Nothing Anthropological about Alice!
<p><strong>Mohammed Hanif does not seem self-conscious of the 'marginality' of his protagonist, Alice Bhatti of Karachi</strong><br /><strong>Aakshi Magazine Delhi</strong></p><p><strong><span style="color: #ff0000;">Book: Our Lady Of Alice Bhatti</span></strong><br /><strong><span style="color: #ff0000;">Author: Mohammed Hanif</span></strong><br /><strong><span style="color: #ff0000;">Publisher: Random House india</span></strong><br /><strong><span style="color: #ff0000;">Pages: 240</span></strong><br /><strong><span style="color: #ff0000;">Price: 499</span></strong><br /><strong><span style="color: #ff0000;">Year: 2011</span></strong></p><p><strong>After reading Mohammed</strong> Hanif's <em>Our Lady of Alice Bhatti</em>, you want to ask him, what came first, the context that he wanted to write about, or the story? Or does it not work like this, the two not being that distinct from each other. The book gets under your skin. And it doesn't make its craft visible. It is never really a book about a choohra (Dalit) woman in Muslim Pakistan, though it is exactly that.</p><p>At Delhi's insular India Habitat Centre, where the author was in discussion with TV anchor Barkha Dutt, the conversation veered towards this question. Hanif, on stage, seemed to be playing hard to get. If the interviewer thought she had figured him out, then she was thrown aback by his dismissal of her question about being a 'political writer'. A few sentences later, he finally answered: "When I write a book, I am not sitting down to make a political statement." The book grew out of an image of a nurse from his childhood that had stayed with him. This becomes the protagonist, Alice Bhatti of Karachi, whose life we follow, leading to an imaginative and subversive ending.</p><p>Hanif observed that only when people review your book do you understand what "the hell you were trying to do". When you are writing, you are, among other things, "obsessing about why this paragraph is so boring". He couldn't have been entirely serious because Alice seems to be very aware of where she is placed. At one point, when you had begun to wonder when Alice and Teddy fell in love, Alice thinks: "She is relieved that everything happened so suddenly, she hasn't had the time to examine her own motives, otherwise, her love story would have turned into an anthropological treatise about the survival strategies employed by Catholics in predominantly Islamic societies." This paragraph works in two ways. It makes one interpretation of their story obvious to you in case you were too dense to get it, and it makes you doubt that very understanding because Alice seems to be mocking you – life shouldn't and couldn't be this prosaic and easy to figure out.</p><p>The book is anything but prosaic, though its poetry is of a different kind. It plays with thoughts and ideas, not just with language. There is keen observation. Alice's friend in the hospital, Noor, "lives in a world where people want their share of pain measured, labeled, packaged, with its ingredients identified in plain language. They want it come with an expiry date and a guarantee that there is this and no more." At another place, Teddy feels "a mixture of disgust and desire" at the sight of Alice's pubic hair, a familiar sentiment captured so well here.</p><p>The writing is witty, though sometimes this is overdone. It is unsentimental, but not insensitive. When Alice is nervous and self-conscious during an interview: "She notices, for the first time in her life, that the lizard has four feet." There is depth and understanding of the world. He understands how caste works within modernity; choohras are now janitors, but is there space for them to be other people? Both Alice and her father Joseph's lives are limited and confined by the caste they are born into. One of the more powerful parts is when Alice recounts her growing up years subjected to the male gaze.</p><p>It is the coming together of this unsentimentality, wit, understanding, poetry and sensitivity which gives the writing its particular character. Hanif does not seem self-conscious of the 'marginality' of his protagonist, the kind of self-consciousness which made Aravind Adiga's Booker Prize winning The White Tiger unreadable. And yet, he is anything but ignorant about it, understanding well the politics of gender, caste and religion. This works for the book. And when he says that he began with Alice's image and only later understood where the character came from, it makes sense.</p>