Pakistani-born Mohammed Hanif’s second novel appears four years after A Case of Exploding Mangoes, his much-acclaimed satire on the 1988 assassination of General Zia ul-Haq. Dark and glittering with irony, Our Lady of Alice Bhatti is set in today’s Karachi, where the process of Islamization is contributing its own large measure of madness and oppression to a society already deformed by corruption and religious strife. Alice Bhatti, a Catholic, or “Choohra,” was born in the French Colony, the city’s Christian slum, whose residents are despised as untouchable. She is the daughter of a housecleaner who was killed in brutal circumstances and a sewer cleaner with a sideline in faith healing. Alice, herself, claims to be able to tell what people will die from just by looking at them, and she acquires a reputation for supernatural powers when a baby thought stillborn comes to life in her hands.
Alice’s Christianity does not, however, extend to turning the other cheek, and her determination to get her own back has already resulted in her spending fourteen months in jail for taking revenge on a doctor. She is out now, as we meet her, and manages to secure a job as a junior nurse at the Sacred Heart Hospital for All Ailments, an institution regarded even — or especially — by its employees as akin to a slaughterhouse.
As its name suggests, the hospital is of Catholic origin, but given growing religious intolerance, this is prudently played down, and indeed most of the doctors and nurses working there are Muslim. A much-annotated wall poster perfectly captures the atmosphere pervading the place and also illustrates Hanif’s gift for finding comedy in Pakistan’s spreading chaos and zealotry. It says:
Bhai, your blood will bring a revolution. Someone has scrawled under it with a marker: And that revolution will bring more blood. Someone has added Insha’Allah in an attempt to introduce divine intervention into the proceedings. Some more down to earth soul has tried to give this revolution a direction, and drawn an arrow underneath and scribbled, Bhai, the Blood Bank is in Block C.
Hanif’s evocation of the shambles that is the hospital is vivid and dreadful, as is his depiction of the impromptu society of desperate, ailing petitioners ensconced beneath the ancient peepul tree (“the Old Doctor”). Among the well-drawn characters who come within Alice’s ambit are, in addition to her father and a couple of abysmal doctors, her friend and confidant, Noor, a seventeen-year-old youth who is living and working in the hospital to look after his dying mother. There is also Senior Sister Hina Alvi, a tough, paan-chewing nurse with, it emerges, a good heart. On the downside, there is Teddy, a bodybuilder and “former Junior Mr. Faisalabad.” “One of those people who are only articulate when they talk about cricket,” Teddy is attached as a gofer and extra muscle to “the Gentlemen’s Squad,” an ad hoc group of police vigilantes led by Inspector Malangi, a torturer and killer with fatherly worries about his children’s exams.
Hanif skillfully introduces the back-stories of his characters along the way, but the plot they are involved in in the novel’s present is a wild thing that doesn’t entirely make sense. Now slapstick, now menacing, now poignant and, at one point, editorial, it careens from lunatic ward to nuclear submarine to miraculous apparition, taking in as it goes sexual predation, summary execution, a three-day street riot, and acid-throwing. We learn early on that a big calamity lies ahead — not that the book’s sardonic humor would have brought the expectation of sweetness and light.
Alice, herself, is not one to look on the bright side. Here she is discussing with Sister Hina Alvi the frequent reports of sightings of miraculous evidence for divine presence and her own basis, as it were, for faith: “There is always a cloud shaped like Muhammad. I know some people see Yassoo on a cross or his mother in a pretty dress in every seasonal fruit. Why do people need that kind of evidence? Isn’t there always a flood or an earthquake or a child run over by a speeding car driven by another child to remind us that God exists?”
Our Lady of Alice Bhatti is punctuated by shafts of this sort of blistering irony. And, in fact, the book would be unendurably grim without the sparks of savage humor — which, in turn, would not be so funny were the book not so dark. It may even be that the scattershot plot, its inchoate and eccentric combination of tragedy and farce, is meant to reflect the disintegrating society in which it is set.