A confident Bhutto waves along his minister Mustafa Jatoi and Indian PM Indira Gandhi at Simla — Photo by the writer
A confident Bhutto waves along his minister Mustafa Jatoi and Indian PM Indira Gandhi at Simla — Photo by the writer

The phone rings late at night. Manhattan is still wide-awake. The howling wind and the police sirens outside screech and scream, sounding like a death knell. My brother receives a phone call from the foreign ministry in Islamabad. He looks serious but says nothing. Early next morning my mother waiting to go into surgery switches her transistor radio. The headline news tells her that Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was hanged a few hours ago in the Rawalpindi jail. “If Zia had spared Bhutto, my cancer would have gone,” she would say.

Aeons ago, Nasreen Room at Karachi’s Intercontinental Hotel swung into action with the glitterati each night. Among them was ‘Zulfi’ Bhutto President Ayub’s recently excommunicated foreign minister lurking in the shadows. The red and gold décor and the upbeat band playing the latest hit songs late into the night embraced partygoers like Hafeez Pirzada, Mustafa Jatoi, Tahir Maker and Ahmad Pirbhai. The last two being industrialists. One evening, Zulfi came over to our table to chat with our host Tahir Maker. I don’t know what transpired between the two but the only thing that still sticks in my memory after 50 years is Zulfi threatening to “level” with Maker. He made sure to do exactly that after he became the prime minister!

Mr Bhutto was the most graceful dancer I had seen. He charmed the ladies and danced with the most beautiful. At a party by Mustafa and Maria Jatoi at their PECHS home, ZAB chose as his dance partner, the lovely Azra Hassan Mahmood, wife of Makhdoomzada Syed Hassan Mahmood, once the chief minister of Bahawalpur State. Azra looked vulnerable, delicate like a lily, ready to wilt. She died young.


The evil that men do lives after them / The good is oft interred with their bones / So let it be with Caesar — Mark Anthony in Julius Caesar


We crave for heroes.

Every society, every country has need of heroes. In Pakistan, a star was born in the blackout winter of 1971. We had lost half our country and were left licking our wounds. Then came Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. His soul-stirring speech at the UN in New York was a shot in the arm. It was music to our ears, especially after we had seen and heard crooner Shaukat Ali sing the absurdity, Ay dushman-i-deen, tu ney kis qaum ko lalkara, day and night on PTV during our war with India. There he would be on the mini-screen, wearing a black kurta with dishevelled hair and a thick black macho moustache singing away with the sirens sounding, anti-aircraft guns crackling and Indian fighter jets pounding our cities as if there was no tomorrow.

Indeed there was no tomorrow, but for Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s words of comfort, promise and hope. He was our messiah and our new leader. Quickly we fell behind him. His word was our command. The man did not let us down. Pakistan swiftly came out of the shadows of death and destruction, demanding a place in the comity of nations. His maiden speech on radio and TV is as fresh in my mind as if it was only yesterday:

“My dear countrymen, my dear friends, my dear students, labourers, peasants… those who fought for Pakistan… We are facing the worst crisis in our country’s life, a deadly crisis. We have to pick up the pieces, very small pieces, but we will make a new Pakistan, a prosperous and progressive Pakistan.”

The fourth president of Pakistan, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, took measures, made them law and swiftly turned Pakistan into a happening place. Our daily lives got intertwined with the affairs of the state and as ordinary citizens we felt as if we were actors in the arena of statesmanship. Such was Bhutto’s magic; charisma and sincerity. All got pulled in the whirlwind of national activities lunging Pakistan forward. Bhutto was like a man driven. He came across as someone with a list of things to do and in a tearing hurry to tick each item as fast as he could.

Bhutto appointed a new cabinet; made General Gul Hassan the new army chief; nationalised all big industries; announced a new labour policy empowering workers and their labour unions; put a ceiling to land holding and acquiring over a million acres which he distributed to the landless; sacked over 2,000 corrupt civil servants; secured the release of 93,000 POWs; repaired relations with Indira Gandhi; inaugurated the first atomic reactor; convened the national assembly, rescinding martial law; signed the 1973 Constitution into law and finally became the 10th prime minister of Pakistan on August 14, 1973.

Karachi was to be the next Beirut, thus declared prime minister Bhutto. A casino on Clifton shore was built. I can proudly claim to have seen everything that was inside the multi-storied building months before Zia had it demolished. I saw the most luxurious window treatments swathed in yards of damask and sofas draped in rich brocade; silver cutlery emblazoned with initials KC (Karachi Casino) and dinnerware of fine china with the KC crest fit for a royal feast. The carpets were Persian and the fittings in the rooms were à la Monte Carlo casinos. If allowed to operate, it would have transformed the city. Who stole its furnishings? Your guess is as good as mine!

His four years as prime minister made Pakistan get noticed by world powers. He visited Bangladesh and laid a wreath at the “Freedom Fighters” monument inviting the Bangladeshi leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman to attend the Islamic Summit at Lahore in 1974. The coverage carried by PTV brought live scenes of Muslim leaders from all over the world into our bedrooms. I lived in Jhelum but spiritually my soul was in Lahore at the Punjab assembly where the meetings were held; at the Governor House where monarchs, presidents and prime ministers were feted; at the Shalimar Gardens where ZAB made a soul-stirring speech and at the Lahore Fort where the late King Faisal of Saudi Arabia and others watched son et lumière, with ZAB and Begum Nusrat Bhutto playing the host.

But with absolute power, ZAB’s self-destruct instincts kicked in. Soon, he assumed the role of an evil genius, terrorising those he hated. Settling old scores became his endgame. Many fled Pakistan to save their skins. He was invincible; nothing would destroy him so his power-drunk psyche told him. But here’s a disclaimer: he would call my father when he had a falling out with president Ayub eliciting his help for a pardon from Ayub. As principal secretary, father always took his calls. But politely refused to help. After ZAB became the PM, he sent my father to head the Pakistan Embassy in New Delhi, closed since 1971 war!

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, April 10th, 2016

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