Mohammed Hanif talks about his latest novel, Our Lady of Alice Bhatti
What do you do when your dazzlingly exuberant debut novel, written with not the slightest inkling that it would ever be read, becomes a surprise international bestseller? This was exactly the problem the Pakistani author Mohammed Hanif faced after the huge success of A Case of Exploding Mangoes in 2008. Even now, he shakes his head at the memory. "I was thinking about following it with a fantasy novel with a superwoman-type character in it," he says. "But when I sat down and took notes I realised I'd never actually read a fantasy novel. And if you want to write a superhero, it helps if you've read comics. I never have. I had no idea how that worked either. So in the end there was only one course of action: start making things up."
The result is his new book Our Lady of Alice Bhatti - and though it's set in the feverish streets and medical centres of a shockingly realistic Karachi, there is something beautifully fantastical about the tale of a junior nurse, Alice, whose strange effect on everybody she meets means the ending is not so much a twist as a revelation.
A Case of Exploding Mangoes was widely cast as a political novel, its centrepiece a very loose retelling of the still-unexplained plane crash that killed Pakistan's president General Ziaul-Haq in 1988. Along the way, Osama bin Laden appears at a July 4 barbecue at the US Embassy. The product of a fertile imagination, of course, but it was deemed so controversial, the novel wasn't actually printed by a publisher from his home country. Hanif, though, begs to differ. "At the core of Mangoes there was a love story," he protests. And as much as there's plenty of satirical comment on a corrupt and volatile 21st-century Pakistan in Our Lady of Alice Bhatti, once again, the narrative revolves around a wholly unlikely love affair between Alice and Teddy, an apprentice to the shadowy "Gentleman Squad" of the Karachi police.
"You know, somebody asked me just the other day whether this book reflects contemporary Pakistan or modern-day Karachi," he says. "Obviously I'm a product and part of that society, so maybe it does. Like everyone else, I have concerns and issues and most of them come from my station in life - a middle-class bilingual person living in a city who has migrated from a rural area. And there are lots of people like that in Pakistan, constantly fighting what's around them. The act of writing is an escape from all of that: you sit at your desk and deliberately don't confront anything by creating your own little world to inhabit year after year. It is like running away from what's around you. But you can never get very far."
It would horrify Hanif, then, for his books to be taken as some sort of guide to Pakistan for the uninitiated - even though his previous role as a journalist working for the BBC in London makes such a conclusion tempting. But the reason his books are so clever is that, despite their flights of fancy - his first was a thriller with laughs, this is a fantastical hospital drama - they teem with realism. He admits that nuances of Alice Bhatti come from all the remarkable women he's met and worked with in Pakistan. There is a key moment in Our Lady of Alice Bhatti when the ward sister, Hina Alvi, warns Alice about Teddy. "This is a free world," she says. "But you have to find your own freedom."
"It's a tough world for women everywhere," says Hanif. "In Pakistan, particularly so. The strange thing, though, is that the more the state has tried to push women to the margins, the more they've found ways to subvert it. More women are in public life than was the case 10 or 20 years ago. That's got nothing to do with what the state wants, it's because of the economy. Whatever your principles or religion, the state can't function if women are shut behind closed doors. So that basic economic pressure forces society to open up."
It's just one of the social observations that make up the intriguing backdrop to Our Lady of Alice Bhatti. In one memorable chapter, an accidental shooting triggers a three-day riot. It's written with such tongue-in-cheek élan it's impossible not to read the book as a satire. So is he sure this isn't a political novel?
"Look, primarily I hope people like the story. I myself like reading books with brilliant storytelling. You really want me to admit that I'm 'saying something' about Pakistan when the truth of it is that I'm not really thinking about politics when I write. I'm thinking about my characters and what is happening to them. Whatever they do, if they fall in love, take their clothes off, have a fight, all of it has a political context in some way. But to me that's a different, more subtle and perhaps more realistic way to approach writing than to have a great big "message".
Which is why Hanif's two books thus far repay reading on many different levels. There are occasions where Our Lady of Alice Bhatti does confound as much as delight - Hanif admits that he writes quite haphazardly - but that revelation at the end really does cast the entire book in a different light: quite a trick to pull off. "The problem with flashes of inspiration is that when they come, it's very difficult to get rid of them, even though they may not fit with the rest of the book," he laughs.
So, perhaps that's how Hanif really dealt with following the success of A Case of Exploding Mangoes. He just waited for inspiration to strike. "And got miserable waiting! But now it's written - and this is an overly romantic view I know - I'd like people to think of this book, when they've finished it, in the same way they imagine a lover leaving them. They stand there saying goodbye but they hope that they will be looked back at. I want people to see there was a life here that was well lived."
Our Lady of Alice Bhatti (Jonathan Cape) is out on Thursday.
Published: October 4, 2011 04:00 AM