother protecting his honour, father protecting his honour, son protecting his honour, jilted lover avenging his honour, feuding farmers settling their water disputes, moneylenders collecting their interest: most of life's arguments, it seemed, got settled by doing various things to a woman's body."

How did a country come to this pass? One can only speculate: a sizeable tribal population with archaic codes of conduct; selective interpretation of the unreconstructedly patriarchal parts of religious texts; above all, failure of any decent, let alone progressive, educational program. The book does not delve into the cultural reasons behind the atrocious state of women's affairs in Pakistan, but it stills the running frame of the dominant culture, showing rather than telling or explaining — and being all the more powerful for that.

Our Lady of Alice Bhatti is a stealthy book. Not until the end does the reader realize that the deft skewering of a social ill may have been Hanif's intention all along. This is largely because there are no characters who play to stereotype. The book is instead peopled with three-dimensional individuals, who live with their flaws and what life throws at them, improvising responses to extraordinary situations. Right now the world could do with more books that portray Pakistanis that way.