“These Muslas,” says Joseph Bhatti, father of Alice, “will make you clean their shit and then complain that you stink.” This is pretty close to the mark. Pakistan won’t forget the low-caste origins of most of its Christians, or ‘Choohras’, who constitute an ‘untouchable’ sweeper and maid class. In recent decades, with the rise of increasingly intolerant forms of Islam, the Choohra plight has worsened. Christians are victims of obscene ‘blasphemy’ laws and frequent sectarian violence. The outside world is often ignorant of the minority’s very existence.
How refreshing, therefore, that Mohammed Hanif, Booker-listed author of ‘A Case of Exploding Mangoes’ and perhaps Pakistan’s brightest English-language voice, has chosen to view his country through the eyes of a (lapsed) Christian – the eponymous Alice Bhatti, a hard-nosed, warm-hearted nurse, too beautiful for her own good, also nifty with a razor blade.
Her lover and foil is the ‘Musla’ Teddy Butt, a thigh-waxing, body-building, Mauser-packing lowlife. Teddy works unofficially for the Gentlemen’s Squad, a police unit somewhat darker than the Keystone Cops staffed by partially reformed rapists, torturers and sharpshooters.
Salmaan Taseer, governer of Pakistan’s Punjab province, has been shot dead by one of his own security detail for the supposed crime of defending Aasia Bibi, a Christian woman threatened with execution under Pakistan’s blasphemy law. The law was introduced by the British and given extra teeth by military dictator Zia ul-Haq, and is commonly used for the pursuit of grudges against the weak. The most disturbing aspect of Taseer’s murder is that both puritanical Deobandi and traditionalist ‘Sufi’ Barelvi religious leaderships have expressed support for it. Many Pakistanis are lionising Taseer’s murderer. For decades sections of Pakistan’s ruling elite have peddled religio-nationalist chauvinism as a stop-gap substitute for social justice. The result is today’s ugly combination of elite and mob rule. I reviewed a book by Taseer’s son here. Below, novelist Mohammed Hanif reports from Karachi:
Minutes after the murder of the governor of Pakistan’s Punjab province Salmaan Taseer I saw a veteran Urdu columnist on a news channel. He was being what, in breaking news jargon, is called a “presenter’s friend”. “It is sad of course that this has happened but . . .”