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Alice gives it those ones


SUTANU GURU | New Delhi, October 24, 2011 10:17
Tags : Our Lady Of Alice Bhatti | Alice | burn | saint | Mohammed Hanif |

Name of the book: Our Lady Of Alice Bhatti
Author: Mohammed Hanif
Publishing house: Random House India
Edition: Hardback
ISBN: 9788184001594
Pages: 240
Price: Rs 499

A few years ago, I read Sacred Games written by Vikram Chandra. I loved reading it, though I thought he had stretched his canvas so wide that the rantings and actions of his characters appeared bewildering. But I loved the book because it was not sanctimonious and judgemental like diatribes written by the one and only White Tiger Aravind Adiga; nor was it profoundly disturbing like A Thousand Splendid Suns or The Collaborator. The best fiction, actually all art, comes from places that have seen the most violence, the most deprivation, the most suppression and the most intolerance. In contemporary times, of the few books that I read, I loved Sacred Games because evil, corruption and decadence was presented in such a matter of fact tone. Our Lady of Alice Bhatti, at least to me, was a reading experience that compelled me to think about the infinite capacity of human beings to maim and destroy without flinching away as from the sight of a dead body mauled in an accident, or quietly avoiding things that sometimes make you weep. I just loved the manner in which the author has written the last chapter, where an untouchable (yes, there are untouchables in Pakistan and all of them are not Ahmadiyyas) Bhatti is pleading with authorities of the Church to make her a saint. The chapter is at once amusing and shocking; particularly when you have read the book. It reveals a lot about how there is a hierarchy even amongst people who swear by the Book. And, much earlier in the book, the father of Alice talks about how Choohras have always been there, and will always remain there to clean and mop up garbage, no matter what the nature of the ruling religion or the idiosyncrasies of the ruling elite.

The book is about the short lived life of Alice Bhatti, a Christian nurse who is also untouchable who has been sent to prison because she had the guts to attack and maim a predatory male who wanted to… you know what. But Alice manages a job, in where else but a Christian hospital. This aspect of Alice’s character is highlighted again when she does something naughty to the sexual organ of a man who has come to the hospital to look after his mom. The man, obviously belonging to the elite class of Karachi, points a gun at Alice in the hospital and orders her to indulge in fellatio, right in the room where his mother is dying. Alice, of course, does something else. She becomes a hunted person after that: how dare a Choohra nurse cut the organ off a man used to fellatio as a gift of feudalism?

Of course, by this time, Alice is acquiring a boy friend called Teddy Butt, a self styled wrestler and gym freak who performs odd-and-nasty jobs-for some cops of Karachi who prefer to use methods that most won’t approve. My only complaint about this book is the manner in which Mohammed Hanif has crafted the love story between Butt and Alice. It appears too contrived and too clever, though I could be missing something deeper here. The wrestler Butt, after a bizarre initial appearance in the book – where he has to make another character in the hospital break his thumb – looks just too much of a cardboard figure. I mean, he is worse than a flunky of the Karachi cops who kill without orders and compunction and yet manages to find his own identity. I think Hanif here is sympathising with the hundreds of thousands of young Pakistanis who are caught between the dollars and dreams of Wahhabism and the realism of living a normal life. The incompetent Butt---Hanif’s reluctant salute to Salmaan Rushdie and his perverted magic realism-is married to Alice---whose thin body but huge breasts have been described in magic realism detail- in a submarine. Yes, a submarine.

The character I really loved in the book is the paan chewing Hina, the chief nurse, who is so ‘visibly’ Muslim and yet turns out to be another Christian who has been divorced. She cloaks her Christian identity because you just don’t know who is doing what in crazy Karachi. She has endured and survived a bad marriage and wants to live life on her terms. Of course, if you believe modern interpretation, Alice has a sexual relationship even with Hina.

It had to end in tragedy. But I marvelled at how the tragedy crafted by Hanif is so familiar to us living in India. Butt had to protect or perhaps wrest his honour back and managed to do that through an act of violence that is shocking even by his standards. Her father still insists that Alice must be declared a saint. But even as I write it, I read somewhere that a girl attacked her ex-boyfriend and his new fiance with acid in Pune. The boy is more or less okay; the girl suffered 98 per cent burns.

Salute South Asia; and wish it was you Alice.

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017