It is not without regret that I have to admit it now; I never read a novel written by a Pakistani writer in English. “Our Lady of Alice Bhatti” is where I started from and I couldn’t possibly have selected a better book.
Alice Bhatti, previously an inmate in the Borstal Jail, is applying for the job of a nurse in a Catholic Charity Hospital, knowing that she belongs to a depleting minority of Catholics in Karachi who have any chance of getting a decent job. The story revolves around her struggle to exist in a society that is not just anti-Christian but misogynistic and violent in the extreme. She is sexually harassed, physically assaulted, and mentally tortured.
But Alice will not let any of this dampen her spirits. Perseverant, brave and strong headed, Alice Bhatti tries to reconcile her many identities; her Catholic background, her past as an inmate, her rebellious nature and her womanhood. With such a set of identities, in a place like Karachi, one is not very likely to go far. She soon realises that she needs protection and companionship, for survival’s sake.
Teddy Butt is a bodybuilder, currently working as an encounter specialist cum grave digger for a local police inspector. He hides his occupation from most, for obvious reasons, but what he cannot hide is his love for Alice. A brief courtship and a dramatic proposal ends up setting them together as husband and wife. Teddy needs stability in life and Alice needs protection. Both are orphans of luck, and like many in that giant of a city, both are surviving at the behest of pure chance.
And thus unfolds a story which is as charming as it is brutal. To see life from the eyes of a Christian nurse working in Karachi, is to see an already horrendous place become virtually unliveable. Especially for Christians (mainly Catholics) who live a miserable life, and work as sweepers and sewerage cleaners in big cities. They are considered untouchable, unworthy of bodily contact and almost a contamination that must make a suburban ghetto its abode. Alice Bhatti’s superior Hina Alvi, to Alice’s great surprise, is a catholic too but has successfully concealed this fact about herself and hence, has ascended quite brilliantly in her profession. Here, we see that Life is an ordeal for those who do not belong to the majority.
Although we see Alice fighting for herself, and putting up a good show of rebelliousness and courage, but deep inside she is as vulnerable as any woman. The dark humour that we find in her dialogues, is a representation of her inner conflicts as well as the stark realities she experiences everyday. Nonetheless, she wouldn’t have you pity her, or give her a helping hand. Alice would have none of your patriarchy or charity. She will fight to the end. But can she win?
Mohammad Hanif has written a timeless classic; a story that proselytizes most of what remains unsaid and undiscussed among literate Pakistanis. His prose has the lyrical charm and wit of Rushdie, and the Realism of Hardy, Hanif ‘captures a nation in bedlam’ and reminds us that we have a responsibility, as thinking men and women, to voice our condemnation of this this racism and bigotry and oppression.