Our Lady of Alice Bhatti
256 pp., 15.47
A Pakistani Christian Woman
A Christian woman in Islamic and patriarchal Pakistan leads a difficult life. Women and non-Muslims are legally discriminated against in almost every conceivable way, while cultural manifestations of misogyny and Muslim supremacism exacerbate matters. (Consider the case of Aasia Noreen, popularly known as Aasia Bibi, a Pakistani Christian woman currently on death row for blasphemy, following her conviction on what appear to be trumped-up charges of insulting Islam's Prophet Muhammad.) With this in mind, the challenge of writing a novel about a Pakistani Christian woman becomes obvious. A story in which the protagonist serves as anvil to indignity's hammer will likely jolt the reader a few times but quickly recede into monotony. How, then, to craft a tale that captures the harried and at times desperate existence of a Pakistani Christian woman without lapsing into mawkishness or structuring the plot as a regimented and predictable series of misfortunes?
The answer comes in the form of Our Lady of Alice Bhatti, a moving and slyly humorous tale that only occasionally feels tribulation-heavy. Curiously, the novel is the work of a Pakistani man, and a Muslim at that (albeit a nominal one, by the looks of it). Mohammed Hanif made a name for himself with his first novel, A Case of Exploding Mangoes (winner of the 2009 Commonwealth Prize for Best First Book), which satirizes Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, the Islamist general who seized power from Pakistan's prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in a 1977 coup, had him executed, and ruled the country until his death in an airplane crash in 1988. (Bhutto introduced religion-based discriminatory measures into law, but it was Zia—as he is known—who ramped up Islamization of the country.) While Mangoes rends asunder the unholy nexus between Islamism and militarism in Pakistan, savaging both in the process, Hanif's second novel ties the challenges, woes, joys, and struggles of a member of a despised underclass into a wry and quietly profound tale.
Is there such a thing as a condensed epic? At 256 pages, Alice is not long. Nor does the tale sprawl over decades, span generations, or include a multitude of geographic locations in its sweep. But just as the protagonist's "twenty-seven-year-old body is a compact little war zone where competing warriors have trampled and left their marks," the story of her life is that of a rousing battle against those who would harm her physically or abuse her dignity.
We first meet Alice as an interviewee for the post of junior nurse at the hospital in Karachi where she has worked as an orderly and nurse's assistant. From the start, Hanif, through an omniscient narrator, demonstrates to readers how difficult it is for a working-class Christian from Karachi's squalid "French Colony" district to gain upward socio-economic mobility. Although the hospital is nominally a Roman Catholic establishment, meaning that Alice, (fitfully) Catholic herself, has a better shot at getting ahead here as opposed to elsewhere, only a few Catholics remain in decision-making positions, and she must endure several indignities during her interview.
Alice secures the job, but from the start, the novel's title (which evokes the image of a saint) gives the story a sense of foreboding. Even when there is little to indicate trouble, the reader cannot help wondering whether Alice, who will apparently become an object of reverence, is destined to suffer a trying and painful fate. In the meantime, Hanif makes his put-upon protagonist hurtle from one crisis to another. Given that the novel, despite its relative brevity, packs into its pages so many of the eponymous protagonist's run-ins with sexism and religious bigotry (including several that took place before the period during which the story is set), it feels artificially accelerated at times. One is emotionally affected by Alice's experiences, but occasionally tires of a plethora of plot contrivances illustrating her unenviable status.
When Alice, sangfroid personified, reacts calmly but violently to grotesque sexual harassment by a hospital patient's grown son, the story becomes more focused. The man and his family are powerful and ruthless—and now surely vengeful. What to do?
Enter Teddy Butt, an oafish but sincere fellow unofficially employed by a shady police outfit (itself unofficial) known as the Gentlemen's Squad, which relies on him to do a good deal of its dirty work, including helping to facilitate, then clean up, the squad's extra-judicial killings. While receiving outpatient treatment at the hospital for an injury, he serenades Alice in his oafish but sincere way. (This is a man whose "ideas of love are derived from any song that might be topping the charts at the time.") His antics include confessing his affections while pointing a gun at their object: "Teddy decides that he is going to tell Alice Bhatti everything, but he will need her full attention …. He also realizes that he can't do it without his Mauser."
Though Alice pities Teddy, she finds herself somewhat attracted to him. Other imperatives, perhaps subconscious, also push her toward him. When she marries Teddy, who knows how to handle a firearm and is Muslim to boot, Hanif wryly notes: "She is relieved that everything has happened so suddenly; she hasn't had the time to examine her own motives, otherwise her love story would have turned into an anthropological treatise about the survival strategies employed by Catholics in predominantly Islamic societies."
Along with such poignant observations, Hanif offers up an irreverently critical take on organized religion—including Catholicism—throughout the story. This includes skewering various Muslim and Christian practices. For example, contemplating Muslims' prostration during prayer at one point, Alice is unimpressed: "Raising your arse to the sky has never seemed to her the best way to express your devotion." Her amusement extends to certain Christians' behavior: "There are those who walk on their knees in Nazareth. To each their own, she believes, not that you can talk about these things in public and hope to live. Even to express your bafflement is to invoke the wrath of God's henchmen."
Besides Teddy, several engaging supporting characters, whose minds the narrator fully inhabits, hover around Alice. They include 17-year-old Noor, who works as a factotum at the hospital, where he helped Alice land her initial job sweeping the floor; "Sister" Hina Alvi, Alice's mentor in her new profession as a nurse; and Alice's eccentric father Joseph, a widower now retired from his job sweeping streets and unclogging sewers, but still willing to cure Muslims and anyone else of stomach ulcers through a curious but tried-and-true method involving a candle and the recitation of a sura from the Qur'an—without charging anything.
From the start, Joseph emerges as an especially important character, in that he offers a window on Pakistani social mores and biases. Joseph descends from the Choohra caste of "Untouchables" in Hinduism. (In India, where official discrimination against Untouchables has been abolished—though popular discrimination persists—they are now referred to as Scheduled Castes or Dalits.) Today, long after their forebears converted to Christianity in large part to escape their lowly status in Hinduism, and even though they live in an overwhelmingly Muslim country, Joseph and other Pakistani Christians of Choohra origin continue to be regarded as polluted and impure. They are given work that corresponds to their status—and receive meager thanks for their services. "These Muslas will make you clean their shit and then complain that you stink," grumbles Joseph, referring to Muslims.
Hanif also pointedly has the proud yet emotionally wounded Joseph lambaste the callousness of the more privileged Catholics of Karachi, who, like virtually everyone else, harbor strong caste biases, even within their community. (Separately, Joseph accuses the local diocese as well as the Vatican of being hopelessly out-of-touch with realities on the ground.) At first, Joseph seems to have a thick skin—several off-handed quips give us this impression—but his indignation quickly bursts through. For example, several years back, after cleaning a well-off Catholic family's house and receiving a meal in return, he noticed the separate silverware set aside for him, and the supercilious attitude of his hosts. "[T]hey fed me in their Choohra dishes," he recalls bitterly, "and then washed their hands as if I was spreading leprosy."
Ultimately, Our Lady of Alice Bhatti is a literary statement of solidarity with the oppressed. In this instance, they happen to be observant Catholics, and despite his flippancy and even hostility toward religion, Hanif quietly conveys a profound respect for those who fight bigotry with faith. Yet it is instructive to note that he makes it clear he believes faith does not suffice to ward off oppression. In a flashback scene during which female Muslim fundamentalist students violently attack Alice and her fellow Christian roommates in their college dorm because they have hung a poster of Jesus on the wall of their room, Alice fights back—while her roommates pray. "Alice Bhatti learned an important lesson that day: her roommates might be good, God-fearing, stuck-up, churchgoing Catholics, but they were completely useless in a campus brawl. What use was your faith if it didn't give you the strength and skills to break a few bones?"
In addition to implying the necessity of self-defense, Hanif indicates a belief that faith requires yet another complement. The intimation comes in the form of a nearly imperceptible nod—one must suss it out—to a specific religion. At one point, Alice is chided by her mentor, Hina Alvi, whom she will later discover is not a Muslim but a Christian, for appearing to take satisfaction in her "miraculous" curing of an infant who was pronounced stillborn: "Do you think you are doing God's work?" The elder nurse, who is skeptical of supposed miracles but hardly devoid of faith (Alice later sees her praying), continues her harangue: "Because I know that God's work is done not through prayers and not through kissing hands. You have to get your hands dirty."
Is this not an encapsulation—colorful and colloquial, yet nonetheless accurate—of the Catholic tenet that salvation is attained through faith and good works?
Rayyan Al-Shawaf is a writer and book critic in Beirut.
Copyright © 2013 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
Click here for reprint information on Books & Culture.