How A Novel Based In Modern-Day Karachi Made Me Question The Ramayana

Posted on July 29, 2014 in Culture-Vulture

By Kanika Katyal:

I had first read the novel last year, on my teacher’s suggestion. It was just a mandatory thing for all of us, as Mohammed Hanif was expected to come to college. Every year, writers who were shortlisted for the DSC Prize came to college. To read a Pakistani writer was inspiration enough for me. I had not expected myself to like the novel then. Today it stands among my favourite books, because the novel transcends not only location but all social contexts of class, culture and ethnicity.

Our Lady Of Alice Bhatti

It is not your quintessential Grey’s Anatomy.

Alice Bhatti is a pretty, blonde nurse, a scarred nurse belonging to the Christian Choohra community in the Islamic republic of Pakistan. The bond of warmth and trust as seen between doctors and patients in the Television series is replaced by the alienating and indifferent attitude of the hospital staff to the patients of the Charya ward (Ward for Psychological ailments). Further, the incidents of sexual harassment replace the lovemaking in the closet.

The novel is structured episodically in the form of chapters. The language is colloquial and comic, at the same time deeply political. Hanif employs a Swiftian style, alternating between farce and satire, throwing in some good laughs for his readers. For instance, her pre-interview drives her towards counting the thumbs in the forelegs of a lizard on the opposite wall.

Mohammed Hanif
Mohammed Hanif

When Alice is relaxing between her shifts, on the wall behind her, a torn poster reads: “Bhai, your blood will bring a revolution”. Someone had scribbled under it with a marker: And that revolution will bring more blood. Someone else had added Insha’Allah, in an attempt to introduce divine intervention to the proceedings. Some more down-to-earth soul has tried to give this revolution a direction, and drawn an arrow underneath and scribbled - Bhai, the Blood Bank is in Block C.”

Hanif’s omnipresence becomes prominent spasmodically through the novel through incidents such as these. He shatters the projected image of hospitals, as the noble institutions of humanity, by exposing the slaughterhouse nature of the sacred. Ever so often a son is asked if his mother with cancer was dead yet, to vacate the bed for another.

Alice Bhatti belongs to the new generation of urban South East Asia where mobility is no longer a stigma and is acceptable. Her father, Joseph Bhatti, is a retired janitor from the Municipal Corporation, who apart from unclogging sewers, miraculously cures stomach ulcers by chanting Muslim verses. But Alice is a rationalist, “How about real miracles,” asks Alice, “Like the drains shall remain unclogged? Or the hungry shall be fed?”

“These Muslas,” says Joseph Bhatti, “will make you clean their shit and then complain that you stink.” It isn’t an exaggeration. “Choohras” or untouchables, have the same plight in Pakistan as the lower castes in India, maybe even worse. She defies the “male-bread earner” logic and achieves an upward social mobility on her merit. Try to bog her spirit down by telling her that “Even when everything is finished Choohra’s will still remain.” “ And cockroaches too,” she’ll add.

The Sacred Heart Hospital, where she lands a job, is no less than Kafka Castle’s, with beggars and desperate ailing petitioners queuing around the ancient peepul tree( “Old Doctor”) waiting for a miracle, one-legged patients running around in skates and dead babies coming back to life. “Beggars were trying new tricks every day, pretending to be white-collar workers fallen on bad times”, writes Hanif.

The doctors are caricatured through the figure of the Ortho Sir, the grey diamond-shaped mark on whose forehead is testament to his five-times a day prayer routine . He raises his finger to thank The One above on whose goodwill the hospital is run. A ceiling fan confusedly hangs from the roof “Put Your Faith in Philips”, it says.

Just as God gave birth to light out of darkness, a love story blossoms amidst the dying chaos of the Sacred Heart Hospital. Alice finds sincerity in the love of our roadside Romeo, Teddy Butt, a body-builder and Junior Mr. Faisalabad, who writes her lovesick notes copied from ‘100 Best Love Songs of the Past 20 Years’. “You live in my heart”, he wants to say. Instead, he expresses the purity of his affection by assuring her: “When I think about you, do I think about these milk jugs? I think of your eyes, only.”

Teddy, who does dirty work for a ragtag law enforcement group of cops, thugs and reformed (they claim) rapists calling itself the Gentlemen’s Squad, once fires a shot into the air and it hits a distant truck driver just finishing his 48-hour shift which leads to a series of events, riots that kill scores of people and stops the city for three days parallels the aeroplane scene from Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. Carcasses of children, buses , auto-rickshaws and pan shops remain to rot for three days. On the fourth day, a fisherman rolls up his trousers and starts laying his net for the night.

A journalistic style of observation, coupled with attention to minute details of social behaviour and a profound concluding remark in the human condition not only make the scene brilliant, but the novel a compelling read. But the most remarkable fact about his writing is that, in spite of all that, he comes across not as pedagogical, but compassionate. His characters are flesh and blood, because he becomes one with them.

A few chapters into the book and you form the opinion that though the title draws a correspondence, she is no Mother Teresa. She is our modern day heroine. She is feisty, funny, independent, defiant and uncompromising. She is real and living with her flaws.

The incident in the VIP room, when she is subjected to a sexual assault is an interesting case to mention. She clips the penis of the man by a razor blade.

“Go to Accidents”, she says, “and no need to be shy, they get lots of this sort of thing during their night shift.” But under the entire comic garb, Hanif’s comment upon the socially sanctioned nature of violence upon women cannot be missed.

Alice recalls of “not a single day” working in Accidents & Emergencies, “when she didn’t see a woman shot or hacked, strangled or suffocated, poisoned or burnt, hanged or buried alive.” She experiences the commodification of her body under the male gaze. She is as much an object of male voyeurism as any other woman today in the entire Indian subcontinent. She leaves for work in a loose shirt, covers her breasts with a dupatta, ties her hair at the back, covers her ankles with her shalwar to eradicate all excuses for attention. She does not want to be the kind of girl who is groped on buses, the one who is ‘asking to be raped’. The tailor she goes to for measurements comes to know exactly the kind of household she comes from. She is carefully measured and circumscribed to drape her in fetters. Her body becomes a garment fastened by patriarchy, further knotted by the caste system. Her identity is trapped inside layers of oppression, and her body gasps for liberation. She has realised that: ” ..The same people who wouldn’t drink from a tap that she has touched have no problem poking their elbows into her breast or concorting their own bodies to rub against her heathen bottom.”

The presence of the Charya Ward in the Sacred Hospital also outlines fundamental questions of identity. It signifies the latent but endemic madness present in the society. The allusion to Sadat Hassan Manto’s Toba Tek Singh is strikingly visible. But what’s significant is that, while each of them is dealing with an identity crisis of their own, how they identify Alice is fixed. When she goes to give the patients their daily dose of medication, each one wants to touch her and sexually exploit her. How an internalisation of gender roles plays out even in the realm of insanity is startling! Even the most marginalised groups of society have the power to assert dominion over women.

But it made me wonder that when I talk about modernity, have women like Our Lady Alice, really managed to free themselves from the chains of past oppression? She is self-aware and reflective, but when I come to think of it, how is her plight different from the plight of our ‘Mother’ Sita? Both of them are at the receiving end of social forces controlled by patriarchy, which dictate and construct their identities. Both of them end up becoming the victims of their own husband’s repressed insecurities resulting in its overpowering manifestation of wrath. Both of them need to be put down with the help of a deux et machina to restore order back in a “civilised” universe.

“The likeness of [the] Holy Mother beckoned” Alice Joseph Bhatti to join her on the throne. She ascends to heaven just as Sita is beckoned by the Mother Earth. The ridiculous and the sublime merge to show that the spaces designated for women lie beyond the horizons, controlled by men.

The predicament of a woman in modern-day Karachi is no different from a centuries old myth of Hindu folklore. Across borders, religions and regions, we are connected by a culture which thrives upon male despotism and persecution of women. This cultural symbolism and the production and representation of gender identity, is placed in the macrocosm of historical processes which are exclusive to the South East Asian Subcontinent.

How the novel concludes is significant. It is not only her countenance which is tarnished but with the acid defacing her, her identity is blurred forever.

The Epilogue at the end of the novel, in terms of the rhetoric, transcends all levels of the absurd. Joseph Bhatti writes a letter to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, Vatican, stressing on the peacock motif, as a clever ploy to appeal to the European Authorities through an exotic touch. Ironically, it tells you that the dichotomy between Mother Teresa and a whore lies at the heart of the society, which no woman can escape from. Her death becomes the vantage point for religious and political battles. While the dominant Muslim Committee dismisses her as a hussy, the Christians want their own sentiments appeased through a sanctioned celebration of her death and consequential conference of the “goddess” title.

In spite of the tragic end, Hanif presents a vivid picture of a society that has discovered the coping mechanisms to deal with the disintegration reality. The chaos of the Sacred reflects the existential chaos of modern cities. The narrative is brisk and biting, grimly sparks of savage humour and is eccentric. Read the novel not only for Hanif’s wit, the unlikely love-story, sardonic insights and absurd humour, but also for the eponymous Alice. She is woman who refuses to compromise and clings to her reason. It is this inability to cast her in the dominant framework which makes her the archetype of the modern woman in contemporary South East Asia. You will love her!