'Our Lady of Alice Bhatti,'
by Mohammed Hanif
Review by PARUL SEHGAL
239 pp. Alfred A. Knopf. $25.95.
Fresh out of prison and despite formidable odds, Alice Bhatti, a Catholic nurse in present-day Pakistan, has wrangled a job at Karachi’s Sacred Heart Hospital for All Ailments, a cesspit of gangrene and incompetence. The “delivery room is a gambling den,” the head nurse says. “Everyone comes out a loser.” The maternity ward itself goes by the grim sobriquet “baby slaughterhouse.”
But there’s something about Alice. She possesses unnerving gifts: mysterious healing powers and the ability to predict how you will die. She works miracles, is beloved by the residents of the psychiatric ward, but nothing, not even her supernatural skill set, can stem the tide of the dead women:
“There was not a single day — not a single day — when she didn’t see a woman shot or hacked, strangled or suffocated, poisoned or burnt, hanged or buried alive. Suspicious husband, brother protecting his honor, father protecting his honor, son protecting his honor, jilted lover avenging his honor, feuding farmers settling their water disputes, moneylenders collecting their interest: most of life’s arguments, it seemed, got settled by doing various things to a woman’s body.”
“A Case of Exploding Mangoes,” Hanif’s first novel, drew favorable comparisons to “Catch-22” — both are stinging sendups of life in the air forces, but the similarities run deeper. Like Joseph Heller, Hanif specializes in a kind of horror and humor joined at the root. Stripped of the slapstick and magic realist special effects, “Alice Bhatti” is a blistering broadside on the socially sanctioned butchery of women and girls in Pakistan. It’s an abecedary of how women are hunted, how they’re choked and chopped up and thrown away. It’s an attempt to understand and render, with varying degrees of success, what life is like under siege from the world’s oldest, most deadly kind of terrorism. “Cutting up women is a sport older than cricket but just as popular and equally full of obscure rituals and intricate rules,” Hanif writes.
Alice’s body is a battleground under constant assault by “lewd gestures, whispered suggestions, uninvited hands on her bottom.” In every scene but one, someone is ogling her, poking or prodding or hurting her. And oddly enough, the author joins the ranks of those who can’t get enough of her considerable charms: “Alice’s body is one of those miracles of malnourishment, which has resulted in a thin, brittle bone structure with overgrown breasts,” Hanif writes. Alice Bhatti’s breasts, once conjured, are ubiquitous, and they inspire some terrible, slavering similes. They are “like Persian cantaloupes that only grow in the desert and die if it rains more than once every season.” They are observed — and again, these are breasts, mind you — “cuddling themselves, like two abandoned puppies confusing each other for their mother.”
But hang on. Didn’t I refer to this book as a work of “comic genius”? It is, these breast-related infelicities aside. Hanif is Andrea Dworkin-earnest on the topic of violence against women, but everything else is fair game. He’s a punisher in the style of Yahweh, Flannery O’Connor and Muriel Spark; he’s a moralist trussed up as torturer (or is it the other way around?), with a taste for making his creations twitch. No one emerges unscathed. Eyes are popped out of sockets, penises are slashed, flies tiptoe into the open mouths of sleeping women. Wild dogs give chase; flower pots are put to highly unorthodox uses.