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“There is no caste amongst Muslims. Islam does not permit such discrimination”.

These words, quoted here from Shivam Vij’s excellent report, are of an upper caste Muslim in an East Champaran village. These can be the words only of someone who belongs to the upper caste, because s/he does not have to face the everyday violence and exploitation that those from lower castes have to, even though purportedly ‘Islam does not permit such discrimination’. This is not unlike caste amongst Sikhs and Christians. Why should reservation not be extended to these communities?

Similarly, Mohammed Hanif’s new novel ‘Our Lady of Alice Bhatti’ brings to the surface the lifeworlds of the ‘Choohra’ community of Karachi. The protagonist’s father–contradictorily, a devout Christian who heals stomach ulcers by chanting some ‘Musla’ prayers–is a municipal gutter cleaner. Joseph Bhatti, however, is an unapologetic Choohra, which reminds one of the cultural forms being given shape by young, upwardly mobile lower caste Sikhs, as is seen in new music videos such as this.

Alice though manages to be trained as a nurse and works in a charitable hospital with conditions that we in Delhi are intimately aware of, even though between CGHS and the Sixth Pay Commission we ourselves may not encounter them anymore: overflowing OPDs, paan stains on the walls, hundreds gathered by the entry either waiting for the visiting hours or their own turn for surgeries they may never survive, and doctors who are more interested in attending to briefcase carrying pharmaceutical representatives than sick bodies. Like her father Alice then is a Choohra healer, even though the path she takes is allopathic. To make matters worse for Alice, she is also a woman, and one who is altogether not physically unattractive:

“Some people do not want to drink from the same glass that she has drunk from…She can live with being an untouchable, but she desperately hopes for the only privilege that comes with being one. That people won’t touch her without her explicit permission…she doesn’t want to be the kind of girl who is groped on buses, poked in service kitchens…who cannot walk a block without giving people the idea that she should be travelling blindfolded in a car boot.”

This compelling and disturbing–though also somewhat disorienting–novel is composed of incisive passages like this. Only a few weeks back I had mentioned to a friend that I was getting tired with the new Pakistani novel in English because even though stories were different, the milieu was essentially the same, i.e. the lives of the globetrotting Karachi and Lahore elite (see novels by Mohsin Hamid and Kamila Shamsie, for example). ‘Our Lady of Alice Bhatti’ is significant because it widens the horizon of characters and situations that have thus far peopled the works of these young sharpshooters from Pakistan.

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