OUR LADY OF ALICE BHATTI
By Mohammed Hanif
Alfred A. Knopf, $25.95 256 pages
Mohammed Hanif has a connoisseur's sense of the ridiculous, a satirist's incisive wit and a journalist's windowpane prose. He also has a humanitarian's faith in personal possibility. In "Our Lady of Alice Bhatti," he miraculously keeps this faith alive even when it is veiled by the webs of personal and social degradation that swathe the underclass of Karachi.
With about 15 million people, Karachi is Pakistan's largest city, its financial and business hub and the center of the world's 10th-largest urban agglomeration. But readers don't see its skyscrapers and highways, or even much of its wealthier citizens or its mosques. Their attention is focused on French Colony, home of untouchables such as Joseph Bhatti, whose talent for unblocking sewers is born of long experience with the job.
His other talent - for curing stomach ulcers - is, he claims, God-given. Like most of Karachi's other untouchables, he is Christian, though his ulcer cure involves a Muslim prayer. His daughter Alice, a nurse in the run-down Sacred Heart Hospital for All Ailments, eases the sick with a prescription here, a drip or a bandage there. She, too, will recite an Islamic prayer if she thinks it will comfort the dying. She is emphatically not into doctrine, Islamic or Christian. "How about real miracles," asks Alice, "like the drains shall remain unclogged? Or the hungry shall be fed?"
Alice is savvy about the ways of the Pakistani world, having "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 but her." She deals with it by making her own rules such as not looking men in the eye, not stretching her legs so she won't give them ideas, and having her clothes cut big across her bosom so they won't spot her desirable "privileges." She knows that while most of them would not deign to eat from a plate used by an untouchable such as herself, that would not prevent them from touching her body in any other way they wanted.
When Alice is furloughed for not humoring the sexual demands of a VIP patient, she marries Teddy Butt, a bodybuilder who works for the police as "crime scene cleaner, comforter, errand boy, towel-holder, cheerleader, doorstopper, gun cleaner, replacement court witness, proxy prisoner, fourth card player, but more importantly, companion to people who have been caught but not yet killed."
Teddy likes being a cognoscente of the police world; after all, he is lucky to have work. He keeps the body that made him Mr. Junior Faisalabad in trim condition. Yet terrible things happen around him. Sometimes he is the victim, as when the police boss Malangi needs a severed thumb and Teddy offers up his own. He is also the perpetrator. A celebratory shot he fires into the air hits a distant truck driver just finishing his 48-hour shift, and precipitates a string of accidents and riots that kill scores of people. But he is not the villain of this piece; he is an absurd bumbler in over his head. You can worry about Teddy. You want to cross your fingers for him because he is going to need a lot of luck.
This reaction is a triumph of Mr. Hanif's talent for perfectly staging his characters so that readers can see them without rushing to judgment. Even the truly scary Malangi seems funnily human when he worries about his daughters' exams. Sister Hina Alvi's "terrifying poise" alarms Alice, but Mr. Hanif spotlights it as tough love. "We all crave sugar sometimes," she warns Alice. "But you work in a hospital; you have seen those gangrened limbs. That was all sugar once." This puts readers on alert. They become mother hens watching for dangers as Alice moves through the chaos of the hospital and Karachi's streets.
In a city awash with guns and riven by social and religious discord, the dangers are real. Mr. Hanif often distances them as farce, letting readers disarm them with explosive laughs, or he offers the bandage of irony to cover stabs of outrage. But the outrage is real, too. "Our Lady of Alice Bhatti" satirizes the myths that paper over the evils that expose women to physical and psychological abuse, fill the hospital's grounds and corridors with people pleading for an aspirin or a Valium or an operation; and pepper the Christian year with supernumerary fasts that make a virtue of perennial malnourishment among Karachi's untouchables.
Like all satires, "Our Lady of Alice Bhatti" exposes corruption and evil. It does it so thoroughly that the chaos of the hospital suggests existential chaos. Reform would be nice. It doesn't seem imminent, however. In the meantime, Mohammed Hanif offers a picture of people energetically coping by making worlds of their own despite, and perhaps because of, the horrors of the big world beyond. His book is often funny, always interesting and thought-provoking, and in the end both sad and inspiring.
• Claire Hopley is a writer and editor in Amherst, Mass.