I read this while staying in Delhi in December/January, and much of it struck a chord with the situation there at the time, with the protests against the gang-rape of the 23 year-old medical student who died from her injuries.
Alice Bhatti is a feisty, intelligent, lower-class Christian woman living in Karachi who has made the best of the rough hand life has dealt her by becoming a nurse. Young and attractive, she is hassled by men on the job and off, but has learnt how to minimise male attention the way women everywhere do, to take responsibility for something that they shouldn’t have to:
“She tries to maintain a nondescript exterior; she learns the sideways glance instead of looking at people directly. She speaks in practised, precise sentences so that she is not misunderstood. She chooses her words carefully, and if someone addresses her in Punjabi, she answers in Urdu, because an exchange in her mother tongue might be considered a promise of intimacy. She uses English for medical terms only, because she feels if she uses a word of English in her conversation she might be considered a bit forward. When she walks she walks with slightly hurried steps, as if she has an important but innocent appointment to keep. She avoids eye contact, she looks slightly over people’s heads as if looking out for somebody who might come into view at any moment. She doesn’t want anyone to think that she is alone and nobody is coming for her. She sidesteps even when she sees a boy half her age walking towards her, she walks around little puddles when she can easily leap over them; she thinks any act that involves stretching her legs might send the wrong signal. After all, this is not the kind of thing where you can leave your actions to subjective interpretations. She never eats in public. Putting something in your mouth is surely an invitation for someone to shove something horrible down your throat. If you show your hunger, you are obviously asking for something.” (pp. 145-6)
Delhi and Karachi are very different places, I am sure, but this got me pondering my inclinations to chat in broken Hindi to locals, particularly men (they are readily available to chat, it seems), to blatantly and aimlessly wander at leisure, alone, with nobody to meet me, around the city, Old and New, to leap over obstacles, to eat in public, and to laugh out loud whenever the urge arose. All of these things I feel comfortable and happy doing, in Delhi as anywhere, but I felt sad that there are women who can’t, even fictional women like Alice.
Which brings me to Hanif’s characterisation. I enjoyed his acclaimed first novel, A Case of Exploding Mangoes, but my knowledge of post-Independence Pakistani history and society is slimmer than that of India, and much of the political satire was lost on me, the details at least. Our Lady of Alice Bhatti is character-driven where A Case of Exploding Mangoes is largely plot-driven, perhaps making it more accessible to non-Pakistani readers. Alice is a complex and likeable protagonist, and the other characters, though cartoonish, are believable caricatures of types of people. What Hanif’s two novels share is witty fast-pacing and an element of suspense. Though not exactly a thriller (as A Case of Exploding Mangoes has been called), Our Lady of Alice Bhatti has enough plot turns and gradually revealed facts that, when the denouement occurs, it is shockingly and unexpectedly brutal.
As a feminist literary scholar (there I go again, that feels immodest, but by now it is true), I naturally keep a look out for new literature with a feminist bent. But, I belong (subscribe?) to the third wave not the second, and I am not willing to dismiss literature as anti-woman that does not act as a feminist tract, and I happily welcome male feminist writing (Ngugi wa Thiong’o is one of my favourite authors). Could Mohammed Hanif be called a feminist writer? I don’t think it’s necessary to affix a label, in fact, it can be counter-productive, as authors can often shy away from such tags. But I do like the feminist messages that I, at least, read into Our Lady of Alice Bhatti. In this novel, Hanif critiques many aspects of his own country—politics, society, religion—and the latter can be a brave act indeed, in Pakistan. The novel recalls Alice’s pregnancy as a result of a college-time affair with a vehemently communist teacher:
“She thought on it for a few days. A marriage and a pram and birthday hats did cross her mind, but when she got around to telling him, she did it without any emotion, like a patient describing the symptoms of common flu. ‘I missed my period,’ she said, as if she had missed a bus that she really wanted to get on, but that it was OK, another one would come along soon. The communist doctor got excited. First he started to cry, then he chain-smoked for an hour and went through a list of baby names that included every possible combination from the names of the central executive committee of the Indian Communist Party at the time of Partition. Then he went out to get more cigarettes and didn’t return for nine days.
‘My mother has a heart condition, I am not sure she can take it. For generations there has never been a single marriage outside our Shia clan, let alone a marriage into another religion.’ He appeared to have aged in nine days. ‘My tears have run dry.’ He kept rubbing his eyes. He seemed to have discovered that the only chains he couldn’t lose were those forged centuries ago in some Arab tribal feud. So startled was Alice by his histrionics that she found herself consoling him.” (pp. 263-4)
Our Lady of Alice Bhatti has been short-listed for the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature, the award that will be announced this week at the Jaipur Literature Festival.