His are no long philosophical ruminations on fractured identities in a globalised world or a geopolitical treatise on post-Osama Pakistan. Yet by the sheer dint of his devastating satire, occasional insights into the sociopolitical history of Pakistan and characters that are intricately etched in various shades of grey, that Mohammed Hanif has emerged as one of the most daringly original voices in the subcontinent. As with his first eff ort, ‘A Case of Exploding Mangoes’, the black humour keeps fl owing in ‘Our Lady Of Alice Bhatti’ as well, but this time around, it is shades darker, the situations more grim, the violence more intense, the tragedy only more acute and the ultimate result- all the more readable, yet disorienting.
Alice Bhatti, a Christian nurse working with the Centre of Mental and Psychological Diseases (shorthand of which is Charya) meets Teddy Butt, a bodybuilder who also doubles up as the “crime-scene cleaner, cheer leader, gun cleaner, door stopper, replacement court witness, proxy prisoner, fourth card player”, in short, a tout for the police.
She converts (she has her reasons) and gets married to Teddy and tries to find love which is like a “first heart attack”.
Oddball characters keep flitting in and out;the plot rends itself into multiple strands, some of which are developed, others meander away, ultimately not giving the novel, an emotional core. Yet this only adds to the multi-layered tone of the text, in the sense that it is only symptomatic of the dystopia that we inhabit.
Before sending Sister Alice Bhatti off to the Charya Ward for the first time, Sister Hina Alvi briefs her about what afflicts men there: “These boys in Charya Ward are suffering from what everyone suffers from: life. They just take it a bit more seriously, sensitive types who think too much, care too much, who refuse to laugh at bad jokes.” And that basically sums it up all!
“You are a trained professional and you don’t know how to breathe,’ says her new husband, running his ﬁngertips along the length of her throat, then slowly bringing his hand down between her breasts to her lower stomach, tracing the trajectory of air travelling through her body. She inhales slowly. He makes encouraging sounds. ‘Hold it there and count to three,’ he says, when she can’t take in any more air. He puts his hand just below her ribcage. ‘Exhale,’ he says, and she exhales slowly, feeling slightly dizzy as her lungs deﬂate”