In Hanif’s (A Case of Exploding Mangoes, 2008) second literary effort, Alice Bhatti lives in a land where “most of life’s arguments…got settled by doing various things to a woman’s body.”
Alice is a young nurse, a Christian, in Muslim Pakistan. Alice is a Choohra, an untouchable. Alice is also a graduate of Borstal Jail for Women and Children. That's because outspoken Alice made an easy target at the end of her nursing training when blame needed to be affixed for a botched operation. Sentence complete, with the help of sympathetic but ineffectual Dr. Jamus Pereira, Alice has secured a nursing position at Sacred Heart Hospital for All Ailments near French Colony, Karachi’s Christian slum. Outsider and renegade, openhearted and cynical, Alice is a strikingly memorable character. Willing to help teenaged Noor nurse his cancer-filled mother, Alice is equally willing to defend herself by razor-nicking the male member of the family of a privileged patient. Hanif’s setting is spot on: Karachi as Karachi-Western-misperceived, squalor and discrimination perfectly logical alongside the “Gentlemen’s Squad,” an off-the-books police operation rough-riding through interrogations that produce dead witnesses. Alice is soon courted and married by Teddy Butt, a waxed-hairless, steroid-consuming body-builder and latent misogynist, who “provides valet parking for the angels of death” as the squad’s combination errand boy and clean-up man. Much of the first two-thirds of the novel is focused on the artful setting and the deepening of character development, and then Alice, praying “in the heat of demented devotion,” resuscitates an apparently stillborn boy. Alice is certain there are scientific reasons for the baby springing to life, but rumors of miracles soon fly around the hospital and out among the want-to-be-patients languishing under a courtyard tree called Old Doctor. It is there too that Alice rests to await her destiny.
Laced with humor, often ribald and iconoclastic, this is an insightful tale of pain and love, a story of a quest for humanity and grace in a desperate, chaotic society.