Caste in Doubt

Catholic women show their bangles at a Christmas celebration in Multan, December 23, 2002.
Catholic women show their bangles at a Christmas celebration in Multan, December 23, 2002.

On March 2, 2011, Shahbaz Bhatti, Pakistan’s Catholic minister of minority affairs, was murdered—his car sprayed with bullets as he left his mother’s house in Islamabad. Bhatti had been the target of many previous threats and was, by his own account, resigned to an early death. Although a representative of President Zardari decried the murder, saying that “this is a concerted campaign to slaughter every liberal, progressive, and humanist voice in Pakistan,” and an Islamist group, Tehrik-i-Taliban, claimed responsibility, the crime was barely investigated. “I believe in Jesus Christ, who has given his own life for us,” Bhatti announced in a video released after his death. “I’m living for my community . . . and I will die to defend their rights.”

By a strange, yet unsurprising, coincidence, Mohammed Hanif’s new novel, Our Lady of Alice Bhatti, centers on another Pakistani Catholic named Bhatti, whose death is swathed in the iconography and vocabulary of Christian martyrdom. Much as we might want to read Hanif’s novel on its own terms, as a fiercely intimate and particular story, a Chekhovian study in withheld judgment, recent history has made it, almost despite itself, a scorching indictment of a society’s moral collapse. Since the introduction of anti-blasphemy laws under the dictator Zia ul-Haq in the 1980s, discrimination and violence against religious minorities have become ubiquitous in Pakistan, particularly for anyone accused of denigrating Islam or leaving the faith. Hanif’s previous novel, A Case of Exploding Mangoes (2008), fictionalized Zia’s assassination; in Alice Bhatti he details one of the more disastrous parts of Zia’s legacy: the predicament of lower-caste Christians, who have subsisted for decades in a kind of perpetual siege, confined to urban or rural ghettos and denied even the pretense of citizenship.

Alice Bhatti is a Choohra—the street-sweeping caste in Punjabi, and a subset of the group better known as Dalits or “untouchables”—born in French Colony, Karachi’s largest Christian slum; her father, Joseph, has the official title of “janitor for the Municipal Corporation” and is a part-time mystic, and her mother died under mysterious circumstances, likely involving rape, while working as a domestic servant. With an implacable will and mercurial wit, Alice has survived nursing school—where Muslim students attacked her—and prison, where she was sent after being blamed for a surgeon’s ghastly mistake. As the novel begins, she takes her first job at the Sacred Heart Hospital for All Ailments, an ostensibly Catholic public hospital governed, like everything else in Karachi, by bribes, small arms, and a precarious web of ethnic and class allegiances that might dissolve into mass violence at any moment.

Alice’s life is a constant tightrope: As a Christian, as an untouchable, as a single, young, attractive woman who must work in public, she faces the risk, every day, of being “shot or hacked, strangled or suffocated, poisoned or burnt, hanged or buried alive.” In Pakistan, she surmises, “cutting up women is a sport older than cricket but just as popular and equally full of obscure rituals and intricate rules that everyone seems to know except her.” And so she has developed her own strategies for survival:

She tries to maintain a nondescript exterior; she learns the sideways glance instead of looking at people directly. . . . She uses English for medical terms only, because she feels if she uses a word of English in her conversation she might be considered a bit forward. . . . She sidesteps even when she sees a boy half her age walking towards her, she walks around little puddles when she can easily leap over them; any act that involves stretching her legs might send the wrong signal. . . . She never eats in public. Putting something in your mouth is surely an invitation for someone to shove something horrible down your throat.

That trouble constantly finds her, in spite of all these precautions, seems not so much a matter of bad luck or her own incompetence as simply the impossibility of her position. Like the Baltimore of The Wire or the London of Little Dorrit, Hanif’s Karachi is not so much a city as an endlessly metastasizing disease. After she’s told to visit the hospital’s psychiatric ward—where no doctor or nurse has been seen in months—Alice narrowly escapes being murdered; when the son of a wealthy patient tries to force himself on her in the hospital’s VIP ward, she defends herself with a razor blade, knowing full well that the family can have her killed at any time with impunity.

The sheer difficulty of survival accounts for Alice’s most unwise, yet inevitable, choice: She marries Teddy Butt, a Muslim who works, in a largely unofficial capacity, for a police unit called the Gentlemen’s Squad, which specializes in torturing and “disappearing” high-value prisoners. Teddy is unstable, violent, largely incompetent, and given to delusions of grandeur. “His ideas about the logistics of love,” we learn, “are learnt from the wildlife documentaries he watches on National Geographic. . . . Sometimes he dreams of carrying Alice in his jaws.” Yet he is ardently, obsessively in love, and when he surprises her with an impromptu wedding ceremony aboard a borrowed submarine in Karachi’s harbor, she complies, though it requires an instant pro forma conversion to Islam. Why? In a rare moment of authorial intrusion, Hanif makes it explicit—for Alice, and for us:

By studying seven books in four years and marrying a semi-employed Musla, she is hoping to rise above the stench that is her daily bread. She is relieved that everything has 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.

That survival might be the only available basis for love, that the darkest and most cynical view of the world is really the only accurate assessment—by this point we’ve become so acculturated to Karachi that any other possibility seems laughable. Yet just here, at the novel’s midpoint, Alice creates, in a small miracle, an instant metaphor for her own life and her nation’s: She takes the hand of a stillborn baby, delivers a rageful, silent curse against Jesus—“grabs His goblet of wine and flings it across the room . . . snatches the fish from His disciples and throws it back into Galilee”—and then watches, astonished, “a little blood bubble pop out of the dead baby’s left nostril, then the toes on his right foot start twitching.”

If there’s a problem with this—a problem with Our Lady of Alice Bhatti at all—it’s that Hanif is only too skilled at using Christian iconography to transform Alice from an outcast into a postmodern saint and miracle worker, then a martyr (once she finally becomes the victim of Teddy’s paranoia, jealousy, and rage), and finally an icon for all the wronged Christians in Pakistan. From a Western perspective, from a culture steeped in narratives of transgressive martyrs and transfigured scapegoats, the image of Alice carried into the air on a peacock throne, accompanied by a “legless wretch . . . standing on the board with her arms spread as if she had inherited the factory that manufactures Xanax,” doesn’t so much call up images of the resurrection as the detritus of pop culture—Mental Mary night-lights, hot-pink rosaries, Madonna videos.

But that is our problem, not Alice Bhatti’s, and certainly not Mohammed Hanif’s. Our Lady of Alice Bhatti is a political novel, to the extent that for her the desire for human dignity is itself political, but it is not “an anthropological treatise about the survival strategies employed by Catholics in predominantly Islamic societies,” nor a polemic designed to prick the sympathies of Western readers. Hanif’s sympathies are much too broad for that. In the novel’s most virtuosic moment, he uses his narrator’s panoramic eye to travel the whole distance of one municipal catastrophe: A stray bullet strikes a truck driver, who in turn runs over a group of schoolchildren, whose death ignites a three-day, citywide riot.

A nineteen-year-old rummages under his pillow, cocks his pistol and runs on to the street screaming, promising to rape every Pathan mother in the land. A second-hand-tyre-shop owner tries to padlock his store, but the boys are already there with their iron bars and bicycle chains. . . . A helicopter hovers over the beach as if defending the Arabian Sea against the burning rubber smell. . . . Finding the streets deserted, groups of kites and crows descend from their perches and chase wild dogs, who lift their faces to the sky and bark joyously.

And in the end, when “carcasses of burnt buses . . . seem to have a calming effect on the city,” Hanif leaves us with the image of a solitary fisherman bicycling through the rubble on the way to lay his nets in the sea. “With his back to the city he dips his toe in the seawater, likes its cold-warm-cold feel, rolls up his trousers.” Life is cheap in Karachi, but not in this novel, which imbues all its moments with unsparing warmth and almost unbearable pathos.

Jess Row is the author of two collections of short stories, The Train to Lo Wu (Dial Press, 2005) and Nobody Ever Gets Lost (FiveChapters, 2010). He teaches at the College of New Jersey.