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.