Author Hanif No Saint, Nor Pakistani Leadership
By Saxon Haney
A Book Review of Our Lady of Alice Bhatti
It is a little bit of a satire, but readers should not think they are about to laugh out loud.
“Our Lady of Alice Bhatti" is a novel by the famous Pakistani author and journalist Mohammed Hanif. The story revolves around the life of a young Christian woman, Alice Bhatti, who works as a nurse in a hospital in Karachi, Pakistan. Bhatti is "choorha", or an untouchable, from the traditional caste system and lives in the "French Colony" neighborhood of Karachi, noted for its poverty and minority Christian population.
We are introduced to Alice as she is sitting in a job interview at the hospital and as she recalls her recent confinement in a women's prison for a minor crime. Alice, it seems, is very talented, and her father is renowned as a Christian healer, who recites verses from the Quran to stomach ulcers. We find that Alice has some of those same healing talents, and she is able to see exactly how every person will eventually die. After she is hired for the job, Alice comes under the tutelage of a more experienced nurse, who is a silent Christian.
During her work at the hospital, Alice encounters a young Muslim bodybuilder who works unofficially for the police carrying out unpleasant jobs that are outside of the legal process. The bodybuilder purposely injures his hand so that the police can use it as evidence to secure a warrant against another individual. As Alice treats and heals his injury and their relationship progresses, the young bodybuilder professes his love for Alice and the two get married on a submarine just off the coast from Karachi.
On their honeymoon night, just before his execution in a remote area, a supposed criminal terrorist escapes her husband's custody. Her husband's grip on reality soon begins to loosen as a result of the anxiety and fear of what will happen to him if he doesn't recapture the escaped man. In the meantime, Alice has become pregnant and leaves her husband to be in the care of her mentor after he does not return home for days on end while pursuing leads on the missing criminal terrorist.
Her husband, in a disturbed rage, rationalizes that it is only fair that if he cannot have Alice then no one else should. He obtains liquid acid and approaches her outside of the hospital grounds. Others see him throw the acid in her face as she is ascending to join the Virgin Mary. Alice's father writes a long letter to the Vatican requesting that Alice be recognized for what the others witnessed before she succumbed to her injuries from the acid.
At its core, Our Lady of Alice Bhatti, is a harsh criticism of the everyday violence women encounter in modern Pakistan and a stark reminder of the continued persecutions that Christians suffer from. Hanif does not criticize religion throughout the book, rather, he takes on the backward nature of some of the prevailing cultural attitudes in Pakistan.
Most of the laughter in this book comes at the expense of the absurdity of the circumstances at hand. But sadly, to a Westerner with access to a real news outlet, there are real life people likely living this existence.
Therefore, in the opinion of this reviewer, I’m not holding my breath for the movie. Or for the country of Pakistan at large.