Our Lady of Alice Bhatti
Price: 12.99 pounds
It is rare that a debut novel from any writer takes on the trajectory that Mohammed Hanif’s The Case of Exploding Mangoes did. This, of course, meant that his follow up novel has been highly and impatiently awaited — and the question that everyone will ask is whether Our Lady of Alice Bhatti is as good as Mangoes was. So let me tell you now that yes, it is. Let me also tell you that the two are absolutely incomparable. Say, like mangoes and peaches.
Our Lady of Alice Bhatti is a subtle, unnerving little book. If you have paid it the attention it deserves, it will stay with you long after you finish it and it will resonate very slowly and very surely. The question, “What is Our Lady of Alice Bhatti about?” is not easy to answer. Or rather, it doesn’t have a single answer. This just isn’t a straight-laced narrative about a young Christian nurse working in one of Karachi’s poorer hospitals; it isn’t just about Alice’s relationships with her colleagues or about her past, and it isn’t just about her relationship with uber-stud police goon Junior Mr Faisalabad Teddy Butt either. It is all these things and so much more within each of these facets. Yes, Alice is a young Christian nurse looking for a job in the Sacred Heart hospital. Yes, her past is colourful and it is clear right away that her future will be too. Yes, she and Teddy make an astounding pair, she with her straightforward but determined ways and he, who is “very articulate, even poetic with a Mauser in his hand”.
There is much subtle foreshadowing throughout this book for what is to befall Alice that skimming through it will be a huge injustice. There are definitely going to be readers who will find it lazy or pointless, those who are not going to be able to keep up with the shifts in space and time that Hanif has mapped out in a snaky, sneaky narrative, but its sudden arabesques are built to linger just around the corner from where you may be standing. Even the madmen of the Charya Ward at Sacred Heart know Alice is special when they whisper, “She knows how we live and how we die. She knows. She knows.”
At the core of this book is a polarity that keeps the narrative from slacking. There is a constant balance of the ecclesiastic and the absurd, the spiritual and the visceral, the divine and the absolutely insane, and not just in Sacred Heart’s Charya Ward. While Alice’s father Joseph Bhatti has “a 90 per cent chance of curing stomach ulcers by chanting Musla prayers”, she herself has the strange gift of knowing how people will die when she looks at them. But in her own reflection she sees something inhuman: ‘a ghoul’.
There are many startling moments of sheer grotesque in the book, with clamped veins writhing like snakes and bursting in 17 places, “5 children all between seven and nine, in their pristine blue and white St. Xavier’s uniforms, become a writhing mess of fractured skulls, blood, crayons and Buffy the Vampire Slayer lunchboxes”, walls that “developed a skin rash”, a man with “a swollen tongue that stirs like a sleepy animal trying to wriggle out of a cage”. Hanif may be known for the humour that exists through much of his writing, including this book, but here he does not shy away from the fleshy, urban resonance of Cronenberg meeting Ballard.
Before a shift at the Charya Ward, Alice is taught the “sum total of psychiatric education” by her supervisor: “They might have buggered their own sister and then buried her alive but you have to tell them it’s normal,” says Sister Alvi. And like Lewis Carroll’s Alice, Hanif’s also understands that she is in a world gone mad. “This whole place,” she thinks to herself, “is a big Charya Ward.” And she’s right.