April 29, 2016

Of Religion and Humour: Mohammed Hanif's Our Lady of Alice Bhatti is both smart and witty

Life has taught Alice Bhatti that every little step forward in life is preceded by a ritual humiliation. Every little happiness asks for a down payment. Too many humiliations and a journey that goes in circles means that her fate is permanently in the red.
Mohammad Hanif is one of those writers, you know. The one that everyone in Pakistan seems to have read. The one that so many people just love. And it’s very, very hard to go into a book with that level of expectation and not be a little disappointed.
I tried to brace myself before reading this by talking myself into lowering my anticipation. “It might not be THAT good,” I told myself, and I actually turned out to be right. And I didn’t hate it but I didn’t love it either, even though yes, it’s funny, yes, it’s smart, and yes, it gets a lot of points for taking on a protagonist who is a part of so many sensitive demographics in terms of religion, gender and social class - a Catholic, a woman, and a junior nurse - and dealing with it really well.
“Maybe you’ll be luckier. But you don’t seem like the kind of girl who attracts luck.”
The story opens with Alice Bhatti having recently left the Borstal jail where she was spending time for having smashed in a senior surgeon’s head. After getting the job as junior nurse, Alice begins a tentative, initially-reluctant love affair with ex-bodybuilder Teddy Butt, and spends her days trying to survive the hospital’s patients and Karachi’s craziness. In between are efforts to understand her father, a proud sweeper who is both loving and neglectful, as well as attempts to ward off the rumours about Alice’s miraculous healing powers after a baby born dead suddenly wakes up again. And woven throughout the narrative are subtle, sly sentences that make this book so much fun to read.
The Characters Breathe
The most noticeable thing about the writing in this book is how alive the characters are. Alice jumps right off the pages, and even though I never used to understand what that phrase meant, this book helps make its meaning a little bit clearer.
People can learn various crafts in jail: to pick pockets, to wield a knife, how to use your knee in a fight, to plant flowers in pots made out of cardboard or hook up with someone and hatch a plan to kidnap a film star, or to write poetry. Alice has learnt only one thing: to keep quiet and speak only when absolutely necessary.
This deft handling of characters who are three-dimensional expands to include all those around Alice. Hanif shows this in the characterization of Noor, a seventeen-year-old who spends his time at the Sacred Heart Hospital for All Ailments, the hospital where Alice works as a junior nurse, simultaneously caring for his mother, being an all-around helper boy and lusting after Alice.
Walking into a room and behaving as if the room belonged to him was something that Noor had already learnt, at a time when other boys his age were only hanging from the windowsills looking in, He was sure that his secret code would work.
Hanif does both the young and the old equally well. While Noor is the teenager, Doctor Pereira, the Chief Medical Officer at the Sacred, is the older, more resigned adult, both cowardly but also kind-hearted. Hanif’s characterization of Dr Pereira rests on small, concise sentences woven into the bigger picture. Even though he’s not one the main characters, he still manages to have a distinct voice.
Dr Pereira is human enough to realise that Alice and Noor are not the authors of their own misfortunes, but he is not imaginative enough to recognise their desperate attempts to rewrite them.
What’s fascinating is that Hanif’s rendering of complex, interesting characters isn’t limited by gender. He creates secondary female characters with as much ease as the male one, such as in the case of Hina Alvi, a senior Sister at the hospital with a cast-iron will and a dry but hilarious outlook on all the harsh things in life.
“I’m not the right person to give anybody martial advice. I have been married thrice. And I’m single now. I married the same man twice. Just to be sure. But the result was the same.”
The most disappointing thing about the book is maybe the other protagonist, Teddy Butt, who is so lacklustre as to be hardly worth mentioning. Even though the book is pitched as a romance between Alice and Teddy, I literally couldn’t have cared less about Teddy or his bodybuilding days or his nefarious and highly questionable job as helper for a non-sanctioned police task force involved in dubious things. Teddy takes up too much space in this book for someone who elicits no emotion, and is the smallest side note to the multifaceted, fascinating personality that is Alice.
Like all battle-hardened warriors she has managed to preserve her gift for the fight but forgotten why she became a fighter in the first place.
A Different Kind of Humour
“You should probably get married. I have heard that a good husband is the only cure for bad dreams. You know why? Because then you are sleeping with your bad dream.”
You’ll find that a lot of people spend a lot of time talking about how funny Mohammad Hanif is, so I was expecting something that was out-right hilarious, but that’s not the sort of humour this author is dabbling in. This book presents humour in a different way from anything I’ve ever read.
“My job is to cure people, to cure them at the worst of times. I don’t decide when someone is going to die. He does.”
He raises his forefinger towards the ceiling. Alice Bhatti looks at the ceiling fan in confusion: Put your Faith in Phillips, it says.

He doesn’t bother pulling back from topics that one might consider sensitive. Religion, social discrimination, poverty, sex, violence, almost every topic gets a satirical comment, a subtle witty phrase tucked in between lines.
Multilingual beggars were still beggars; even worse, they were beggars with pretensions.
The best part, of course, is that this wit is subtle in the best way. This book doesn’t elicit belly laughter, but the amused chuckle, the unexpected giggle, the unseemly snort if you read this in public.
“First love,” Hina Alive says, “is like your first heart attack. Chances are that you’ll survive it, but you don’t outlive it.”
And to top it all off, Mohammad Hanif writes really well. His writing is funny, but also smart.
Dr Pereira has never figured out how people find out about these things. Somebody whispers something in your ear, and before you can turn to them and ask how they know in the first place, the rumour has travelled around the city and somebody else is whispering a version of the original in your other ear.
The Male Author, the Female Protagonist
Men writing about women protagonists always worry me, because there’s so many ways in which it could go wrong. This book, thankfully, doesn’t disappoint. For lessons on how to write a nuanced female character, other authors could take lessons from Mohammad Hanif’s writing.
Lewd gestures, whispered suggestions, uninvited hands on her bottom are all part of Alice Bhatti’s daily existence.
Even besides the clever commentary on unwanted sexual advances or gender discriminatory practises, this book takes into account all shades of the spectrum. Women aren’t just one single adjective. They’re defiant, oppressed, kind hearted, cold, romantic, funny; throughout the book Hanif uses Alice as well as Sister Hina Alvi to make these females grey and complex instead of caricatures of black and white.
“I am a fifty-one-year-old single woman. That is a whole religion in itself, with its own rituals. It has its own damnation and rewards.”
He also uses his male character to provide a steady stream of commentary on women and their habits, their mannerisms, their needs and desires; it is easy to see how huge an effect the female gender has on the lives of Teddy, Noor, Teddy’s captain, Alice’s father, and all the other males in this book.
“There is a deep hidden well of sadness in every woman, as inevitable as a pair of ovaries, and on certain afternoons its mouth yawns open and it can suck in every colour in this world.”
Hanif also flips this courtesy provided to men by providing the same to his female characters, who don’t hold back in trying to understand, recognize or empathize with the convoluted intentions and actions of the men in their lives.
“Men don’t understand. Just remember that. They don’t.”
At the end of the day, however, Mohammad hanif seems to be speaking for the females as he lays down some pretty harsh truths about the treatment of women in this world.  
During her house job she worked in Accidents and Emergencies for six months and 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.
And because this book is written by a Pakistani about characters located in Pakistan, crimes which are global but feel so personal, so local, so much like they only happen in our country also find space between the narrative.
Suspicious husband, brother protecting his honour, father protecting his honour, son protecting his honour, jilted lover avenging his honour, 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.
The important thing to take away from all this is that conversations about writing across gender, race, religion or other demographics have existed for a long time. Men writing about women, white people writing about african americans, able-bodied people writing about disabilities, all these factors have in common a distance from the experience these writers are tackling. But Mohammad Hanif proves that this distance is surpassable, and can be done faithfully to the end.
Joseph feels sad: that’s all his daughter is good at, looking pretty and bashing up octogenarian professionals. As if being beautiful gives her the right to behave badly.
On the Funny and Serious Side of Religion
“These Muslas will make you clean their shit and then complain that you stink.”
If men writing about women rate high on the worry scale, than authors writing a protagonist whose religion differs from theirs make me even more apprehensive, because there are so many more chances where one could offend. Religion is tricky, and sensitive, and in these volatile times even slightly dangerous.  
She knows what faith in; it’s the same old fear of death dressed in party clothes.
What makes this situation even more precarious is the harassment, discrimination and religious violence the Christian minority has to face in a country like Pakistan. Barely two months ago a park full of Christian families celebrating Easter in Lahore found themselves the victims of a suicide bombing which killed 72 and injured hundreds more, many of them children.
I know some people see Yassoo on a cross or his mother in a pretty dress in every seasonal fruit. Why do people need that kind of evidence? Isn’t there always a flood or an earthquake or a child run over by a speeding car driven by another child to remind us that God exists?
Hanif’s story manages to treat religion both as a serious topic worthy of consideration and as a side note, one whose effects are barely felt on the characters. This is a dichotomy that runs throughout the book, and Hanif balances it out by being, in turn, serious, didactic, funny or flippant. He treats religion the way the majority of Pakistanis do. Like something one must tolerate, respect, fear, and humor, all at the same time.
As a child I was taught that God is in everything. I thought that this concept was so simple that even someone like me could understand it. Now that I am getting old, they want me to literally see God in vegetables. For the last five years, every year there is an aubergine somewhere that, when you slice it, it has the word Allah running through it.

Sex (and Violence) in the City
“Will it hurt?” Teddy asks...Noor sighs, as if he can’t understand why people keep asking the same question. He lives in a world where people want their share of pain measured, labelled, packaged, with its ingredients identified in plain language. They want it to come with an expiry date and a guarantee that there is this and no more.
The only flaw this book has is the almost gratuitous display of violence or sex. Usually I have no issue with mentions of these particular topics because it's unrealistic to assume that in a book about Pakistan they won’t crop up. But my problem is with their usage for shock effect.
He is imagining me naked, Alice thinks. It never ceases to amazes her that men, even those on death watch, all think the same thing. One eye on the dying mother, the other on the paramedics tits.
I’m generally reluctant to blame an author for using things like sexual assault, murder, kidnapping or other atrocities in this vein just for the case of a little titillation because it sounds like such a weak, horrible thing for a writer to do. But the fact of the matter is that a lot of authors do indulge in such things, simply because they produce an effect on the reader. You will always remember a particularly horrifying or gruesome scene long after you’ve read the book.
She has lived long enough to know that cutting up women is a sport older than cricket but just as popular and equally full of obscure rituals and intricate rules that everyone seems to know except her.
And this book almost skirts the edges of superfluous violence, of pointless mentions of sex. In some cases, it’s funny and relevant and makes a statement.
“So basically I am being punished for resisting an armed assault.”
And in some cases, it doesn’t.
“You can kill forty-six people in six minutes, all the while riding a motorbike, and you can’t take a piss standing up? Hurry up, behind the bushes.”
A half-torn poster on the wall says: Bhai, your blood will bring a revolution. Someone has scrawled under it with a marker: And that revolution will bring more blood. Someone has added Insha’Allah in an attempt to introduce divine intervention into 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 Blank is in Block C.
There is a scene within this book, a 3-page long incident when Teddy shoots in the air and accidentally shuts down the city for 3 days. That one scene is such a perfect description of the kind of unholy mess that is Karachi, and it says so much about how individual lives affect the larger picture, how actions have unintended consequences, about the political and social conditions of this city. Mohammad Hanif’s writing is funny and honest, and while I might not love his work as much as the rest of the country seems to, I see where everyone else is coming from. Read it if you feel like seeing what the hype is all about.