“Our Lady Of Alice Bhatti” is funny. The book forces reluctant, helpless laughter out of you; it is the type of laughter that comes out with scared, numbed feet when the only option you have, in a predicament, is to laugh. It is audacious to write with so much ease about the frugality of human life in the modern political web of Pakistan; lives that explode from the sky like mangoes and in the very next moment are crushed under their own weight… or stomped down upon.
The 339-pager, by author Mohammed Hanif, ends as a story of an unfortunate woman who happened to face one tragedy after another. It is the story of Alice who is just plain unlucky to be born in Pakistan, as a Christian, to be poor or worse, born a woman. Simple, isn’t it? No. This isn’t just a sob story of an unfortunate. By the time you reach 200th page of the book, it will compel you to go back and read again and realise that what you are reading is just not another tragic tale but a handbook for all women who are born to fight.
In a fuck-all world, Alice, despite being the most unfortunate, sets an example by attaining “sainthood”, conferred on her by the people; if not the Vatican.
Alice comes a long, bumpy way to claim her space and identity. She punches her boss who kept framing her for his medical incompetence, bites off or slices dicks of men who wanted to molest her (because, of course, popular male perception is that women like Alice are born to be used), marries a formidably crass, thigh shaving, body building sidekick who she knew would cause her death and stands strong even when almost all men she encounters talk to her boobs. Alice is indeed Our Lady.
Mohammad Hanif’s “Our Lady Of Alice Bhatti” is like a gospel for women of all faith, class, creed, colour and money. The filth that we take upon ourselves is immeasurable. Tired, we often cease to exist. For the rest of our lives, we carry the weight of our dead body and serve others. Why? Because the moment we are born, the shamelessly patriarchal society penetrates a pole into our posteriors. The poles have “duties” and “responsibilities” written on it in bold. The pole keeps outgrowing us. No matter how much we toil for our fathers, brothers, husbands and sons, we are crucified by it in the end.
Alice never let that pole grow. She remained detached from her father, husband, friends and colleagues. She has the courage to roam around naked in front of a husband who has perhaps never seen beauty in his entire life. She is the one who cared to enter the Charia ward to free the men imprisoned either by their thoughts or by the government. She is the one who wants to mother an orphaned newborn as a gesture as random as it was to marry a man caught in his own Charia. If the book were a picture, it could have been read upside down. Everything changes if you flip the picture, what remains constant is that Alice is a fiercely brave woman.
Essentially a love story of the have-nots set in a dilapidated hospital, sharing the campus with a 200-year-old miraculous tree, the book revolves around Alice Bhatti, daughter of a devout Christian (Derogatorily called Chhoohra in Pakistan) Joseph Bhatti who earns his living by cleaning shit and clearly understands his position in the religious, social and economic hierarchy and its hypocrisy.
“These Muslas,” says Joseph Bhatti, father of Alice, “will make you clean their shit and then complain that you stink.” He sets the stage for the crusade between the Muslas and the Chhoohras that Alice keeps fighting all her life. Alice loses her mother to a slippery staircase of a mansion. “But it is not very likely that when you slip on that staircase you’ll also accidentally scratch yourself on your left breast… and manage to spill someone’s sperm on your thighs.”
Alice is accused of being a Kafir and is attacked at nursing college by a group of Muslim girls. Her superior, a male doctor, gets her jailed for a medical procedure that he had goofed up. The son of a rich, politically connected, gangster family tries to sexually abuse her in the VIP room of the hospital while his mother lay unconscious on the bed with an attitude that such ‘privileges’ come for free with the VIP room. The way Alice slashes the spoilt prince’s penis with a blade is more of a reflex than a move pre-emptive.
The defiance with which Our Lady Alice wages a crusade at her workplace, her home and every other place that falls between the vast distance between the two, inches her closer to martyrdom.
For instance, she marries to a gun-totting Musla on a nuclear submarine. When her husband, Teddy, wants Alice to trim her pubic hair because Quran mandates that those hairs should not be longer than a grain of rice, Alice asks, “Basmati?” For if a religious text that details how a woman should keep something that is so intimately hers, it must not have left any scope for presumption and described whether the length of pubic hair should that be of rice like Basmati or of a variety tinier than that.
Mohammed Hanif’s use of satire is trademark. He voice is not just brilliantly unique but extraordinarily brave. While Hanif’s ‘A Case of Exploding Mangoes’ was a political satire, “Our Lady Of Alice Bhatti” is a darker personal journey of a woman who just called a spade a spade. Hanif explores the psyche of common people of a country ruled by religious fanatics and grappling with political unrest. The book has already been shortlisted for the Wellcome Trust Book Prize (2012) and the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature (2013).
The book ends with the long ranting letter Joseph Bhatti writes to the Vatican claiming her daughter’s sainthood. Whether Vatican accepts the plea or not, Alice becomes Our Lady in the hearts of the readers with Mohammed Hanif pinned on the literary landscape as one of the rising stalwarts of literary freedom. Alice’s story is a story of every woman who is waging a war against patriarchy and religious jingoism in a world where seeking sexual freedom and gender equality is nothing but luxury. Surely, not just Pakistan, India too has several such ‘Our Ladies’ who succumb to the daily grind. All hail, Our Lady!