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A tight structure

In a book that abounds with capricious events and mindless cruelties, and veers between recent flashbacks, distant flashbacks, and a multi-viewpoint present, Muhammed Hanif writes a tightly structured story. He peoples it with a compact ensemble of characters — Noor and his cancerous mother, Teddy Butt, Alice Bhatti, her father Joseph, Sister Hani Alvi, Inspector Malangi, and the prisoner who insists he is not Abu Zar. This is Karachi, a failed society, as we've been told in three decades' worth of newspaper articles. Everyone carries firearms, even the staff and patients in the Sacred Heart Hospital for All Ailments. And the lives of all these characters are embraced in a circle of violence.

The narrative itself is circular. Alice's father writes an epilogue to defend his daughter and, to explain her life, re-tells her story from the time she came into the Sacred looking for a job.

In Our Lady of Alice Bhatti, Hanif has drawn a character we will wonder about and examine repeatedly. From the very first scene, as she is being interviewed for a vacancy in the accidents and emergency ward of the Sacred, Alice is formidable even in her vulnerability. She already knows that “every little step forward in life is preceded by a ritual humiliation.” She is Christian, from a family of sweepers (one of the interviewers rubs that in), and she feels that she has wasted her few resources in even appearing for the interview. She seems incapable of understanding social cues.

But then, society is always telling her that she has no business prospering in the midst of the Muslas, that her calling is to mop floors. So why understand those cues? It is her gift for disregarding boundaries that lets her march into the psycho ward to administer lithium sulphate, when other nurses simply send it in with a sweeper. Or to slice an abusive VIP with a razor, when another nurse might have run off in tears. She is, after all, the daughter of Joseph Bhatti, “an untouchable with attitude.”

Her gifts

She has other gifts. One is the ability to look at a person and see how that person will die. And she seemingly brings a near-dead newborn to life. But she cannot figure out, and nor can we, the rules of the sport in which women are killed by men.

Alice has a near-sisterly relationship with the boy Noor. She sent him to Sacred three years ago, and he gets her the chance of a job there. He has unbrotherly feelings toward her. But it is the police poodle Teddy Butt who woos and wins Alice. Teddy has trouble written all over him.

When he fires a gun at random he sets off a chain of disasters, including a swerving truck, five dead schoolchildren, and a city in flames. But, as Noor suspects when watching the growing closeness of Alice and Teddy, “love is not just blind, it's deaf and dumb and probably has an advanced case of Alzheimer's; it's unhinged.” Teddy and Alice are both dismayed when she agrees to marry him. Once they have set up house, with their new crockery and vague expectations, in Hanif's stellar words, once Teddy has her, he finds a reason to punish her.

Hanif's writing appears uncomplicated, but every word is weighted with unspoken longings. Noor has loved Alice since they were at a juvenile prison together, but it takes him a long time to speak it even to himself. Teddy Butt sacrifices his thumb, like Ekalavya, to give Inspector Malangi a pretext to hold a suspect, so that he can belong to the police “family”. Even Malangi shows depths of feeling when he tells Teddy how to make a woman happy (just put a hand on her shoulder when she is least expecting it, he says).

The harm that will come to Alice, the harm foreshadowed from the beginning, is relentless. Noor will have his eyeball knocked out by a raging Teddy and watch, with one dry eye, as his mother finally dies.

Whether Inspector Malangi will kill his prisoner unjustly, or whether the escaped prisoner will kill him unjustly, is a crap shoot, but something terrible will happen. Many terrible things will happen.

Our Lady of Alice Bhatti, Muhammed Hanif, Random House India, 2011, p. 231, Rs. 499.


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Printable version | Jul 23, 2021 12:57:25 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/a-tight-structure/article2597722.ece

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