Benazir: A song half-sung
By Tariq Islam
ON a cold winter evening, an explosion from hell ushered in the permanent permafrost in ordinary lives. One assassin, one macabre moment of madness, one frightening flash and the dawn of hope faded, as her spirit sailed into the sunset. On December 27, 2007, in the blink of an eye, lives had sunk into an abyss of darkness.
I mourn today a woman who to me was more than a first cousin. Hers was a presence powerful and pervasive; she remained an all-embracing blanket of security and strength. She filled so many vacuums in one’s life that the thought of life without her is yet to crystallise into accepted reality.
Books will be written on her. She will be idolised, myths will be spun. It is also inevitable that there will be a rush to capture and canonise her memory. But in all the colourful stories that are told about her, one hopes that her true essence is not destroyed.
One hopes that lament rather than lucre remains the motivating factor in recalling her memory.
My earliest memories take me to the time when we were children all, playing hide-and-seek, climbing hills and having our usual spats. I recall how as kids we would be prancing around the lobby of 70 Clifton and her father would suddenly walk in.
After greeting the other children, he would head to his library, a sacred and out-of-bounds area. He would always pluck Pinkie, as we called her then, out of our small crowd and take her into his library. While we were reading comic books, Pinkie was being tutored in the art of politics and world affairs.
In 1970, Benazir went to Radcliffe in America, and it was there that her ideas and intellect found enduring sustenance. After Radcliffe, Benazir came to Oxford to begin a new and an even more fulfilling journey. This was her father’s alma mater, and from here she returned home looking forward to a new beginning.
Her father was the all-powerful Prime Minister and the world was at her feet. But trial and tragedy were written in the stars. A military coup overthrew the elected government of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, and a period of relentless victimisation began. This was a period of unremitting hardships for the Bhutto family and their supporters, who were flogged, tortured and jailed with impunity.
This was also the time of Benazir’s political education in practical terms. She regularly visited her father at Rawalpindi Central Jail, where he would pass instructions and guidance. Benazir was beginning to kick up a political storm all on her own, and fearful of her fiery style and popularity, the martial law administration would frequently place her in confinement.
All international appeals to spare Bhutto’s life fell on deaf ears, and the moment of eternal darkness arrived without notice. On April 3, 1979 Benazir and her mother were abruptly taken from their confinement to the death cell. This was not their day for a visit. Something in the air smelled foul. It was time for the final goodbye.
Bravely, Benazir held on and fought on. Bhutto’s judicial murder sent millions of PPP supporters into deep shock and grief. She met everyone, no one was turned away. This was the making of the future chairperson of the PPP.
In the summer of 1985, she joined the rest of her family in Cannes. For the first time after many, many years they were once again united as a family and were happy to be together. But time and tragedy interacted once again as a reminder that in the lives of the Bhuttos mirth was a mirage. The family was woken up in the early hours of that summer morning to the news that Shahnawaz, in the very prime of youth, had been murdered. Of all her siblings, Shahnawaz was the closest to her. She was devastated. Risking arrest and persecution, she took her brother back to Garhi Khuda Bakhsh to sleep in peace.
Benazir returned to England and immersed herself in work, endless meetings and foreign tours. From her Barbican flat, she and her typewriter waged war on dictator Zia. She was restless and wanted to return home but was conscious that as a single woman in Pakistani politics, the path forward would always be uphill.
Her proposal for marriage to Asif came through my mother while she was in London. After her initial meeting with him at our flat, she nominated me to "interview" Asif. I arranged to meet Asif over lunch and it seemed I was more nervous than him. I was given a long list of questions to ask and had to commit these to memory. And also retain Asif’s responses in minute detail.
Later that evening I had to undergo so thorough a debriefing that I joked with her, "Are you going into battle or marriage?"
Benazir pursued her political struggle with a primal sense of purpose, which finally bore fruit when she took oath as the Muslim world’s first woman Prime Minister in December 1988.
The old men from the old, rusted order plotted and planned. Uninterrupted excoriation was followed by vilification. Benazir was ousted from power followed by a plethora of corruption charges. Benazir surmounted impossible odds to vanquish her foes and win power for a second time in November 1993. But treachery was waiting in the wings. Her own Brutus stabbed her in the back and it was back to the battlefield. To compound the pain and perfidy, her brother Mir was killed in an encounter for which her government stood accused. There now followed a period of unrelenting trial and persecution. Asif was once again back in jail while Benazir ran around from one court to another to fight her own cases and Asif’s. The persecution became so intense that she was forced into self-exile in Dubai and London.
She spent her summers in London when her children had their vacations from school in Dubai. She enjoyed a stroll in Hyde Park, was happy spending the afternoon at the movies or at the Bayswater skating rink, watching her children and nephews and nieces bowl while she dug into her favourite peppermint-flavour Ben & Jerry’s ice cream.
Well, that was Benazir. Everyone knew her name but very, very few really knew her.
Comparisons are often made between Bhutto and Benazir. Such comparisons are tenuous and tedious. For one, they lived and governed at different times. Bhutto’s was an era of socialism. It was an era of rebellions and marches. It was the era of non-alignment and fierce nationalism. It was an era of idealism.
Bhutto ruled with an absolute majority and authority. There were few challenges to him and he ruled with an iron fist. Benazir had to constantly seek compromises and suffer coalitions and dilutions of power. Bhutto was the catalyst of change, she its champion. Conditions and compulsions, the forces and the dynamics, were too different to merit a meaningful comparison. They were both brilliant and tireless. Both had untapped reserves of energy and vitality. Both had a formidable aura. Both father and daughter turned the word Bhutto into a brand name, a national political website for Pakistan.
ALL great people carry the infection of inherent contradiction. It makes them engaging, more compelling. Like her father before her, Benazir’s personality was a constant interplay of light and shade. Such a life could not be ordered into supine routine.
History’s greatest triumphs are followed by tragedy. Her death has enshrined her and will remain a fixing moment in all our lives. We will always remember where we were and who we were with when we heard news of her death.
She gave the outer appearance of being strong and stringent but she was immensely sensitive and vulnerable. Her very essence, her core, was defined by the suffering she had undergone. Though she came across as a strong-willed and confident politician, the trauma and trial of her father had left her with a shaky inner core. Her inherent sadness and pain connected her instantly to the poor.
Benazir was intrinsically versatile. From Madonna to markets, she could converse with ease. She was remarkable in how easily she could mingle and mix with those who represented the sorrow of this land. Like her father, she could easily blend into their world. Like her father, she connected with the constituency of the rejected. For the Pakistani youth, she was the zeitgeist queen.
Her fearless soul remained a prisoner to her legacy and the overpowering but self-imposed sense of duty. She was a people’s person and spent endless hours with them, even when those hours were duty without dividend.
Her laugh was infectious as was her warmth. The girlie giggle, the mischievous wisecracks and, above all, the sympathy and solicitude carried in a tender heart were her hallmarks. Though bruised by reality, she never stopped dreaming those dreams. She was supremely unique, sublimely human.
Though always comfortable among the poor and supremely confident amongst intellectuals and dignitaries, she remained strangely insecure and shy whenever she had to make an appearance before the social elite. She felt that they were peering at her through a magnifying glass and were judgmental.
She was alert to the fact that her life had often been invaded by predators and parasites, creating the smoke and saga till the truth lay in tatters. The Bhuttos were considered the nation’s best-known soap opera, and she knew it.
Benazir was many, many things. And among those she was Don Quixote’s fantasy adventurer who was the slayer of all dragons met on a tortuous journey. And she spent much of her life tilting at windmills. Ironically, the dragons in her life were not delusional.
In the summer of 2007, we were having dinner one evening at her flat the discussion led to books and poetry. She asked me if I had read Anna Akhmatova, a Russian poetess who together with her son and husband had suffered horrible persecution during the Stalinist pogrom.
I had not, but made it a point to buy her book. I did not get around to opening its pages in any seriousness until after her assassination. When I started flipping through the pages, I stopped. I was startled when my eyes fell on the following passage:
"How terribly the body has changed/ How withered the tormented mouth/ I didn’t want a death like this/ I didn’t set the date./ It seemed to me that storm-cloud with storm-cloud/ Collided with something on high/ And a flying flash of lightning/ Descended like angels, upon me."
Was this death foretold?
She was determined to return home and all our imploring and protests did not deter her. She came back knowing the dangers that awaited her — she came hugging the delusive phantom of hope.
When she returned from exile on October 18, I stood alongside her on the truck journey; she turned to me while waving to the crowds and said, "Isn’t this great… I can feel their love." And after a pause, "I can never let them down." The change had already begun to manifest itself.
Moments later, a deadly and devastating bomb blast tried to tear out the soul of a nation. One moment there was a sea of cheering, clapping, dancing humanity and in another there was the gruesome spectacle of smouldering embers, the odour of burnt flesh and charred bodies. The tunes of love had died in the din of the dying. The terrorists had come out singing their hymn of hate.
She could have cut and run. If she wished to retreat to the safety of Dubai, the doors were open. But bravery was bred in her marrow. She would stand and fight, she would fight till her last breath.
On subsequent visits to her at Bilawal House, where a very few of us would be around her in the wee hours of the night as she tried to unwind and reflect on the day’s happenings, she talked but her talk was soliloquy. She was seeing a vision. The look in her eyes, the beat of her pulse, the song of her soul, all conveyed a different message.
She had travelled a great distance to reach here. The traveller had transformed during the journey. She was clearing her decks, reiterating her belief in the higher things of life. And as though in recognition of its consequences, she was bidding farewell to all of us.
She knew that from the moment she landed in Karachi, notwithstanding her deal with the general and the powers that be, the entire dynamics of the political power balance had changed. She was recalling her father’s message in that famous letter when he had told her that there is much merit in pragmatism, but to never forget that the "paradise of politics lies at the feet of the people". She knew too that there was deception in the air; the dice had been rolled, so let the chips fall where they may.
On December 27, 2007, she left for Rawalpindi’s Liaquat Bagh, not far from the site of her father’s hanging 28 years ago. She looked royal and radiant as she smiled and waved at the euphoric crowds. But tragedy was blowing in on the tail of a treacherous wind. An assassin was lying in wait.
Benazir on that day left the stage she never wanted. Circumstances threw her into the dirty, murky world of politics where she had to deal with the sleaze that breeds in the political ghettos and gutters of Pakistan.
She had been trained to walk the corridors of power and fame, mingle with kings and queens. Her life took her into the backyards of an unpleasant world where she had to deal with carpetbaggers and kerb-crawlers. She was forced to learn about their ways and deal with factors that were external to her ethos.
It was repellent to her nature but she accepted the challenge. She had to deal with troublesome "uncles," men who lurked in the shadows and elements from the country’s ubiquitous security apparatus. She vanquished them all along her tortured journey but laid her life gallantly before treachery’s final bugle.
Her assassination may yet prove to be the catalyst of the change she predicted. But more importantly, her blood has mingled with the soil of this land and nourished a legend more powerful than the legend of Marvi whom she recalled in a poem she wrote to mark her 50th birthday.
How would she like to be remembered? She would be the warrior princess who battled dictators and overcame them. She would be the great reformer and emancipator. She would be the redeemer with the healing touch. She would be the poet who wrote stirring verses. She would be the Joan of Arc who raised her party’s standard against oppression. She would be the flower whose fragrance never faded.
She was all these things. But above all, she was what she most wanted to be. She was Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s daughter. To her family she was the giant oak whose shade we have been shorn of. When the tide of time washes ashore, people will remember her for her kindness, they will remember her with affection. She died before she was meant to. She was a song half-sung, a verse half-written, an incomplete life, a story half-told.
This then is the story of Benazir, Pakistan’s princess.
Courtesy: Dawn, Karachi