As the inimitable lady with the lamp, Florence Nightingale once said "Nursing is an art: and if it is to be made an art, it requires an exclusive devotion as hard a preparation, as any painter's or sculptor's work; for what is the having to do with dead canvas or dead marble, compared with having to do with the living body, the temple of God's spirit? It is one of the Fine Arts: I had almost said the finest of Fine Arts." I know from friends and relatives that nursing comprises of two emotional components, elation and frustration. The majority of the time it involves thankless tasks, mired in dirt, grime and excrement or pointless administrational busy work, until the next cavalcade of sick pass through the front entrance, on a procession of rusty trolleys and squeaky wheelchairs. However, those moments of real nursing, those of which all nurses dream of, caring for the sick and injured, offer something that makes the miniscule and superfluous acts more palatable. In Our Lady of Alice Bhatti
, published in Britain and Pakistan respectively, Mohammed Hanif's writing is as electrifying as ever.
The setting of his latest tale is Karachi, where a noxious atmosphere of ethnic, religious and caste tensions are steadily drowning this bustling metropolis, there is no hint of exoticism or rainbow tinged fantasy, just the stark reality of everyday life in a run-down hospital - The Sacred Heart. The absence of sweet smelling mango trees, sprawling chameli and Ghalib references makes room for explorations into the personal and working lives of Pakistan's Christian Choorah's, those at the bottom end of a complex caste-system.
The Sacred Heart hospital, where all manner of life, from the good to the bad, deceivers to moralists pass through, each ruled by a set of social moirés and moral amnesia, is the ideal repository in which to tell the story of modern Pakistan, free from decorous frippery. The whole structural system of the hospital is diametrically opposed to how one would think such an institution is run, with the building, Catholic in origin, entrusted into the hands of a rather imperious and intellectually fragile man, who inherited it from his father. Nurses, Ward Sisters and Doctors show routine moral failings, yet are, in their own way, dutifully devoted to keeping the Sacred functioning, to a slightly acceptable degree at least.
We are introduced to Alice Bhatti, a Christian and former borstal inmate, who hails from French Colony, a small Christian community of labourers in Karachi. Longing to be a nurse, we are first introduced to Alice waiting for her interview, fastidiously going over her preparations and fears about securing this once in a lifetime opportunity. Alice Bhatti has the perfect brassy attitude, volcanic emotional complexity and fiery personality to carry her through all this energetic madness with relative ease, even when she is assigned to the ominous Charya Ward, where mental patients of various levels of mania reside, as the blunt Sister Hina Alvi explains "those who bugger their sisters and bury them alive, because some God told them to"; the wretched souls range from a potential terrorist to a deranged yet oddly verbose old man, who takes pleasure in having his underwear around his ankles.
Hanif's writing is immediate, in the best kind of way; he takes typical literary and philosophical subjects, such as love, politics, society and religion and turns them into comical and easily digestible couplets. Most of these beautiful nuggets emanate from Alice's mind, she muses, quietly yet with a comical timing and phonetic quality worthy of the best wordsmith. This is not simply a novel about nursing, nor is it a philosophical attempt at analysing wider Pakistani society, Our Lady of Alice Bhatti is a novel that tells the story of modern Pakistan, through the lives of a small collection of people, united in serving the public. Chronicling the trials and tribulations, loves and loses, hopes and dreams of ordinary people caught up in an ideological tornado.
The novel is fortunate in that every chapter explores something new, but with the themes of religion and duty remaining ever present, culminating in a very tearful and tragic conclusion. One truly feels empathy and a great deal of love for this little Choorah Alice, this Christian in a Muslim world, this woman in a male dominated society.