Interpreter of Maladies: ‘Our Lady of Alice Bhatti,’

Parul Sehgal in The New York Times:

HanifWe need to talk about Alice. ­Alice, with her black hair and big mouth. With her beautiful body and poor impulse control. Alice, criminal and savior, the victim and heroine of “Our Lady of Alice Bhatti,” a deft, evil little novel of comic genius by Mohammed Hanif, author of the prizewinning “Case of Exploding Mangoes.” Fresh out of prison and despite formidable odds, Alice Bhatti, a Catholic nurse in present-day Pakistan, has wrangled a job at Karachi’s Sacred Heart Hospital for All Ailments, a cesspit of gangrene and incompetence. The “delivery room is a gambling den,” the head nurse says. “Everyone comes out a loser.” The maternity ward itself goes by the grim sobriquet “baby slaughterhouse.” But there’s something about Alice. She possesses unnerving gifts: mysterious healing powers and the ability to predict how you will die. She works miracles, is beloved by the residents of the psychiatric ward, but nothing, not even her supernatural skill set, can stem the tide of the dead women:

“There was not a single day — not a single day — when she didn’t see a woman shot or hacked, strangled or suffocated, poisoned or burnt, hanged or buried alive. Suspicious husband, brother protecting his honor, father protecting his honor, son protecting his honor, jilted lover avenging his honor, feuding farmers settling their water disputes, moneylenders collecting their interest: most of life’s arguments, it seemed, got settled by doing various things to a woman’s body.” “A Case of Exploding Mangoes,” Hanif’s first novel, drew favorable comparisons to “Catch-22” — both are stinging sendups of life in the air forces, but the similarities run deeper. Like Joseph Heller, Hanif specializes in a kind of horror and humor joined at the root. Stripped of the slapstick and magic realist special effects, “Alice Bhatti” is a blistering broadside on the socially sanctioned butchery of women and girls in Pakistan. It’s an abecedary of how women are hunted, how they’re choked and chopped up and thrown away. It’s an attempt to understand and render, with varying degrees of success, what life is like under siege from the world’s oldest, most deadly kind of terrorism. “Cutting up women is a sport older than cricket but just as popular and equally full of obscure rituals and intricate rules,” Hanif writes.

More here.