No way that Mohammed Hanif’s new novel, Our Lady of Alice Bhatti, can be taken literally—perhaps not even figuratively. As he did in his earlier novel, A Case of Exploding Mangoes (which focused on the death of Pakistan’s General Zia ul-Haq in 1988), Hanif introduces a group of improbable characters (quacks, charlatans, thugs and would-be saints), brings them together in a riotous plot, lets several of them collapse under the weight of their own stupidities, and then—finally—weaves his story so preposterously that everything miraculously becomes believable. All of this, I must say, by one of the sharpest wits around, which is only to say that Hanif writes about the same issues that concern his more serious Pakistani peers writing novels today but always with satire, exaggeration, and wild humor.
The setting for the current novel is the Sacred Heart Hospital for All Ailments, in Karachi, described as a death hole. Under the sign in front of the hospital, someone has scrawled, “Enter at your peril.” There are seven thousand patients and a staff of mostly Christian doctors and nurses, though at times it seems as if a seventeen-year-old boy named Noor is running the place. He served time in jail at the same time as Alice Bhatti, a recently re-hired nurse, who tried to murder one of the doctors several years earlier. Noor’s primary concern is keeping his mother alive. She’s in one of the beds in the hospital and dying of three kids of cancer. Alice’s goal is to keep herself employed, though she’s also got a special gift. As she tells Noor, “I can look at somebody’s face and tell how they are going to die.” Smart ass that he is, Noor tells her to look in a mirror.
Alice, who was born an untouchable, comes from a family of healers. Her father, Joseph, cleans out sewers in Karachi (according to his caste), but his real gift is curing people with stomach ulcers. Alice, who is a beauty, has found herself frequently pursued by men, who have no problem touching her as long as it’s for sex. “Life has taught Alice Bhatti that every little step forward in life is preceded by a ritual humiliation. Every little happiness asks for a down payment.” When a rich woman is dying in the VIP wing of the hospital where Alice is on duty, one of the woman’s sons forces himself on her, pulls down his trousers and expects Alice to perform oral sex. But Alice will have none of it. She slashes the guy’s penis with a hidden razor. Ouch.
It is at this place in the story where Hanif lets us know that the attempted forced fellacio is going to have awful consequences. When Alice worked “in Accidents and Emergencies for six months…there was not a single day…when she didn’t see a woman shot or hacked, strangled or suffocated, poisoned or burnt, hanged or buried alive. Suspicious husband, brother protecting his honour, father protecting his honour, son protecting his honour, jilted lover avenging his honour, feuding farmers settling their water disputes, moneylenders collecting their interest: most of life’s arguments, it seemed, got settled by doing various things to a woman’s body. A woman was something you could get as loose change in a deal made on a street corner.”
Alice thinks about these things, realizes that she’s going to need protection, and quickly marries Teddy Butt, a thug who works for Karachi’s G Squad, doing the dirty work that the police themselves are afraid to do. Hanif states of Teddy that he “provides valet parking for the angels of death.” Teddy has demonstrated his love for Alice for some time.
Then, suddenly, everything gets out of control. A baby supposedly born dead is brought back to life by Alice’s prayers. Noor’s mother hasn’t died as quickly as was expected. Rumors quickly spread that Alice has curative powers that can only be regarded as miracles. Alice herself will have none of it, asking Sister Hina Alvi, “What miracle?…Anyone getting out alive from this hospital? Yes, that is definitely a miracle.”
Just when it appears as if the plot is going to collapse under the weight of the author’s shenanigans, Hanif pulls another fast one and adds an epilogue that sends the story back into the stratosphere. Moreover, reading those final pages, you realize that Hanif’s intent is serious. Pakistan must be one hell of a place for women to survive. Even if they are saints.
Mohammed Hanif: Our Lady of Bhatti
Knopf, 256 pp., $25.95
Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University in Washington, D.C.