‘Ya Alice, Ya Bhatti’

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The patients of the Sacred Heart Hospital for All Ailments are looking for a miracle, and Alice Bhatti is looking for a job. Alice is a candidate for the position of junior nurse, grade 4. It is only a few weeks since her release from Borstal. She has returned to her childhood home in the French Colony, where her father, recently retired from his position as chief janitor, continues as part-time healer, and full-time headache for the local church. It seems she has inherited some of his gift. With guidance from the working nurse’s manual, and some tricks she picked up in prison, Alice brings succour to the thousands of patients littering the hospital’s corridors and concrete courtyard. In the process she attracts the attention of a lovesick patient, Teddy Bunt, apprentice to the nefarious ‘Gentleman Squad’ of the Karachi police. They fall in love; Teddy with sudden violence, Alice with cautious optimism. Their love is unexpected, but the consequences are not.
Alice soon finds that her new life is built on foundations as unstable as those of her home. A Catholic snubbed by other Catholics, who are in turn hated by everyone around them, she is also put at risk by her husband, who does two things that no member of the Gentlemen Squad has ever done – fall in love with a working girl, and allow a potentially dangerous suspect to get away. Can Teddy and Alice ever live in peace? Can two people make a life together without destroying the very thing that united them? It seems unlikely, but then Alice Bhatti is no ordinary nurse…
EXCERPT: 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…”

Excerpted from Mohammed Hanif’s ‘Our Lady of Alice Bhatti’; synopsis by Jonathan Cape; photo courtesy Afrah Jamal