Our Lady of Alice Bhatti

  • Mohammed Hanif
  • Knopf
  • 235 pp.

In a sea of sickness, violence and poverty, one woman worthy of sainthood eases pain and suffering in modern-day Pakistan.

Reviewed by Barbara Esstman

In the last chapter of the novel, Our Lady of Alice Bhatti, Joseph Bhatti pleads with the Catholic Church to agree that his daughter, Alice, is a saint who ascended into heaven. After all, the entire psych ward at the Sacred Heart Hospital for All Ailments, where she worked as a nurse, saw her seated on a celestial throne held aloft by peacocks; a legless beggar was miraculously cured and able to skateboard; and lightning came out of the blue, striking and killing the 200-year-old tree under which Alice sometime napped. What more proof could the Congregation for the Causes of Saints want?

One cannot entirely blame the Vatican for being prejudiced and skeptical. Alice was an Untouchable and fallen-away Catholic who had served time in the Borstal for attempting to kill a doctor; she was accused of being a penis-slasher, a Xanax thief, and a wife who left her loving husband; some suspected her of being a lesbian planning to raise a bastard child with her partner. Not your usual candidate for canonization. But the miracle of this novel is that for reasons entirely different from Joseph Bhatti’s, readers will come to see that for all the slander and surface evidence to the contrary, the holy and the divine abides mightily in Alice who tries to bring order to a world full of people sick in various ways.

Alice lives in modern-day Pakistan, which is likened to a sewer where the police are corrupt and lawless, the terrorists are armed and dangerous, human services are inadequate or simply non- existent, and most every person and animal seems to be maimed, scarred or ill in some terrible way. Occasionally, men may injure themselves on purpose, be executed by other men they’ve tortured, or in rare instances killed by irate wives. But all women are disposable and in constant danger of beatings, disfigurement, rape or death with no means of defending themselves that won’t put them in worse jeopardy. (Yes, I know it’s difficult to be in worse jeopardy than death, but these characters manage it.) Ironically, women are safer and have more freedom in prison. When not serving time they are regularly murdered by family members to uphold male honor, or expected to submit sexually to complete strangers, or accused by men who need scapegoats for their own errors.

As one character says, “I can’t live like this. This life is too much.” Alice responds matter of factly, “Nobody can live like this.”

But live she does by trying her best in this dark and dangerous Wonderland — by defending herself in situations where most other women would submit as victims; by doing what makes practical, common sense and breaking rules when it is stupid not to; and even by praying to a god she no longer believes in when that is the only thing left to do in the face of a child’s death. She is a good friend to Noor, the loving, sweet and resourceful teenager who was raised in the Borstal where Alice was imprisoned and now tends to his dying mother as a ward boy at the Sacred. Alice is also the wife of Teddy Butt, a bodybuilder who works in an unofficial capacity for the police comforting torture victims about to get bullets in their brains. She gains a reputation as a miraculous healer by inaugurating basic sanitary measures to save mothers and babies, by handing out drugs to those whose pain cannot be eased by other means, and by comforting those around her who live in this comfortless world. She tries always to preserve her dignity and sense of self and to do what is sane and good, which in her world of violence and suffering is a miracle in itself.

Alice Bhatti is quite human but heroic in that humanity. However unorthodox her methods, I’d call her a saint. Not according to the official criteria and often in spite of it, of course. But still, a saint in how she miraculously transcends all that would degrade her and how she does much good in a world that isn’t.

Mohammed Hanif is rather miraculous as writer, too. He tempers horror with laugh-out-loud humor, the same way Swift made cooking Irish babies funny. Whether piling up the details of Alice’s world in such a way that they become hilarious by the unreal volume of unimaginable events, or simply recording deadpan the loopy logic that all humans employ, he shows the best and worst of what makes us profoundly human. The point of view is so solidly grounded that it can expose weakness with the sharpest eye and yet retain compassion when warranted. His first novel was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize, and I’d be surprised if this one doesn’t win, it’s that good. Read it. In these strange times we all need to know saints like Alice and writers like Hanif.

Barbara Esstman is the author of The Other Anna and Night Ride Home. She teaches at The Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Md. and McLean, Va., and does developmental editing with private clients.

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