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Our Lady of Alice Bhatti

From one misadventure into another; from one murder to the second; from one crisis in Karachi to another; from blossoming love to destructive obsession; and a country that was once secular but is now the most dangerous place on earth. In all of this Hanif manages to make us laugh
 
Pakistani writer Mohammed Hanif's quirkily eloquent prose does not hide the eccentricities of his characters. Like in his previous blockbuster, A Case of Exploding Mangoes, in which he detailed just about everything related to the death of former Pakistan dictator Zia ul-Haq while narrating it like an Indiana Jones type adventure, Hanif continues to be in top form; building his characters to a believable, approachable level in his second offering, Our Lady of Alice Bhatti.


Pakistani writer and journalist Mohammed Hanif poses with the
International Corine Book Prize 2009 in Munich, southern Germany.
He was awarded the prize for his novel A Case of Exploding Mangoes.
pic/ AFP PHOTO


One would guess that, for a writer, there is no greater triumph than that. The question of whether a Hanif fan should compare the two books is moot. It is undesirable, of course, but perhaps inevitable. It is like comparing two of Viswanathan Anand's world championship crowns. Should we rate his 2008 win over prodigy Vladimir Kramnik higher than his 2010 victory over the supremely eccentric yet far more accomplished Veselin Topalov? We perhaps shouldn't, but we may. But then, the end result was that Anand became the world champion on both occasions, and that is what mattered.

Hanif's second book is like that. Our Lady of Alice Bhatti may not be a thrilling tour de force (as the book's blurb tries to suggest to us subliminally), but is a winner nevertheless. The protagonist Alice Bhatti -- a devout Christian in a country crippled by Islamic conservatism -- is a just-out-of-prison nurse in a Karachi hospital that is home to shootout victims and to the dregs of society such as the homeless and incurable drug addicts. She has a love interest in Teddy Butt, who lives several parallel lives at once, with not one of them being remotely "respectable" except for his victory in the Junior Mr Faisalabad body-building competition.

He, incidentally, is a crime scene cleaner, a replacement court witness, a proxy prisoner � well, anything that the police want him to be. Butt even sacrifices his thumb in order to help Inspector Malangi, who needs a victim to prove his case against an alleged "murderer" so that he can go home quickly to his children who have their mathematics exam soon ("At my age, I have to sit with them and do maths revision. Why don't you help out and get something broken that'll look good to the medico-legal so that we can have this hero to ourselves for a few days?"). Scruples, it would seem, are not the high point of the Pakistani Police.



And so it goes � from one misadventure into another; from one murder to the second; from one crisis in Karachi to another; from blossoming love to destructive obsession; and a country that was once secular but is now the most dangerous place on earth. In all of this Hanif manages to make us laugh. You also get the feeling that he is also laughing, just that his laughter, for the Pakistani in him, that is, is sardonic.

Our Lady Of Alice Bhatti
Mohammed Hanif
Rs 499
Published by Random House India

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