While Mohammed Hanif’s latest novel- Our Lady of Alice Bhatti– continues to gather rave reviews, we bring you an extract which captures a whole range of expressions from this rich work of fiction – from Teddy Butt training his wife on how to get a flat tummy to the intimacy between this pair of ‘unlikely’ lovers…
‘What kind of man comes home from work with a full stomach?’ Alice Bhatti turns the knob on the stove and looks at Teddy with complaining eyes. He is leaning on the kitchen door looking sheepish, as if he was waiting to be scolded for coming back late. He even has a long story ready, a little present to give. He hadn’t thought about the consequences of the large meal he was forced to eat after losing not-Abu Zar. ‘I am really full.’ He moves his hand over his stomach, as if presenting a reliable eyewitness. He doesn’t know how to explain to Alice that in his line of work, kindness and cruelty are badly mixed up. Have you eaten? Eat some more. Now die.
‘Don’t do that,’ says Alice, coming towards him, then stopping a few inches away. ‘After eating a meal, if you touch your stomach, it grows and grows.’ Teddy laughs. His shoulders sag, as if he has just put down a large weight he was made to carry all day and was not expecting to be rid of so easily. He lifts up his T-shirt, grabs her hand and presses it against his hard belly. ‘Twelve years of lifting weights . . .’ He sucks in his stomach as Alice throws a couple of light punches at it. ‘I must have lifted this whole city in weight. This is not going to go anywhere. Even when I am old and dying in your arms.’
Alice runs her fingers over his stomach, counting the flesh ridges. ‘I want one like that.’ She can’t remember if she has ever made such a direct demand to a man. Or to a woman. Marriage, she suddenly realises, is a liberation army on the march.
‘It was not always like this. It was very difficult in the beginning.’ Teddy puts his hand on her shoulder. ‘I have never liked the taste of eggs.’
‘You have six every morning. Raw,’ says Alice.
‘That’s work.’ He taps his stomach. ‘Those yolks slosh around in my stomach till noon. But the omelettes that the inspector made me eat this morning, those almost killed me. Kindness kills me.’
‘I still want one like that.’ Alice pokes his stomach with her forefinger. ‘Even if I have to eat all those eggs.’
‘We can start right now,’ says Teddy, caressing her hand. It seems that for the first time in his life he has been asked for something he can readily give. ‘A woman’s tummy won’t become this hard. It’ll become flat, though. Actually it shouldn’t become hard.’
‘And why is that?’
‘You don’t want to suffocate the baby.’
Alice blushes, as if it has never occurred to her that their marital intimacy could lead to babies.
‘There is a special routine for women. It involves breathing exercises. Let’s try that,’ says Teddy.
‘You told me you never knew a woman before you met me, so how do you know these women and their special routines?’
Teddy lifts the hem of her shirt, runs his hand over her belly then grips the part where her ribcage gives way to the slightly protruding bulge of her stomach. ‘I know people who know people who know women. They make a living selling flat tummies. Now inhale.’
Alice takes a quick, deep breath. ‘No, not like that,’ he admonishes her and playfully pinches her flesh.
Alice is excited, not in a carnal way, but at the thought that her new husband is teaching her how to breathe.
‘You are a trained professional and you don’t know how to breathe,’ says her new husband, running his fingertips along the length of her throat, then slowly bringing his hand down between her breasts to her lower stomach, tracing the trajectory of air travelling through her body. She inhales slowly. He makes encouraging sounds. ‘Hold it there and count to three,’ he says, when she can’t take in any more air. He puts his hand just below her ribcage. ‘Exhale,’ he says, and she exhales slowly, feeling slightly dizzy as her lungs deflate.
Alice opens her eyes and sees that there is a look of intense concentration on Teddy’s face, as if he is trying to extract a bullet from someone’s head, someone not dead yet.
‘Now when you exhale, suck your tummy in, first inwards, then upwards.’ His palm pushes her stomach in, then upwards, as if trying to force it to retreat behind her ribcage. ‘No, no, as soon as you start sucking it in, start thinking of sucking it up, there should be an overlap halfway through. Women are supposed to be able to do many things at the same time and you can’t do two things with your own tummy?’ He pretends to be annoyed. Her ribs tickle and she bursts out laughing. ‘Look.’ Teddy lifts his T-shirt, tucks it under his chin and breathes in with his eyes shut. When he exhales, his stomach contracts and then disappears under his ribcage, leaving behind a steep concave that reminds Alice of the starving Buddha. Or was that Yassoo’s body as he lay in that cave afterwards?
Mohammed Hanif is the author of the highly acclaimed A Case of Exploding Mangoes, which was longlisted for the Booker Prize, shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award, and was the winner of the Commonwealth First Book Award. He lives in Karachi with his family. Our Lady of Alice Bhatti is published this September by Random House India and available at http://bit.ly/o1ydTv