of Alice Bhatti”
by Mohammed Hanif
239 pages, $25.95
After reading “Our Lady of Alice Bhatti,” I Googled Mohammed Hanif to see what kind of person would write such a gorgeously wackadoodle book. I found an essay Hanif wrote to explain why he had decided to return to Pakistan with his wife and young son from London, where he had been staying for more than a decade. The essay shows us a rather aristocratic gentleman with a bit of a let-them-eat-cake attitude about the circumstances of everyday life.
Pakistan has better schools and better domestic help, and as for the electricity being turned off for 10 hours at a time, you can always buy your own generator; if the food in the fridge goes bad, go out to a restaurant. Hanif is an accomplished young man, a former air force pilot and a working journalist, and “Alice Bhatti” is his second novel, on the heels of “A Case of Exploding Mangoes,” which was longlisted for the Booker Prize.
It’s as though a different person entirely wrote “Our Lady of Alice Bhatti.” The author of this novel is plainly a wild man, and since the radical edge of the Islamic world isn’t shy about threatening people who make fun of its religion, he must be a man of enormous courage. Even though he extolled Pakistan in that personal essay, here he doesn’t just bite the hand that feeds him – he chews it up.
Alice Bhatti, junior nurse, recently released from 14 months in jail for an unseemly dust-up we’ll only learn about later, applies for a job at the Sacred Heart Hospital for All Ailments, a shambling Catholic institution that can accommodate 7,000 patients at a time.
It’s a well-known “death hole,” but Alice is Catholic and it’s the right place for her. The medical staff is colorful and desperately overworked. Alice gets the job – a job no one with options would want – and is plunged into a world at the very bottom of the Pakistani food chain.
Aside from a Catholic doctor who acts as her protector, she’s also friends with Noor, a 17-year-old who wormed his way into the hospital hierarchy simply because his blind mother, Zainab, needs a bed to die in. He spends some of his time extracting dead flies from his mom’s toothless gums and the rest keeping useless minutes of useless meetings, thus imparting a sense of importance to the chaos that flourishes all around him. He is Alice’s devoted chum, doting from afar on her breasts, which he compares to two snuggling puppies, but his affection for her is steadfast and pure. She has another, weirder admirer, Teddy Butt, a bodybuilder who waxes his body hair once a week, talks in a high, singsong voice because of all the steroids he’s taken, and is madly in love with Alice – until he marries her.
Alice has already gotten herself into trouble by refusing to perform oral sex on a prominent young man who pistol-whips her. She slits his private parts with a razor she keeps for just such occasions. “Go to Accidents,” she tells him rather heartlessly. “And no need to be shy, they get lots of this sort of thing during their night shift.” This means she now has a powerful family after her in a country where thugs regard mutilating women as sport.
On the other hand, because of her strong faith in Jesus, a series of miracles begins accruing around Alice, including a dead baby she brings back to life. (But what do you do with one more baby in a poor and crowded country? And wouldn’t the real miracle be to provide balanced meals and clean beds to one of the most dysfunctional cities in the world?)
It’s clear that Hanif relishes the grotesque. Each soggy fly staggering in or out of Zainab’s mouth gives him ghoulish pleasure. But he shows great sympathy for his characters, no matter how loathsome. Teddy Butt, especially, who moonlights with a vicious group of torturing cops, is portrayed with extreme compassion. When you are in a society that is perfectly corrupt, it’s impossible not to carry some of that yourself. Even Alice is not a saint, except, of course, she is. The world around her is crazy beyond belief, and she’s a little crazy too. (Who in her right mind would marry Teddy?) All that’s left is to live the best way you can and not be too surprised at the horrifying consequences.
The scorn Hanif heaps on his homeland is endless, disdainful beyond words. But his deep affection for his characters and their daily struggles makes this a perversely beautiful book.