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Our Lady of Alice Bhatti
256 pp., 16.00
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 ...