Mohammed Hanif's 2008 debut, "A Case of Exploding Mangoes", was an impressive feat of imaginative and literary skill. It justly propelled Mohammad Hanif into the top echelons of South Asian writing in English, Pakistani and Indian. It even garnered him a place on the Booker longlist - a crucial nod of recognition from the British literary establishment.
Why he didn't make the shortlist when lesser books by Pakistani writers have made the cut for the Booker and at least one other major literary prize is any one's guess. Important book prizes are strange animals known to be subject to dark, mysterious forces and court intense media scrutiny and controversy. What can be said without the shadow of a doubt after Hanif's second outing is that he is a hugely gifted novelist, "perhaps Pakistani English literature's brightest voice" according to a prominent critic.
"Our Lady of Alice Bhatti", in scope and ambition, is comparable to Hanif's scintillating debut. It is also a departure in many ways from the themes he dealt with in his first book. The novel focuses on Pakistan's small, disenfranchised Christian community which has always inhabited the fringes of the mainstream Muslim majority.
There is a long history of discrimination and injustice against this substratum. Post 9/11, events have taken a more sinister, bloody turn and there has been an escalation of violence towards them - Pakistan's former federal minister for minorities, incidentally also called "Bhatti", was gunned down in broad daylight at his home just months ago.
Alice Bhatti, the eponymous protagonist of the book is a Roman Catholic from this underclass who works at the Sacred Hospital for All Ailments, a public infirmary which provides the backdrop for a substantial chunk of the novel's narrative trajectory. This young, nubile woman - who after a fourteen-month stint in prison for causing grievous bodily harm finds employment as a Junior Nurse with the institution - is a robust character: "Noor knows that Alice is the kind of person who'll return a favour by saying fuck you too". She is surrounded by just a handful of characters - some Muslim, some Christian - who provide strong support in the unspooling of the action.
Hanif's beady eye and well-tuned ear are intact here as he satirises and parodies the sharp dichotomies which mark the social fabric of Pakistan. He exerts the kind of grip over his dark material - rife with potential for comedy and the absurd - which perhaps has its cinematic equivalent in an on-form Tarantino.
Alice's gun-toting love interest, Teddy Butt who is in the "unofficial" employ of an elite police squad, is like a character out of "Pulp Fiction" - tough, vulnerable with an anarchic streak. Hanif's masculine writing serves his male-lead well and he proffers a vivid job description for him: "He only provides valet parking for the angels of death". Butt is a "Musla" - local patois for Muslim - and his "gun-point" romance with Alice is cleverly used as a device to lay bare the mutual hostilities and accommodations of the two communities locked in an uneven power struggle.
Hanif does the dynamics of inter-faith romance well - his gaze is nuanced; he is far too sophisticated a writer to reduce the intricacies of a highly fraught relationship to the comforts of easy, familiar stereotypes. He delves deep into the minds and lives of the characters he creates and shines a light on their motivations, inner conflicts and moral dilemmas in a wrought manner.
His characters and plot are framed by Pakistan's beleaguered institutions: the army and police. He brought this world to life memorably in "A Case of Exploding Mangoes" but alongside this familiar world of torture/detention and the muzzles of Berettas, Kalashnikovs and Mausers is the Pakistani missionary hospital buckling under the weight of bureaucracy and populace. Hanif's research on and knowledge of these is almost always impressive.
The book has a few instances where the comedy does not really take off and the wit is not as rapier-sharp as it was almost throughout his debut. There are sections too where the omniscient narration feels a little helter-skelter, the events spasmodic and the narrative does not quite hang together as serendipitously, apparently effortlessly and brilliantly as his debut. You begin to wonder if Hanif is punching above his weight.
There are chapters a little more than halfway through which read a little like limp digressions but this is a book you know you want to persist with from the outset - you almost feel certain, as it gathers pace and the clouds gather, that there are rich dividends at the end. And indeed, more than halfway through, Hanif claws his way back to the assuredness and deftness of touch which was on display in his debut. You decide that all is forgiven. Just when a little weariness begins to set in, Hanif dazzles you with his turn of phrase.
At times, his similes and metaphors are breathtaking and put one in mind of contemporary South Asian writing's second great debut (the first being "Midnight's Children"), Arundhati Roy's "The God of Small Things": " The vehicle occupies a space and then makes it its own, like a ferocious dog marking its territory". At another point: "Humidity crushes them like a fallen roof. The ceiling fan throws down hot gusts of wind like burning debris from a building on fire". In fact, the whole noirish feel of the book is reminiscent of Roy. He deploys a similar inventory of textual tricks.
Like her he resorts to a fairly liberal use of strategic capitalisation, italicisation and unexpected juxtaposition: "Teddy Butt can see all the way up between her legs where a few wiry hairs jut out of her white panties. He fears a mixture of disgust and desire, like a devout person who is hungry but can't decide whether the fare on offer is halal or not"; like her he has a cunning way with words and is full of clever insights: on the Muslim prayer, Namaaz, "Raising your arse to the sky has never seemed to her the best way to express your devotion", and like her - perhaps a little more so - he is irreverent; words like "tits", "fuck", "bugger", "slut" are legion.
The penis - erect and flaccid - and penile anxieties figure prominently too and, in the following sentence, are deftly fused with the killer simile: "The muzzle of his gun slides down a degree, like an erection flashbacking to a sad memory". Hanif, an erstwhile journalist, has a sassy, sexy writing style. There is inordinate use of the trendy profanity here.
Hanif has contributed to glossy lifestyle magazines such as "Arena" and is already being feted by the likes of Indian "Vogue". He largely acquits himself well but given his tendency to strut a little at times, it is a path he must tread with caution. Too clever by half, you think at times. It could partially be a result of the fact that Hanif's palette is broad. He has many strings to his bow: he is a journalist, playwright, film-maker and novelist.
Hanif has confessed in literary festival appearances that he does not view the role of literature to be one of bringing about social change in society. He places journalism with that charge. The assertion, of course, is highly debatable. It can be said, however, that in describing Alice, he shines a light on the repressive and regressive state of women in Pakistan and how they negotiate the pressures they are subject to.
He refers to woman as "this endangered species" at a point and in what just falls short of becoming a rant writes: "Most of life's arguments it seemed, got settled by doing various things to a woman's body. A woman was something you could get as loose change in a deal made on a street corner". He also exposes the hypocrisies of faith (cleverly described as "the same old fear of death dressed in party clothes".) and class-divide with his well-etched ancillaries.
Sister Hina Alvi, Alice's father, Joseph Bhatti, Inspector Malangi, Dr. Jamus pereira and Noor are all well realised characters. Hanif's portrayal shows psychological acuity, is never less than compassionate and is often poignant. The love of a son for his ailing mother is evoked with beauty, sensitivity and pathos in the scene where Teddy Butt confronts Noor at the Sacred.
A febrile presence simmers in the background throughout the book. At no point in the novel does Hanif mention the city of Karachi but from description, through mentioning a landmark or two - and the blurb - we know that it is Karachi where the story unfolds. The dark menace of a place teetering on the edge is evoked not only through exposition but with the help of the novel's constituent disaffected, dysfunctional motley crew. The twists and turns of Hanif's inventive plot play out against the seamy side of the teeming city which festers with Islamic extremism and sectarian feuds.
A book of the calibre of "A Case of Exploding Mangoes" was always going to be a hard act to follow. Hanif's second offering may have a few longueurs and feel fitful in places but these are minor quibbles in the face of his close-to-consummate artistry and chutzpah. He writes with the aplomb of a heavyweight. In him, Pakistani literature in English may have found its Rushdie.