Dynasty seems to rest easy on her shoulders. Fatima Bhutto, in Delhi recently for the launch of her book, is out to prove that while lives can be erased easily in a politically volatile country like Pakistan, memories cannot. Her attempt to get at the truth behind her father Murtaza's death takes her through some of the most explosive incidents in Pakistan's dynasty politics and contemporary history...
No conceit, not a trace of arrogance. Her speech is clear, and for a large part, bright; her eyes, though a shade sad, are luminous. Hope has not died young. Sitting at New Delhi's Taj Mahal hotel, every now and then she pauses to adjust those curly locks so defiant as to cast a shadow over her well-lined eyes. One look at her pearly smile and you could almost think of her as another sprightly young woman from across the border. Appearances, however, beautiful, can be deceptive. But really, dynasty seems to rests easy on Fatima Bhutto's slender shoulders. With a name like Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto in her family chart, not to forget her papa Murtaza or wadi buaBenazir Bhutto, really, life must be a series of luxuries for Fatima, now beginning to be known as Fatima, the writer, but equally comfortable with being Bhutto too. But hey, dynasty is no guarantee of peace and contentment. Forget luxuries of life, in her family, life itself has been a luxury, with all her near and dear ones — Zulfiqar and Murtaza — and those near without being dear — Benazir — dying young.
You mention this, and the lady comes up with a commendable mix of poise and firmness to say, “I use the word ‘assassinated' or ‘killed' when I refer to my father. One word I never use for him is ‘dead'. He is around.”
Indeed, his has been the constant presence in her life over the past 14 years since he fell prey to assassins on the streets of Karachi, and earlier when he encouraged little Fatima to wield the pen to wage life's battles, hers, and his. The result is Fatima's new book, Songs of Blood and Sword, brought out by Penguin and released recently in the Capital. It is a book that is about a quest, “both personal and political”.
“My father was everything for me. My whole life was shaped by my father. I was extraordinarily close to him. I lost my biological mother early but even before that I was closer to him. And after the divorce, we became closer still. He used to cut my hair, dress me up. He was the one who always encouraged me. He wanted me to have my own ideas. He introduced me to the world. He spoke about it in political terms. As a kid I knew the term martial law. He would always explain things to me. I learnt to be a good listener. He wanted me to write…” says Fatima, looking far into the distance. Clearly, the little daughter's life still has a vacuum. “This book, for which I started research way back in 2004, takes me closer to him. To talk of him 14 years later is a big step for me.” The book, that traces Fatima's very personal quest to get to the root of her father's murder, and the State's possible complicity, is a nuanced essay, one that blends the personal and the specific with the political and social. “With this book I have made a statement of defiance. Pakistan has a history of violence. The idea of life in my country is cheap. But I tell people that you can extinguish life, but you cannot erase memory. Fourteen years after my father was killed in Clifton, this book marks the breaking of silence,” she says, then allows herself a fleeting smile, before adding, “I have not really been the silent type!”
In her book, Fatima presents her uncle, Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari, as a monolith, but is more layered in her presentation of Benazir, whom she accuses of complicity in her father's murder. Has she been able to forgive Benazir, the aunt who once got her presents? “I am at peace today. Forgive is not quite the word but for us to live, we have to let go of the past, of a lot of pain. Benazir herself impeded justice. So forgive is not the word I will use, maybe release of pain. That is what I have experienced by writing this book,” Fatima uses her words with a lot of care, and comforting sensitivity.
The book was launched in Pakistan the other day, in Karachi, on the very road where Murtaza breathed his last. Was this symbolism deliberate? “Yes. I chose the spot. I did not want to launch the book in an upmarket hotel. My book is about bloody history. I wanted my book to be launched on the very road which is accessible to people, central to the city. You can call it an act of defiance, but I have inherited this free spirit and spirit of brave curiosity from both my parents.”
For Zardari and Benazir, Fatima uses the same frank expression. “As a Pakistani I am very disappointed to have Zardari as the President. He is the worst possible ambassador for the country. He has a legacy of abuse of power. He is the President because he is a pliant man for the international community. He is not a nuanced man. Benazir though was different. She had different layers to her, a different persona. She had very different life experiences. She did not fit into a box. She was a strong woman, even brave, when you consider how she struggled against martial law. People of Pakistan placed their confidence in her but she belied their cause. She did not roll back a single one of Gen Zia's oppressive Acts against women. As a Prime Minister, she wanted to be in absolute control of things and control things absolutely. How can anyone absolve her of thousands of encounter deaths on the streets of Karachi when she was in power?” What Fatima refrains from stating is, among the victims was her father, who happened to be Benazir's younger brother too.
It is reported that Fatima and her publishers kept the book under wraps until its release in Pakistan. “Yes, we were not sure of how the State would react. Tragedy does make you more sensitive but it also makes you more cautious. Now I am at peace. I always wanted to write this book. It is a result of constant struggle. For four years or so I did my research. During that period I learnt to be dispassionate about things where my personal emotions were concerned. I opened myself to a lot of things I did not want to. For years I lived a regimented life, writing for four-five hours every morning.” But has it not been worth it for this talented daughter of the Bhutto clan? “I am Fatima but I am Bhutto too,” she says, for once confessing to the baggage that comes with the mantle. Then immediately, strikes a discordant, maybe a typically defiant, note. “What is a name but just a combination of letters? They don't make what you are.” Unless of course, they help to put together songs of blood and sword!
“It is an incredible city. It is a dangerous city. It is also a place with a lot of life, a city that refuses to submit to challenges. In many ways it is like Bombay,” says Fatima Bhutto, about Karachi, the city where she lives, and where her father was killed. Karachi is the pivot of her book but in Songs of Blood and Sword, it is finds only a single shade expression. The focus is only on political violence and vendetta. The streets are dangerous. The days are lonely, the nights eerie. Not much is said or seen about the heritage of the city, its beaches, it many worlds within a city and the like. Why? “I have kept it all for my next book. It is actually about Karachi,” reveals Fatima, adding, “I have lived everywhere in the world, the U.S., the U.K., Syria, and I was born in Afghanistan, but Karachi is my home. And Clifton is the place I consider my own.”
Tragic chain of events
“My father introduced me to my late grandfather. He was assassinated three years before I was born. But I know he was a brave man. He could have sought clemency from Gen Ziaul Haq but refused to do so. I respect him for that. He was a noble man who lived by his principles,” Fatima Bhutto said, a few hours before the 31st anniversary of the execution of her grandfather, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. The irony did not strike her.
It may be recalled Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto was executed on April 4, 1979 -- he was 51 -- triggering an unfortunate chain of events whereby all the family members have met with violent death. His youngest son Shahnawaz is said to have been poisoned in his apartment in South France in 1985. He was merely 27. His elder son, Murtaza, Fatima’s father, was killed in a shootout in Karachi on September 20, 1996. He was 42. His daughter, Benazir, was killed in a gun and suicide bomb attack on Dec 27, 2007. She was aged 54. Ironically, Fatima’s book which talks in detail about Murtaza’s killing and mentions other assassinations in the family too, was launched in New Delhi on the eve of Bhutto’s senior’s death anniversary.