Satire is the most difficult kind of fiction to write: it holds up serious, often solemn, and sometimes sacred matters to amusement or ridicule. Successful satire makes the absurd, the exaggerated and the fantastical seem perfectly natural to the context; treats the outrageous so wittily that it does not provoke outrage; and sometimes uses the technique of black comedy to illuminate deep tragedy. Pulling off a satirical novel requires both a deft touch and a profound understanding of the society being satirised. The Pakistani novelist Mohammed Hanif, who had already demonstrated many of these qualities in his highly praised debut novel A Case of Exploding Mangoes, serves a near-ace in his second, Our Lady of Alice Bhatti. It is brilliantly written, powerfully conceived and richly imagined; a remarkable read. And yet I turned the last page without the sense of satisfaction that the author’s undoubted talents, and indeed his first 200 pages, had led me to expect.
The novel opens with Alice Bhatti, a young woman with a prison conviction, obtaining a job as a junior nurse at the Catholic-run Sacred Heart Hospital for All Ailments in a city coyly referred to as “Garden East” (a nom de plume, it seems, for Karachi). She is what Indians would call a Dalit Christian, the daughter of a sweeper, and a wonderfully compelling character for most of the book. Alice has learned to cope courageously with the triple minorityhood of being Christian, low-caste and female in an unequal society. As her story unfolds we discover that her mother, a servant in an opulent mansion, had been raped and murdered when Alice was 12. Officially she had slipped on a soapy marble staircase, but as the author points out, “when you slip on that staircase [it isn’t likely that] you’ll also accidentally scratch yourself on your left breast...that during that fall on the staircase you’ll somehow manage to spill someone’s sperm on your thighs.”