A man places a portrait of Benazir Bhutto at a memorial in Rawalpindi. (Reuters)
Rawalpindi, Feb. 20: The cold dew of winter has long snuffed out the flames and left the soot frozen in the belly of the diyas. The roses and marigolds have faded to a baleful blackness. The withered cellophane on the lone bouquet tells you its been a while since it arrived.
Benazir Bhuttos party is in jubilant preparations for assuming power 30km north in Islamabad; her impromptu memorial lies forlorn and forsaken on a broken mid-town sidewalk, coughing in the ruinous exhaust of Pindis ornate trucks.
No flowers for Benazir today; theyve all been claimed to fete her victorious leagues. No visitors either; theyre all too busy fashioning their futures. So the solitary presence this morning at the site where Benazir was assassinated is Benazir herself — a beatific vinyl-sheet portrait watching over where it all suddenly came to an end for her on December 27.
Theres no gainsaying she was the prime mover of the campaign that brought the PPP — and husband Asif Ali Zardari — to the doorsteps of power.
It was her compelling presence — and her tragic end — thats delivered the party its singular place: not merely the largest group in the new National Assembly but also the only one to return handsome numbers from all four provinces of the country. But where she was felled, at the rusted iron gates of Liaquat Bagh, she has come to mean commerce, not much else.
The only real tribute shes fetching is at a shack that has sprung up a few paces down the pavement. It sells tacky Benazir memorabilia — little photo-frames and pendants, posters and calendars, CDs or her last speech at the ground nearby, even sepia prints of the young Benazir following father Zulfiqar around at the Simla Summit with Indira Gandhi.
Shujaat, the young Pindi entrepreneur who runs the ramshackle vend, speaks of good early earnings. But for weeks now, hes been mostly despondent. Hazaaron log aaye thhe pehle dinon mein, he says, Lekin phir sab intikhabat mein masroof ho gaye aur ab to sab sarkar banane mein lage hain (Thousands came in the first few days but then they got busy with the campaign and now with power). Benazir and Shujaat had mostly only each other for company. But thats the way of the world, he adds sagely, Even Ill wrap up once I know there is no more money to be made.
An eerie ordinariness hangs over Liaquat Bagh, as if it had determined to quickly purge itself of infamy, as if it wanted to say the horror didnt happen here, go elsewhere and seek. Boys are at cricket in one corner of the park, screaming, squabbling. On the benches and on patches of grass, elderly men are sunning themselves. A ravens cawing somewhere in the trees and an ice-candy vendor is extolling his wares.
Along the flower beds, a gardener lumbers quietly, trying to coax the cold earth into giving.
Irshad Ali, he says his name is, and he was there when mohtarma (Benazir) was shot, right there, perched on a ledge with a vantage view of Benazirs eddied motorcade. But he doesnt want to talk about it. Hes run through it too many times. He shakes his head and returns to poking the beds. Kya fayada janab (Whats the point)?
A PPP minivan, caparisoned in party colours and mounted with an artillery of loudspeakers, rolls by boisterously, depositing more dust and diesel on the wilted offerings to Benazir. She watches on, her portrait fraying at the corners under assault from the elements.
In a while, Shujaat too will be gone.