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‘The Fragrance of Tears: My Friendship with Benazir Bhutto’ review: A friendship that shaped two lives across continents

Benazir knew her as ‘Vicks’; Victoria sent notes to her friend ‘B’. They met as students and their friendship encompassed almost all their adult lives. It ended only when Benazir Bhutto’s life was ended by a suicide attack in Rawalpindi in December 2007.

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Over the years, Victoria Schofield provided many services for her friend: legal typist; ghost writer; press officer; passer-on of messages from Princess Di (who shared the same London hairdresser as Benazir). She was, at Benazir’s instigation, part of Pakistan’s delegation to a Commonwealth conference. She accompanied Benazir’s son, Bilawal, on his first day as a student at Oxford.

Through thick and thin

All these tasks were taken on out of friendship. This is not a biography — it is, in the author’s words, ‘my tribute to a friend’. Benazir valued Victoria because she was loyal, fun, undeferential — someone who stood by her at the most difficult moments, when her father was awaiting execution and when she was in detention and in exile. For Victoria, the friendship shaped her life and introduced her to South Asia, about which she has written so extensively.

Victoria met Benazir within days of going to Oxford in 1974. They became allies in the elitist Oxford Union debating society and were elected Union president in successive terms. Victoria is well connected; she also has a raw courage. It was no small thing for a new graduate to head out to a part of the world she didn’t know and to spend almost a year there striving to save Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and to keep up her friend’s spirits.

When, some years later, Victoria was refused entry to Pakistan, an Air India plane was ordered to turn around in mid-air to pick her up from Karachi airport. On arrival at Delhi, the Sikh pilot sought her out: “What!... This little girl is such a threat to General Zia that my plane and my passengers had to be so inconvenienced?”

On Benazir’s fateful return to Pakistan in 2007, Victoria travelled with her. They were on the same campaign truck in Karachi when a suicide bomber struck on October 17 — both survived, but 150 or more people died. Schofield’s account powerfully captures the shock and terror of that attack. Benazir was killed in another attack on December 27.

Beyond death

Victoria Schofield’s loyalty to her old friend extends beyond death. Confidences continue to be respected. We hear about the trademark yellow sports car which Benazir drove around Oxford but not about her boyfriends. The controversies that blighted Benazir’s political career — the allegations of corruption, the breach with her brother and mother, the difficulties within her marriage — are all mentioned, though briefly. Benazir’s version is given. No more is said.

Sometimes the recitation of what is often humdrum about a friendship feels repetitious. But it succeeds in depicting how the web of shared experiences kept the friendship alive, even during long periods when they were unable to meet. Schofield declares in her introduction that the book is ‘my testament to her bravery and courage’. Whatever your judgment on Benazir Bhutto, she was certainly brave.

The Fragrance of Tears: My Friendship with Benazir Bhutto; Victoria Schofield, Head of Zeus, £8.99.

The reviewer, a former BBC India correspondent, teaches at the Asian College of Journalism in Chennai.

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