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EVENT: (Original) Down the Rabbit Hole….with Our Lady of Alice Bhatti / By Afrah Jamal

slightly Mutilated version Published in Daily Times

The evening is a blur. Nothing works. Neither the mike - nor the trusty recorder. When the electricity bails – no one is really surprised. Karachi is here for a chance to witness M Hanif’s trademark irreverence, sample some delicious irony and get copies of his new book - ‘Our lady of Alice Bhatti’ - (and perhaps a dog-eared ‘Case of Exploding Mangoes’) signed in the bargain. So what if the world keeps collapsing around them.

M. Hanif - an award winning author who also served as the head of BBC Urdu service is here for a book reading/discussion/interrogation. Unlike his highly acclaimed debut novel - ‘The Case of Exploding Mangoes’ – which features a military academy and a high profile cold case (President Zia’s crash) - this one is not drawn from memory. Hanif pleads guilty to being a cadet once. He denies being a nurse.

Apparently he changed his mind about interviewing a real caregiver for fear of her forever looking for a faithful rendition of a nurse’s life. Hanif has not met Teddy’s of the world either unless one counts the scary encounter with a wretched body builder, at the mention of whom the lights, as if on cue - go out.

He reads an excerpt that hurls readers down the rabbit hole - all the way to downtown Karachi. Anyone familiar with Hanif’s writings will not be deceived by the demure looking cover or ‘Alice Bhatti’s’ seemingly harmless premise. This wordsmith is capable of unleashing a devastating tsunami with just a few brutal strokes from a world fashioned out of grainy images and stray bits of conversation.

‘…Alice Bhatti’ features at least one familiar face from Hanif’s literary past. Muneeza Shamsie - writer and critic extraordinaire who presides over the session wants to know about this cameo appearance by a character from his first novel. He is delightfully vague. Could it be nostalgia that prompted this sudden interest in time travel - a yearning to explore an old, forgotten character arc or a maybe it is just ploy to fill a void? He cannot (or will not) commit himself.

The session provides an unexpected insight into the author’s writing process. How Alice refused to behave till he changed her name - how he did not know where the story was set because for the longest time the character had not left the room. While his book may not deliberately set out to make a political statement but he insists on staying true to the politics of the characters.

‘Would he like to read from his book some more’, Ms. Shamsie wants to know. He would not. He then turns to the audience on a sudden whim - or so it seems (he had done this before in Islamabad & Lahore) wondering if they were okay with him sharing something from his Urdu collection. They jump at the mention of Urdu. ‘Why Defence needs Sharia’ is wickedly funny piece written some years ago when Swat was under the influence of one Maulana Fazl Rahman and his cohorts. Rehearsed or otherwise, an unexpected detour to satire-ville is a welcome distraction. Listeners only shriek when someone reveals a crucial bit of plot from ‘Our Lady of Alice….’ But otherwise the evening is a success.

Memorable moments from the event have been duly captured on film and a requiem for the lost audio file has already been held. Attendees will remember that there is a waft of mischief in the air. That both Hanif and Muneeza were good sports during the ‘can you hear me now’ game. And that no nurses were harmed during the making of this book. It is best to forget the mike which has a mind of its own – a mind that goes ta tum, ta tum ta tum, prompting the guest of honour to wonder if he could keep pace with the beat. Maybe he could. We will never know.


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