Saturday, 2 June 2012

Are you dealing with a cold fish?

Our Lady of Alice Bhatti, by Mohammed Hanif

Do you know someone who merely shrugs their shoulders when they hear about someone else getting squashed like a bug?  If so, according to lots of research, reading a book that stirs compassion can help.  Our Lady of Alice Bhatti might improve their outlook and warm their heart.
 Alice Bhatti is the motherless daughter of a Christian untouchable in Pakistan, a man so lowly that he is shunned by even the other untouchables.   She lives in a world where women like herself must step modestly and carefully around clogged sewers, both literal and figurative, to keep herself safe from leering eyes,  groping hands, knives being welded, guns being put to head, axes chopping and well born complacent men blaming.   Alice herself is considered ambitious, as she has paid her nursing school tuition with the blood money from her mother’s employer after a fatal accident involving a slip while scrubbing soapy travertine marble stairs.  But Alice wonders “it is not very likely that when you slip on that staircase you’ll also accidentally scratch yourself on your left breast with such violence that those who wash your body will see four parallel sharp gashes drawn with human nails.  It’s also unlikely that during that fall on the staircase you’ll somehow manage to spill someone’s sperm on your thighs.” 

 This novel is about the haves and the have nots—a universal theme where through circumstances of birth some are born into astonishing luxury and privilege, and others into starvation and humiliation.  While not all of the privileged characters here are shameless, self-centered and vile, all of the underprivileged in this novel must negotiate and scrabble for the little bit of buttered toast that will prolong a starving relative’s life.  Although Alice is an ex-convict, and knows how to mouth off to an enemy, or slice an unwelcome penis, she is basically an earnest and optimistic young woman who hopes that by studying hard, behaving professionally and living modestly she can avoid the horrors she has seen inflicted on other women.  However, when she meets Teddy Butt, who “…believes that being a lover is something that falls somewhere between paying them and slapping them around”, she seals her fate.
Hanif reminds me of two other South Asian writers, who although they are Indian, express similar themes in a similarly humorous but horrifying tone:  Manu Joseph and  Aravind Adiga.  They present a world so topsy turvy, so loaded with corruption created from complacent well born patriarchs, that the reader can’t help but root for the lowly creatures who must endure beneath them.  Hanif shows us a hospital where doctors (male and privileged) become ethical only when drunk, and police officers (also male and privileged) encourage grievous crimes.   Despite the horrors described in this chaotic hospital in a chaotic neighbourhood in a chaotic country, this excellent book will pull you in and make you want to stay.

 Considering the various research projects involving literature used for human improvement and therapy, this is the type of novel that could stimulate a reader to feel more empathy for the underdog.  If you have an arrogant, glacial and impassive one in your midst, why not try a little experiment, and coax them into reading this?  If you try it, please let us know about your findings!

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