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Book review: Our Lady of Alice Bhatti

Mohammed Hanif’s fearless debut novel, A Case of Exploding Mangoes – in which he added a wild conspiracy theory of his own to the many rumours in circulation since the air crash that killed Pakistan’s General Zia in 1988 – won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Novel.

OUR LADY OF ALICE BHATTI

BY MOHAMMED HANIF

Jonathan Cape, 231pp, £12.99

Our Lady of Alice Bhatti, Hanif’s second fiction, set in a crumbling hospital in downtown Karachi, also deals in rumour, but of a different sort. It confirms the former head of the BBC’s Urdu service as one of the subcontinent’s most compelling talents.

Alice Bhatti, aspiring junior nurse at the Sacred Heart Hospital for All Ailments, is both ferocious and inventive. She has to be. The only child of the city’s recently retired chief janitor, a man who has spent his life getting to know the slimy recesses of Karachi’s creaking sewers, Alice has had to fight for everything, from education to self-respect. A Catholic shunned by everyone around her her most recent act of self-preservation landed her in the Borstal Jail for Women and Children. They released her early for good behaviour; but it’s a spell inside that she would rather gloss over.

Alice is overdue a change in fortunes. Cue Teddy Butt, sometime wrestler and stooge for the secretive Gentlemen’s Squad. A loose arrangement of Karachi police officers, the Squad comes together from time to time to track down criminals and bring them not so much to justice as to an abrupt end. Teddy hasn’t ever killed anyone, but he’s seen enough Kalashnikovs and quiet back roads to make him an unlikely candidate for falling in love. Yet when he sets eyes on the spirited, unconventional Alice, by now working on the wards with a flinty determination that’s exhausting to watch, fall in love he does. And, yes, she marries him. It’s unfortunate, then, that about the first thing he does after she moves in with him is to go out with the squad and let a suspect get away.

Can Alice and Teddy’s love survive the opposing forces of their chosen careers, their backgrounds and religions? Will they grow to love and trust each other despite their differences? As stories of conflicted relationships go, theirs is more tortured than Romeo and Juliet’s, if not quite as loving; and the telling walks a fine line between tragedy and farce. But their story plays out against a backdrop of other dramas, as Hanif’s imagination roams the corridors and wards of the Sacred Heart, the overcrowded courtyard packed with the ailing hoping to get in, and the gritty world well beyond it, uncovering a city teeming with life and death and desperation.

The novel’s supporting characters are drawn so vividly that they refuse to stay in the background. There’s Noor, at 17, the Sacred Heart’s youngest employee, whose mother lies dying on one of the wards. Noor was befriended by Alice in the Borstal while he was still a child. Then there’s Dr Pereira, the only Christian doctor on the staff, who took pity on Noor and found him a job; and Hina Alvi, the thrice-divorced nursing sister who takes a motherly interest in Alice’s fortunes.

Away from the hospital, in his capacity as retired chief city janitor, we meet Alice’s father, Joseph, now a respected healer of stomach ulcers – a role he accepts with a certain amount of guilt, increasingly suspecting that his ritual with jars and burning candles does no good at all.

Joseph Bhatti is wonderfully drawn — a man with no reason to walk tall and still less to sit quietly, he stays in the wings for most of the novel but in fact has a crucial role, delivering Hanif’s most extended piece of controlled comic writing.

Alice Bhatti’s Karachi is so alive with sensations that you can smell the sewers, hear the screeching of tyres, and feel the humidity. Your toes squirm at the layers of dirt in the fly-blown ward where Noor’s mother spends her last days, and the delivery suite where a small, contradictory miracle occurs: a baby presumed dead on arrival starts breathing while his mother quietly loses her own fight for life.

The story of the “miracle baby”, who takes his first breath when only Alice Bhatti is in the room, is the rumour that propels the novel towards its conclusion. Joseph Bhatti later reports a more remarkable event; Hanif treats both with sympathy.

He may hold a mirror to a society marred by corruption, violence and injustice, and his humour can be savage, but Hanif finds the humanity in the most flawed of his protagonists and, in some unfathomable way, ends up affirming it. Unbelievable things happen, but in the finest tradition of magic realism – in a world that’s shockingly imperfect – Hanif has you wishing they were true.

 

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