Archive for October, 2012

Our Lady of Alice Bhatti

Posted in Books with tags , , , on October 8, 2012 by salaamreaders

It is not easy, for an Indian, not to be judgmental about anything Pakistani, even if it were a book. The reasons are not far to seek being rooted in sub-continental history. And ‘Our Lady of Alice Bhatti’ does not help, either. It only reinforces the stereotype-religious fundamentalism, persecution of religious minorities, abject condition of women, buggery, and rape-it could not get worse. I would not go so far to say that Mohammed Hanif has knowingly tried to perpetuate the popular stereotype for commercial reasons. It may be that he is genuinely moved by what he has observed of his country. An author also has the right to choose the story that he needs to tell. And I have no quarrel with that. But I do wish that not all men in Pakistan are so depraved nor all women so utterly vulnerable.

Alice is not a muslim, a woman and worse-spirited. As a low caste Christian, she is suspected for her religious beliefs and even sent to jail for being ‘troublesome’ for defending them. As a woman she learns early to remain nondescript to avoid unwanted male attention. But that alone is no guarantee that she would not be molested. Her work as a nurse is a daily reminder of the fate of women-who land in her hospital- ‘shot or hacked, strangled or suffocated, poisoned or burnt, hanged or buried alive.’ It appears as if ‘most of life’s arguments, it seemed, got settled by doing various things to a woman’s body.’ It is then no surprise that her husband too should want to ‘protect his honour’ when he finds time from his ‘police work’ to suspect her fidelity.

However ordinary her life be, there is something special about Sister Alice. She can tell from your face how you would die. She can also bring dead infants alive, when she prays really hard. No wonder then her hospital is over run with the sick and the incurable.Would she then ascend the heavens with the Holy Mother, aided of course by half a litre of sulphuric acid poured on her by her loving husband? Would the Congregation for the causes of Saints recognize her as ‘Our Lady of Alice Bhatti’?

Some may find it depressing. But the truth is often stark and bitter. It would have also called for a measure of courage for a Pakistani writer to delve into. The setting should be familiar to sub-continental readers, the pace is brisk, the narrative effortlessly moving back and forth in time and the prose is engaging. There is also that dash of dark and irreverent humour –‘all seems like wasted investment, halal money down the haram drain.’ All in all, a compelling read.

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