Monday, August 27, 2012

Alice Goes Down the Rabbit Hole

Courtesy - Random House

Our Lady of Alice Bhatti is Mohammed Hanif's second inning, a tale I think is best described as a 'doomed love story'. Of course there are many layers in the narrative that elevate it above and beyond the typical romance- Hanif also brings in the plight of the "choohras": the sweeper caste; and the Christians living in a predominantly Muslim country. He weaves in elements of religious fanaticism and theological uncertainty.

Alice Bhatti is a renegade: a nurse who takes no nonsense from anyone, who takes nothing for granted, who has been a victim many times but has never stopped fighting. The story begins with Alice's return to Sacred Heart Hospital after a stint in the Borstal jail. She is guided by Sister Hina Alvi as she tackles the day-to-day work at the Sacred Heart.

Teddy Butt is a body-builder who works as the 'man-who-handles-the-dirty-
jobs' for Inspector Malangi's 'Gentleman's Squad', or G-squad for short. A man of few thoughts, and fewer words, he is willing to throw aside everything to impress his boss.

Their romance begins with a chance meeting that leaves Teddy in the grips of infatuation bordering on obssession. It is an unlikely pairing (to say the least), and Hanif never lets the reader forget that. Throughout the story, the reader is given constant, subtle hints about some impending misfortune. The other characters stand as helpless witnesses to their romantic intelude, but each one has a niggling, ominous feeling about it. Noor: the young man born in Borstal, who rose to a position of much importance at the Sacred Heart and takes care of his ailing mother wants to protect Alice, the woman he loves; and Sister Hina Alvi: the pragmatic, matronly head nurse at the Borstal, who warns her of heartbreak and the futility of love.

I say with much relief that Hanif has toned down (somewhat) on the 'Ew Factor'. Apart from a vivid description of nipples in the beginning, the story is comparitively tame. However, if you pick up 'Our Lady of Alice Bhatti' expecting to find gooey romance, I suggest you direct your attention elsewhere. Hanif never hesistates to give the reader a taste (or dollops, more like) of harsh reality: a place where mindless violence, jealousy and grief go hand-in-hand with love and loyalty. At times, though, the grounded 'real-ness' of the story can get a little hazy under a veil of surreality: something that gives it a dreamlike quality...a quality brought out in the unexpected ending.
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