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Pakistan’s Belle de Jour

David Godwin is searching for a UK publisher for Fatima Bhutto. Since Godwin is just about the most high-profile literary agent in London, I don’t think he will have a problem.

The late Benazir Bhutto’s 25-year-old niece, who had once been highly critical of her aunt, hasn’t written a novel, though, as Godwin would have preferred.

“She’s writing a book about the Bhuttos,” he tells me.

Nor is the book written.

“I only have a few pages of synopsis,” says the man who is the agent for Patrick French and Arundhati Roy, and also represents Kiran Desai in the UK.

That should be enough to secure a decent advance (£250,000?) for Fatima.

Afghanistan-born Fatima has quite a story to tell. Her father, Murtaza, was killed in a police shootout in Karachi in 1996. In the weeks prior to Benazir’s assassination, Fatima famously gave an interview to the BBC and also wrote an article for the Los Angeles Times in which she implied that her aunt was implicated in the murder of her father (“to this day, her role in his assassination has never been adequately answered”).

Fatima’s account of the Bhuttos is likely to provide a slightly different perspective from the version offered in Benazir’s autobiography, Daughter of the East, and its sequel, Reconciliation: Islam, Democracy and the West, which was published posthumously.

Fatima already has two books to her name in Pakistan: Whispers of the Desert, a collection of poems, and her book on the Pakistan earthquake, 8:50 a.m. 8 October 2005.

Incidentally, the well known political analyst, Jemima Khan, believes that Fatima is better qualified to inherit the Bhutto crown than her first cousin, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari (whose father, Asif Ali Zardari, may not wish to encourage any nascent political ambitions in his excessively photogenic niece).

According to Jemima, “the justification for the selection of Benazir’s son as chairman (of the PPP) was that only a Bhutto could provide unity within the party. If so, then why not 25-year-old Fatima Bhutto, who is arguably more qualified for the job than her teenage Facebooking cousin?”

Jemima adds: “It helps, in a lookist society, that she’s also as beautiful as her aunt — a young Salma Hayek lookalike.”

 

Jaipur’s (other) Maharani

Fatima Bhutto’s name is also mentioned in passing by Surina Narula, London’s hostess with the mostest.

“Fatima was at the Jaipur Literary Festival,” she reminds me.

Surina and her husband, Harpinder Singh Narula (“HS” to all his friends), chairman of the building firm, D.S. Constructions, are the principal sponsors of the festival.

“This year was the third year — Ian McEwan (author of Atonement) was there,” says Surina. “We have signed a 10-year contract with Diggi Palace to hold the festival there.”

So what’s on the menu for January 2009 and the years beyond?

Surina, who wants to hear her favourite authors talk about her favourite books, responds: “We don’t want it to be too heavy. I’d like it to be an interface between film and literature, between film and politics.”

What about the interface between journalism and literature?

Surina, lovely lady though she is, looks at me as though I was a trade union.

 

Hothousing horror

What others will make of Nikita Lalwani’s debut novel, Gifted, I don’t know, but I found it immensely dispiriting. That depression has been heightened by recent shocking revelations about Sufiah Yusof, on whom the novel is clearly based.

Gifted tells the tale of Rumika Vasi, a 10-year-old Indian maths genius in Cardiff whose life is rendered miserable by her over-ambitious father, Mahesh. He achieves his ambition of “hothousing” his daughter into Oxford at the age of 15 but thereafter his dream is shattered.

The plot of Gifted, which was included on the Booker Prize longlist last year, bears an uncanny resemblance to the real events in the life of Sufiah Yusof, a maths prodigy who got into St Hilda’s, Oxford, in 1997 at the age of 13. She ran away, blaming her overbearing father, Farooq Yusof, a Pakistani engineer, worked as a waitress, then returned to Oxford to marry a fellow student but did not take her degree, and then disappeared completely after her marriage broke up.

A few days ago, the News of the World revealed she was working as a prostitute under the name Shilpa Lee (maybe she thought the name “Shilpa” would get her more £1,000-a-night customers).

Far from being embarrassed, Sufiah told the paper in an extended interview accompanied by lurid photographs: “I’ve always had a high sex drive — and now I’m getting all the sex I want. I have men who are thrilled about my passion for mathematics. In fact, one made me recite equations while he pleasured me, then I gave him oral sex while he chatted about algebra. It drove him wild.”

The quote does not seem entirely genuine but Sufiah, now 23, is clearly determined to inflict maximum pain on her 50-year-old father, who recently began an 18-month jail sentence after pleading guilty to “indecently assaulting two 15-year-old girls while working as a personal tutor”.

All middle class Indian parents will wonder where the balance lies between putting too much pressure on their children and none at all. Gifted does not have a happy ending. We must all hope Sufiah’s story will.

 

Journey’s End

It has taken a real investment in time but I have now got to the end of Sacred Games — page 900. The greatest compliment I can pay Vikram Chandra is that his main protagonists, Ganesh Gaitonde, the Bombay bhai, and police inspector Sartaj Singh, engaged my sympathies equally, the former perhaps just a shade more.

The only problem is that with such an abundance of Indian authors, we, who live in the West, go for comfort reading and find less and less time for English authors. I have promised my wife, who has just bought me a copy of The Camomile Lawn, by Mary Wesley, that her novel is next in line.

 

Tittle tattle

Since I have been honoured with one factual reference from Paul Theroux in his immensely readable account of his relationship with V.S. Naipaul in Sir Vidia’s Shadow, and one factual reference from Patrick French in his immensely readable Naipaul biography, The World Is What It is, I can be as neutral as Darrell Hair.

French believes Theroux is “obsessed with Naipaul — he thinks my book confirms all that he said about Naipaul in his book”.

Here is Theroux on French’s biography: “It seems that I didn’t know the half of all the horrors.”

And here is French, who has 50 references to Theroux in his index: “The material in Sir Vidia’s Shadow combines the accurate, the fictional and the appropriated, and they merge to the point where they cannot be disentangled.”

Now is obviously the time to commission biographies of Theroux and French.

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