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Prayaag Akbar is Associate Editor of The Sunday Guardian

Our Lady Of Alice Bhatti

Mohammed Hanif

Random House

Pages: 256 Rs. 499

A tale of twisted love from the margins of Karachi

Mohammed Hanif’s restless, occasionally oppressive new novel reflects the violence and desperation that marks the lives of those condemned by caste

here is a certain recklessness that comes attached to a life lived in poverty. At least, this is how it seems to those of us lucky enough to escape that fate. Every day we see poor people take unfathomable risks: scurrying blind across four lanes of uncaring traffic to save a few seconds; walking, in Bata chappals, through a lake of stinking, stagnant rainwater instead of around it; hanging off a train with two toes and two fingers for grip instead of waiting for the next one; cycling on the wrong side of a dark road. And all the while the rest of us, the privileged few, surround ourselves with items from a growing list, rubber gloves, safety belts, hand sanitisers, jock straps, bicycle helmets, wet wipes, air bags, construction hats. On the subcontinent – perhaps everywhere, who knows? – the trappings of safety and the badges of privilege are too often one and the same.

For much of Mohammed Hanif's frenetic new novel, Our Lady of Alice Bhatti, it seems he is trying to convey this recklessness born of destitution. The first time our lady Ms Bhatti meets her husband-to-be she is being carted about Charya Ward of Sacred Heart hospital by twelve chanting lunatics. Teddy (bodybuilder, unofficial police agent, young man who has been silently crushing on her) grabs her from their grasp and walks out with her in his arms. But Alice kicks Teddy, scratches him, punches him and claws at his face. Why? Because she has left behind her stethoscope and her clipboard, and because she has failed to administer the lithium sulphate injections Sister Hina Alvi ordered her to.

His portrayal of the life of a Dalit Christian informs us, reading in India, as the anthropologist Louis Dumont postulated, that it is not some imagined shared past but caste that is the ultimate unifier of the subcontinent.

Alice's fear of losing her job, that Sister Hina should see her as incapable, overrides her fear of the lunatics. It is a telling depiction. What we see as recklessness might in fact be a decision as rational as the most demanding economist could crave. Alice, just out of jail, needs this job to feed herself, lunatics be damned. The man who walks into the fetid pool is immune to its diseases because he must live in a place even filthier. The woman who hangs off the train cannot wait for the next one because someone might claim the spot she uses to sell vegetables.

In Hanif's wonderful first novel, A Case of Exploding Mangoes, General Zia embodies the opposite. Here is a man so rich and so powerful that he ends up paralysed to the point of isolation by his fear of losing it all. Hanif captured and took to its limit that fear all of us have of losing our "standing", the respect we believe we have been accorded by society. In this new world Hanif creates, none of the major characters have much societal standing. It is a story of the margins, and its main characters act with an impunity that is nerve-wracking. A thumb, a woman, a life, all can be easily sacrificed to assure for yourself the favour of the powerful.

his is also the reason some of the criticism this book has received is justified. Life in Hanif's Karachi is a grim enterprise, and Alice's Choohra Christian world provides a canvas onto which he lashes misery after misery. He shows us the mortal fear that can accompany being an attractive woman in societies as misogynistic as ours, how notions such as honour are abused for the most horrific purposes. He shows us how our sweepers live, and how we leave our old, both rich and poor, to die. As I neared the end I had reached a point of emotional exhaustion, tired of being afraid for these characters. The characters in Exploding Mangoes are faced with enduring misery as well, but their plight is leavened by our first exposure to Hanif's dazzling wit. That wit pops up from time to time here, but often it seems as if the author, just like his characters, is wrung dry by the circumstance of these lives. He cannot provide us the same relief.

This contrast is also perhaps why, as I read this novel, I was reminded of an observation made by the writer Palash Krishna Mehrotra in a column in Mail Today. He writes of how novelists, in their keenness to capture the life indigent, "commit the cardinal sin of imposing upper middle class moral indignation on the hapless subaltern." While I did not agree with the rest of the essay, I felt this was a very strong point: the Big Novels, written by obviously sympathetic authors like Aravind Adiga and now Hanif, are so mindful of the vastness of the economic divide that they imbue a violence, fury even, on those at the wrong side of it. As Alice slits the penis of a landlord who is forcing her to give him a blowjob, I thought of the women in India and Pakistan who have been backed into compliance by the paucity of their options. When all around us we see that the dominant mode of the lower-castes is one of submissiveness, is it fair – no matter how good the novelist's intentions – to impose this unchecked aggression upon them? In many ways, this is Alice and Teddy's love story. But their romance, this subaltern love, is grotty and untamed, flecked by violence in a way the perfumed, poetic, even ascetic love between Ali Shigri and Obaid (two of the principals of Exploding Mangoes) never was.

Despite these misgivings, by the end of this novel I found I was in even greater awe of Hanif and his craft. The dark, morbid side he claims for himself in interviews is ultimately as in love with Alice as any of us. His portrayal of the life of a Dalit Christian informs us, reading in India, as the anthropologist Louis Dumont postulated, that it is not some imagined shared past but caste that is the ultimate unifier of the subcontinent. Hanif knows the plight of the lowest castes; for them even glorious redemption will likely remain unrecognised. The letter that ends this book is as lovely and sad and knowing as anything I have read recently. And it makes the trudge through Hanif's tortured world totally worth it.

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