Our Lady of Alice Bhatti

An excerpt from "Our Lady of Alice Bhatti"

01 July, 2011

Alice Bhatti is a lone woman in a man's world, a Christian in an Islamic world, a healer amidst the maimed. At the Sacred Heart Hospital for All Ailments, she turns miracle worker, with the help of her nurse's manual and Lord Yassoo (Jesus). Will Karachi ever be the same? This month we bring you a first look at Our Lady of Alice Bhatti, Mohammed Hanif's riveting new novel.

SISTER ALICE BHATTI goes on her first visit to Charya Ward alone but returns, an hour and a half later, kicking and screaming, in Teddy's arms. No one warns her what awaits her there, no easing-in time, no guided tours, and no orientation course. A slow Monday in A&E and Sister Hina thrusts a clipboard in her hands, papers frayed at the edges as if somebody had been chewing on them. Sister Alvi is broad and philosophical in her brief, even sympathetic, which is a surprise because Sister Hina Alvi usually blames the patients for their own plight. "They eat too much, drink too much, lust too much, can't stay indoors when they hear gunshots out on the road; they are attracted to bomb blast sites like flies to..." She usually finds a rotting seasonal fruit to complete her analysis of the state of the national health. But today she seems in a generous mood. "These boys in Charya Ward are suffering from what everyone suffers from: life. They just take it a bit more seriously, sensitive types who think too much, care too much, who refuse to laugh at bad jokes. Same rules apply. No touching, no personal information. They can be a bit talkative and lovey shovey. And although you look like somebody who doesn't need any more love," Sister Hina looks her up and down as if trying to decide the right dose of love for Alice, "People can be greedy but even if you need it badly, you are not likely to find it there. Just remember it's called a nut house and there's a reason for that." She opens her handbag, takes out a heart-shaped crimson pouch and starts preparing a paan. "But as far as I am concerned, the whole country is a nut house. Have you read Toba Tek Singh? Nobody reads around here any more. Manto wrote about charyas in a charya ward and then ended up in one himself. His own family put him there." Sister Hina counts three silver-coated betel nuts and puts them on a leaf, rolls it and puts it in her mouth. Sister Alice notices that she never offers anyone one of her paans. She might spend the whole day surrounded by patients and doctors but she is solitary in her pleasures, always glowing with some personal insight, content in a world that makes sense only to her and happy in the knowledge that she doesn't need validation from anyone. "I don't know if you have done any psy-care but there is only one rule you need to remember: you have to tell them that everything is normal. They might have buggered their own sister and then buried her alive but you have to tell them that it's normal. They obviously did it because some god told them to do it. Of course I don't think it's normal behaviour for them to do it or for their god to ask them to do it. But in that ward you have to pretend everything is normal. That's the sum total of psychiatric education." Sister Alvi takes out a lime green embroidered handkerchief from her purse, wipes gently around her lips, and then examines it for stains. "Do you smoke?" Alice, who pretended to smoke an occasional biri in the Borstal just to win the respect of her fellow inmates, is startled by the question. "No," she says. "I tried it in school and it made me nauseous." Sister Alvi gives her a benevolent smile as if they share a secret now and agree that it should stay between them. "Every girl does something. I really worry about those who say they don't do anything. I really worry about the ones who actually don't do anything. Usually they end up with something worse than cancer."

Sister Alice Bhatti has an odd feeling that she is back in the Borstal being accused of not being woman enough. If only she could strip and show Sister Alvi the knife wound on her shoulder or tell her about the time she kicked a Borstal warden in the groin who was in the habit of throwing her pen on the ground and then making them pick it up so that she could take a peek down the front of their shirts. Maybe some other time.

Sister Alice Bhatti glances at the clipboard, a standard issue form with standard issue names. Nothing in there to reveal that these people live on the other side; six Mohammeds, three Ahmed, two Alis. "Whom do I hand over to after the shift?" she asks cheerfully, as if really looking forward to the beginning and the end of her shift. Sister Hina takes out a set of keys, two chunky ones. "Lock up the door, then lock the key in this drawer, and keep this one with you," she says, patting the drawer. "I need to go to the waxing person. If you ever decide to get waxed let me know, there is a first time discount with my girl." She winks and gives her a bright smile and walks off, swinging her bag, the queen of a sick, charya world.

Sister Alice goes out after Sister Alvi, but then retraces her steps and stands in the doorway examining the list. It is blank except for the medication column. Everyone, it seems, is on a single dose of Lithium Sulphate 10mg. At least they treat them all equal, she thinks.

She stops by Noor's station where he is hunched over a register scribbling away as usual. "Who are we despatching today?" He looks up and gives her a busy smile. Whenever Sister Alice sees Noor, she sees a boy in torn shorts trying to sell cigarette butts to women in the Borstal, then running back to Zainab with half a banana or a toast with a little butter on it and then both sitting in a corner and going through a ‘no, you eat, I already ate' routine.

"Psy Ward," says Sister Alice Bhatti fanning herself with the clipboard. "I think I am supposed to collect some Lithium Sulphate from you."

"Don't worry," says Noor, burying his head in the ledger. "I'll send that with a sweeper. We always do that. That's no place for a decent woman like yourself." Alice Bhatti can't decide whether Noor is pulling her leg or trying to teach her things about the Sacred she doesn't know yet.

"I am on duty young Doctor Sahib. Sister Hina Alvi has briefed me all about it."

"I don't think Sister Hina Alvi expects you to actually go inside the ward," Noor says in a grave voice, almost admonishing her. "Unless she wants to teach you a lesson. If I were you I wouldn't go there alone." Alice Bhatti is irritated with this kid who is always acting like if he owns the place. An errand boy will always be an errand boy even when he is pretending that the world revolves around him.

"I don't sit around writing rubbish in notebooks all day. I deal with real patients." She taps her clipboard. "And these people are not dead yet." She leaves the room ignoring Noor's feeble protests, "I mean you shouldn't go there alone. I am saying take someone with you."

"And who would that be?" she turns around and shouts at him before moving on.

On her way to Charya Ward, Sister Alice notices a well dressed woman holding an umbrella over a wheelie stretcher, covering her nose with her dupatta and looking into space as if pretending she is not in the corridor of the Sacred but in some fancy garden trying to spot migratory birds. She looks like a woman who might once have been rich, at least rich enough not to have ended up here, the kind of woman who is used to being served, the kind of woman who might have taught her servants to pour tea from the right and not from the left. The old man in the stretcher, with three plastic tubes of various colours coming out of his various orifices, is in a deep slumber. Under his cracked oxygen mask, a little froth is bubbling away at his chapped lips. The woman is embarrassed to be here, her shame seems to have marked an invisible circle around the stretcher; people walking in the corridor look at her umbrella, smell her disdain and step away.

Sister Alice doesn't notice the invisible fence that the woman has erected around herself and the person on the stretcher. She walks up to her. "Can I help?" she asks. "Why are you holding that umbrella?" The woman looks at her in horror as if she had never expected to be spoken to in these corridors. Then Alice follows her gaze towards the ceiling and sees a wet patch that looks like the map of a country in transition. It drips a fat, milky water drop at regular intervals. "Ah that," Sister Alice says. "Just the baby ward toilet overflowing. Nothing to worry about. I have already reported it." She holds the stretcher and starts to push it. "We can just move him."

"No." The woman screams, covers her mouth with her dupatta and then breaks into civilised little sobs. "Thanks. Don't want him to wake up and see that we have brought him here. We are just taking him home. I can't stand it here. This place smells of death." Sister Alice shrugs her shoulders and walks on. This whole place, she thinks to herself, is a big Charya Ward. Then she remembers that Sister Hina has told her exactly the same thing. She smiles to herself and keeps walking.

As she nears the Chariya Ward, she realises that the usual smells—disinfectants, spirits, dried blood, stale food—start to disappear. She can see potted plants, pots chipped and plants dead, and moss growing in the cracks on the walls. An arrow painted on the wall points towards the ward with the words ‘Psychology Ward' written in English and Urdu. A half-faded notice under it reminds visitors not to give the inhabitants any cigarettes or drugs or food and take responsibility for all their possessions. Sister Alice walks the walk of someone who thinks they can overcome their fear by taking measured steps. She crosses a swing door, the nursing station outside is empty and covered in dust. Not only has no medical staff been here in recent days, even the sweepers have stopped visiting. Someone has scrawled ‘I Heart My Psychology' on the dust-covered station. A side door stands half open. The room is damp and musty and it takes her a while to recognise the smell. It is the smell of a barbershop in summer. The Rexene covered padding on the wall has been chewed up and scratched and only occasional streaks of sponge remain, which makes it look like the walls have developed a skin rash. She sees what appears to be a bird's nest in one corner and steps towards it. As she bends down to have a closer look, she recoils and rushes out of the room. She has seen some grotesque things in her life, but a nest the size of a football made of grey human hair with a live rat at its centre is not one of those things. The little rat, its red eyes ablaze with suspicion, scurries across the floor.

"This way sister," a shaved head peers out of the double door, a man puts a finger on his thin lips and beckons her. "Surprise them," he whispers. "Reveal yourself."

Sister Alice looks at her keys and tries to hide her nervousness behind a polite smile. She wields her clipboard like a shield and gives the old man a benevolent nod, like heads of state regard ushers before moving on to guards of honour.

As the door swings open, they all stand in a line, a dozen of them, not in an orderly sort of line but in three files, with hands folded at crotches, heads bowed. They look at Sister Alice and then look beyond her and when they don't see anyone following her, they disperse as if they had taken her for someone important and now having realised that she is an ordinary nurse, all alone, feel disappointed but relieved. "We knew you were coming. We were told." A shrivelled old man goes into a corner, takes his pants off and starts shouting at the top of his voice: dard aur, dawa aur. dard aur, dawa aur.

Another one goes to him and slaps him and shouts. "No mother tongue here. Did you bring your mother with you? Then why are you complaining in your mother tongue?"

"They told us you'll come," says a tall man with a burly moustache and a turquoise handkerchief tied around his neck. "They told us three months ago but now you have come. You are late. But you are here now."

Then he goes down on his knees and prostrates himself in front of her as if he is in a mosque. Sister Alice has seen people do this in the Sacred's open-air prayer area and the gesture has always seemed a bit ridiculous to her. Raising your ass to the sky has never seemed to her the best way to express your devotion. But that is probably the best some people can do. There are those who walk on their knees in Nazareth. To each their own, she believes, not that you can talk about these things in public and hope to live. Even to express your bafflement at these things is to invoke the wrath of god's henchmen. She feels the man's tongue licking at her toes, and she tries to move back. The man grips her ankles and pulls. She flies in the air, the flip chart in her hand hits the ceiling. Her first thought is that if she doesn't get that chart back, Sister Hina will be very very angry with her. Missing documents make Sister Hina angrier than patients defecating in the Sacred corridors. She should have held on to the clipboard, whatever else might have happened.

Alice feels she is airborne for a long time and then she lands in the waiting arms of two men who shout, "howzat," like deranged cricketers. They lift her up in the air. She feels exalted. And scared. "Lord. Yassoo. Yassoo. Save me."

"Welcome," they say. And she feels she is on a bed of hands and being carried by twelve men who seem to have emerged from various levels of hell. She feels she is a part of some private celebration as they shout: "Ya Alice, Ya Bhatti." A new arrival shouts "Death to America" but finds himself out of synch and falls into their rhythm, like casual marchers do at a protest. There is something drone-like but pacifying about their gibberish. There is the comfort in knowing that these people actually need her help. Dawdling in air, supported by 12 men, for a moment she feels like an animal from a species that has not yet been discovered by scientists.

They put her on a bed which has no bed sheets, and the Molty Foam label on it has been slashed to reveal mud-brown sponge underneath. It looks like the skin of a diseased dog. They hover over her and whisper: "She knows how we live and how we die. She knows. She knows." She sees one man hitting himself repeatedly on the chest with her stethoscope, another item of hospital property that she should have held on to.

"Don't do that," shouts the old man in the corner with his pants around his ankles, both his hands covering his privates. Half his dentures are broken to accommodate a swollen tongue that stirs like a sleepy animal trying to wriggle out of a cage. "You'll hurt yourself," his voice booms in the room. "Do you want to hurt yourself? You are not allowed to hurt yourself. Hurting yourself is against the law."

Sister Alice sees Teddy entering the room, his Junior Mr Faisalabad's arms frozen on his sides, his eyes squinting. With the arms of his T-shirt ripped to show off his heavy shoulders, Teddy looks like a window display in an expensive butcher's shop. The thumb on his left hand is covered in a soiled bandage.

Here comes the chief charya, she thinks.

She has seen him hanging around A&E. She knows that he is some kind of pimp for the police and medico legal. She has always ignored him. She thinks she knows who has sent him on this rescue mission.

"Leave her alone," he shouts. It doesn't come out as an order though. It is more like a hoarse, tiny voice as if someone has stapled his vocal chords together. Alice Bhatti has read many stories about women being hacked and burnt or simply disappearing in the corridors of the Sacred and now Sister Hina has told her that she should consider everything in this place normal. Alice has a feeling that although she can fight and cajole these 12 loonies, this towering hulk with a funny voice is going to be her real nemesis.

"She has been sent for us," the man with the turquoise handkerchief shouts at Teddy. They all huddle behind her. "You can't take her away. She'll be sent back. You'll see that she'll come back for us."

"Unauthorised personnel are not allowed in the ward," she screams, as Teddy scoops her in his arms. "I still need to give them Lithium Sulphate." As she is carried out of the ward, cradled in Teddy's arms, Sister Alice Bhatti is still gripped by the fear of not having done the job she was assigned to do. She tries to scratch his eyes out. She kicks and screams, hitting him with clenched fists, then trying to claw his face. She spouts the kind of filth that has been heard in these corridors before but only from its residents, never from the medical staff. Teddy Butt walks unfazed, jerking his head left and right to avoid her punches; they look like a boy and his father in a mock boxing match. Through it all Teddy grimaces and whistles a happy song: we are one under this flag. We are one. We are one