our lady

"'first love,' hina alvi says, 'is like your first heart attack. chances are that you'll survive it, but you don't outlive it. that first gasp for air is the beginning of the end. you have managed to breath some air in, and you think you are all right. you might think it's a matter of lifestyle, quit this, cut out red meat, walk, run, get a personal trainer, try shitting standing up, but...it'll get you in the end.'"  -our lady of alice bhatti


our lady of alice bhatti is pretty unusual for a pakistani novel. there is  fair bit of violence in it, and sex too, which may not appeal to the exact stratum of society that especially needs to read it.  while much south asian literature tends to vacillate between depicting pakistan as a nostalgic space of diaspora or a geopolitical hotbed of fundamentalism, this novel does neither. it offers a portrait of contemporary urban pakistan that is complex, layered and entirely unsentimental. at times it is brutal, but the dark brutality rests on a kind of insight that should not be dismissed.  a lot of pundits continue to ask why pakistan remains a country at crossroads sixty five years on. this is not a book specifically setting out to answer that question, but it does get at a certain kind of truth about it.

like mohsin hamid’s moth smoke, our lady unfolds as a modern crime noir. it’s a tragedy about a woman who is punished not for what she has done but for who she is. she is a reluctant femme fatale- her sexuality a weapon not because she chooses to wield it but merely because she possesses it.  and her story is an indictment against a society that remains handicapped not by it’s polarization against the west as the nightly news would have us believe, but rather because of an internal class based system of misogyny that is condoned by a corrupt church-state system. this is a country out of order, and the external pressures of the new great game have spun it out of control.

despite all this it would still be dismissive to categorize this novel as a timely political thriller, because i think it gets at something even deeper than the current state of affairs in pakistan. at it’s heart it’s a feminist novel. it’s about how the bodies of women are being trampled, displaced and discarded in lieu of rational discourse. this war is not being waged by outlaw forces in turbans but by fathers, husbands and brothers who have acquiesced to a society of inequity. and it’s happening because a country has turned in on itself. the daily human suffering that has come out of this cannibalization is what our lady is really about. combined with hanif’s previous a case of exploding mangoes, it’s a must read.