Saturday, December 3, 2011

Lady Sings The Blues

This appeared in last Sunday's DNA.


Often, it’s an author’s signature tone of voice that’s the most effective part of his or her work. It’s a pleasure to come across a distinctive voice that animates characters and themes, throwing into sharp relief a particular view of the world.  If one looks at authors from Pakistan, for example, this is amply illustrated by H.M. Naqvi’s suave, jitterbugging style in Home Boy as well as his compatriot Mohammed Hanif’s sardonic, off-kilter take on General Zia’s death in A Case of Exploding Mangoes. In Hanif’s follow up, Our Lady of Alice Bhatti, one finds the same sardonic insights, and this is what makes the book gratifying.

Our Lady of Alice Bhatti revolves around the travails of its eponymous heroine, a senior nurse at Karachi’s Sacred Heart Hospital. A mixture of the tough-spirited and soft-hearted, Alice is from the country’s Dalit Christian community, and Hanif manages to fit in several swipes against religious belief of all stripes -- as well as against egregious caste segregation -- in the course of the book.

Alice is pursued by an unlikely swain, a former bodybuilder and unofficial police factotum named Teddy Butt. That they’re opposites is clear from the start; Teddy’s wooing of Alice is, as a character puts it, like “a cheetah falling for a squirrel or bats trying to chat up butterflies”. The cheetah and the squirrel quickly get together after a credulity-straining sequence  inside a submarine off the city’s coast. Hanif doesn’t spend much time on explaining the hows and whys: that these two dissimilar individuals enter into an alliance is the motor of the plot, and he makes it happen without too much fuss, and with the occasional veering into tenderness.

Along the way, one is introduced to a gallery of other characters in Alice and Teddy’s ken, from those who work at the hospital to police officers to patients, with their pomposities and perversions being skewered one by one. Tribute to Saadat Hasan Manto is also paid, among other things, in the form of describing the goings-on in the hospital’s “charya ward”, the so-called Centre for Mental and Psychological Diseases where daily doses of lithium appear to be the only medication on offer.

Every once in a while, Hanif throws in a reminder that, satire apart, he’s skilled in evocative observation, too. At one point, for example, we’re told that Alice Bhatti “carries her handcuffs lightly, as if she is wearing glass bangles”.

However, his sparring mockery extends to cover many sections of life in Pakistan, and because of this, the novel tends to comes across as a series of linked set pieces rather than a fully-integrated whole. It does hold together, but only just, helped by an unexpected structural twist at the end, one that’s satisfying without seeming contrived. Overall, though, it’s the healthy doses of irreverence, sometimes almost Rabelaisian, that make Our Lady of Alice Bhatti rewarding to read.

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