TIME REGAINED - Gunshots and mynah birds

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  • Published 7.05.10

Songs of Blood and Sword: A Daughter’s Memoir By Fatima Bhutto, Viking, Rs 699

Fatima Bhutto, now in her late twenties, has already seen too much of the world. This compelling memoir bears testimony to her restless travels across Britain, America, Europe and the Middle East in order to piece together a harrowing story. Few young people of her age are privileged to have such a cosmopolitan existence or intimate access to world leaders. But then, Fatima is not any young woman. Her maiden name, the mark of her privilege, is also a curse of sorts.

The Bhuttos of Pakistan, like the Gandhis of India, have been blighted by grievous tragedies. Fatima’s grandfather, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, founder of the Pakistan People’s Party and the first democratically elected leader of the nation, was executed before she was born; her uncle, Shahnawaz, was murdered when she was three; while her father, Mir Murtaza, and her aunt, Benazir, twice prime minister of Pakistan and the only woman to have occupied the office, were assassinated when she was 14 and 25 respectively. Fatima Bhutto has no doubt been through too much for her years.

Fatima’s main agenda is to reconstruct the life and death of her father so as to dispel the myths that have accrued around his image. This is a rigorously researched, passionately argued, brave book. Fatima openly blames her aunt, Benazir, and her “oleaginous husband”, Asif Ali Zardari, the current president of Pakistan, for Murtaza’s death. She also implicates BB in the alleged poisoning of Shahnawaz in Nice. Fatima builds up her case by exhuming court records, tracking down witnesses (against severe odds imposed by her aunt’s administration), speaking to investigators (her encounter with Jacques Vèrges, who was on Shah’s case, is chilling), and interviewing family members (especially Shah’s daughter, Sassi, whom she gets back in touch with after two decades). A barrage of revelations tumbles out: Vèrges suggests that BB had worked undercover for the ISI, while PPP old-timers insinuate that Benazir had harboured every intention of doing away with her own mother, Nusrat, as well.

In the circumstances, Fatima tries to be as fair as possible. She recounts candidly, with tender wistfulness, her bittersweet relationship with her Wadi bua (her childhood name for Benazir). She is amused by her favourite aunt’s eccentricities. Apparently, as a young girl, BB painted her bedroom black, smoked in ingenious secrecy, and considered Yasser Arafat as a potential husband. As Fatima mulls over the affectionate time she spent with Wadi years ago, there is a genuine sadness, a sense of unredeemed gloom, a longing for the canopy of love that is irretrievably lost. Yet Fatima is unrelenting when she narrates Benazir’s devious attempts to foil Murtaza’s entry into politics (he founded the breakaway faction of PPP, Shaheed Bhutto). She lashes out at Benzair’s foreign policies (during her first term, Pakistan went back to being a member of the Commonwealth, which Zulfikar Ali Bhutto had rejected as imperialist) and self-aggrandizing economic reform (Benazir reversed ZAB’s socialist project of nationalization for the benefit of her husband and his capitalist cronies: “Asif baba and the chalees chor,” Murtaza called them). By systematically tearing apart the venal administration of her aunt, who not only colluded with the army and the Islamists but also reinstated prominent anti-Bhutto members from General Zia’s regime, Fatima puts out the halo of martyrdom that the United States of America placed around Benazir after she was killed by extremists.

However, towards her grandfather, Fatima is more charitable, to the extent of admitting that her undergraduate thesis on his bilateral foreign policy bordered on hagiography. According to her, ZAB’s tenure as foreign minister in Ayub Khan’s government, when he criticized US action in Vietnam, is “electrifying” for her, “a young Pakistani who came of age in the era of dictatorships, civilian and military”. But Fatima tends to gloss over the contradictions that defined her grandfather’s legacy. How, for instance, did ZAB, avid reader of Marx, Russell and Jung, reconcile them with his Islamist sensibilities? His self-confessed interest in the “political, economical and cultural heritage of Islam” led ZAB to deliver a rousing speech at a meeting of the Organization of Islamic Countries in 1974: “We, the people of Pakistan, shall give our blood for the cause of Islam.” Similarly, although an avowed feminist and self-styled angel of democracy, his daughter not only failed to remove the Hudood Ordinance of 1979, enforced by Zia to humiliate women, but also took to wearing the hijab, the first time in her family, to placate the mad mullahs.

In spite of her occasional reticence, Fatima admits that she is not her “grandfather’s keeper” — “he was a polarizing figure, you either loved Zulfikar or you hated him”. She condemns the atrocities perpetrated on East Pakistan by her country in 1971 and the move to declare Ahmadias non-Muslims. In a similar spirit of openness, Fatima confronts her beloved Papa’s chequered past, risking further devastation to her already sorrow-laden heart. She discovers Murtaza’s youthful love, a Greek beauty called Della Roufogalis; sets out on an incredible journey across America to interview his Harvard friends; and revisits painful memories of being tormented by Fowzia, her biological mother. Profoundly respectful of her Papa’s comrades, Fatima dwells in detail on the last hours of Ashiq Jatoi, who was killed along with Murtaza. She adds a twist to the notorious charge of hijacking brought against her father while he was in exile in Kabul (for which he was tried by Benazir’s government and eventually acquitted). But in her account, substantiated by comments from her father’s closest friends, the depth of the insurgency that the Bhutto brothers planned in order to unseat Zia is decidedly underplayed. Fatima movingly portrays the brothers’ ardent idealism, but other sources, including Benazir’s own memoirs, suggest that the Bhutto boys could be as egregiously self-indulgent as the rest of the family.

The greyest part of Fatima’s narrative is her ambivalence towards the patriarchal premises of Pakistani politics. For all his liberalism, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto had never envisaged Benazir, his eldest child, as his heir apparent (though BB claimed that, in their final meeting in prison, he had asked her to carry on with his mission). The mantle was always meant to be handed down to the eldest son, for whom ZAB left a Hamletian injunction to “avenge my murder”. Although Fatima comes close to recognizing the extent of the damage done to Benazir’s self-perception by this archaic norm of primogeniture, she seems somewhat hesitant about articulating her views.

Fatima has had to endure a lot of emotional battering. Yet she does not turn away from the terrible questions that lurk in the shadows. Was it thoughtless of her grandfather to impose the burden of revenge on his young sons? Could their lives have been any different otherwise? Was Murtaza’s devil-may-care attitude sheer “foolishness”? Insomniac like all the Bhuttos, Fatima sits in her room in Karachi, listening to gunshots and the crowing of mynah birds in the distance, thinking, “I would miss them should I pack my bags and head somewhere far away.” Unlike countless Pakistanis living in daily dread, she is lucky to have the option of going far away.