IN MEMORIAM: BENAZIR — IN HER OWN WORDS

Updated December 24, 2017

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Wounds heal with time — sometimes not. On this gloomy winter’s day (December 27, 2007), amid the carnage and chaos of the bombs and gunshots, Benazir sailed off into the sunset, leaving behind a wreckage of broken hopes and broken hearts. A decade is too soon to relive a life half-sung. But it is a milestone still and memories need to be recounted and nourished.

An enemy’s golden bullet deprived Pakistan, in one stroke, of its political capital, and an abyss opened beneath our feet. A fertile dream turned into a barren waste. Through her years of two truncated reigns in power, exile and persecution, prison terms and unending court battles and witch-hunts, BB, as we called her, had arrived at the stage, a fully mature, seasoned politician and statesperson. She was ready to play a full hand in the Pakistani and global arena. Like for her father before her, the enemy had calculated that such a powerful force for the good of Pakistan and Islam could not remain alive. The country and the region lost a great political symbol — the lone flower that blossomed in a desert. We, her family and friends lost nature’s most flourishing rose, someone who shone through in her beauty, her brilliance, her kind, loving and sensitive nature.

I have in previous articles (all appearing in Dawn) written extensively about BB. To mark her 10th death anniversary, I wished to recall her memory not through repetition and platitudes. So, let us look at BB through the prism of her very own words. Words written not as a politician, but as a young student, in her salad days. I have retrieved letters she wrote to me in her college days as a student at Radcliffe, Massachusetts. The letters chosen were written in 1970, when she was only 17. Her thoughts and her words at that tender age tell a story of one who was miles ahead of her contemporaries — she was no ordinary mortal. Selected parts of the letters are reproduced hereunder:

A glimpse into Benazir Bhutto’s personality and thoughts through letters she wrote to her cousin

Letter dated January 27, 1970: “The courses I wish to take next semester were planned out during the fall term. I am going to continue with my Indian and European history courses, perhaps take Shakespeare’s tragedies and romances, and a course on the concept of freedom.

“The Jamaat probably got 95 percent of the council union seats by bribes. You say that ‘gradually’ the people will ‘realise that socialism is their only salvation.’ What exactly do you mean by ‘gradually.’ Do you mean that we may win the next elections but not the ones this year?”

Letter dated March 6, 1970: “Let me tell you what I have been doing for the past few weeks. First of all I am taking an extracurricular seminar on Capitalism, Socialism and Development. It is a most interesting course, especially since the first country we studied was Pakistan. Now I have all these theories on the changes that should be made in our economic system. On Tuesday, I invited professor Meyere and Mr Brown (both of whom have been to Pakistan and were in the advising foreign aid commission respectively) for dinner, and had a very lively discussion on what Pakistan should have done — economically speaking — in the past. I, of course, tried my best to get all the info I could on what the Americans really thought was beneficial for Pakistan — and not for themselves. On Thursday Ruth Whitman, who is a poetess, came over to Eliot and we had a poetry seminar — (I being the social chairman had to cook the cakes and meringues).

“Tonight, Daniel Long who wrote Casualties of War (on Vietnam) is coming over to discuss his book (which I read over bells yesterday). I am looking forward to the discussion, which promises to be interesting. A friend of mine is teaching me Spanish. So far, I have learnt “Venceremos” (we shall conquer) and “Hasta la Victoria” (always on to victory). So how is school treating you? If you have any free time, try and read The Social Contract by the political theorist Rousseau — read especially the chapter on democracy. Briefly, this is what he says: If one class is richer than another class, then the rich class can exercise more influence than a poor man, this means that the rich class has an advantage over the poor class. If one class has an advantage over another class, then the country cannot be called a democracy. If people want their country to be democratic, then a comparative amount of equity should be achieved — in other words democracy is synonymous with socialism.

Benazir with family and friends at different periods of her life
Benazir with family and friends at different periods of her life

“I felt real smug when I read that the Prophet (PBUH) had said, “The residents of a neighbourhood who knowingly go about their daily affairs with a hungry neighbour have detached themselves from Islam.” This means that the Jamaat-i Islami has not even read the Hadees as yet.”

Letter dated October 10, 1970: “After reading Montesquieu, I have come to the conclusion that Pakistan is now under a Republican aristocracy, except instead of aristocracy, it should be militancy. However, from conclusions drawn from Montesquieu, such a state of affairs is better than despotism. Try reading Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws and you shall be enlightened.

“I have not the slightest idea of what is going on in Karachi, because my Stallworth friends only write about intellectual, educational stuff. It is on matters of great importance that we hold discussions. Not mere trifles — like gossip.”

After reading Montesquieu, I have come to the conclusion that Pakistan is now under a Republican aristocracy, except instead of aristocracy, it should be militancy. However, from conclusions drawn from Montesquieu, such a state of affairs is better than despotism. Try reading Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws and you shall be enlightened.

Letter dated October 30, 1970: “Here in Cambridge, it is a case of pathetic fallacy, for it is a miserable, cold, foggy day, and I am in a gloomy mood. Reason: ‘cos [sic] I have two mid-term exams on the third and fourth of November; a paper due on the 10th and another 3,500 words one due soon after, and an appointment with the dentist tomorrow. Enough of that talk. Now how are you and good ‘ol’ [sic] Karachi? I notice that your letters are becoming shorter, that shows an inconstancy in you. Mine are always more or less the same length. You must re-study Darwin’s theory of evolution — he speaks of how it is that the strongest survive. The past week, after moratorium day, I was busy doing research on my Einstein article: “The composition of interstellar dust”.”

Letter (undated): “Hiy a Cuz [sic], since I do not want to write a 3,500 word answer to your paragraph on Time magazine, I shall just say ‘no comment.’ But out of mere curiosity, since when did you become a worshipper of Time mag? Man! I’d think you would choose something more constant. If I remember correctly, fickle Time first forecasted Papa, then Asghar Khan, and now Mujib as the top man in Pakistan.

“Hey! What is this? I thought you had made up your mind to study hard, and yet you say that you have done badly. Ah! Fickle Tariq. On the 19th, as you were busy enjoying yourself at the KGS Prefects' Ball, I was slaving away writing a paper on Oresteia.

Benazir with her father Z.A. Bhutto and then Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in Simla, 1972 | Photos courtesy the writer
Benazir with her father Z.A. Bhutto and then Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in Simla, 1972 | Photos courtesy the writer

“Tariq, have you read the book Utopia by Thomas More? You should. It’s all about a perfect society. But let me just warn you. Don’t get carried away by all that it says, because it was written for and suited the conditions of the 16th century Europe. There are so many factors involved today that would ruin anyone who wanted to set up a Utopia.”

Let us fast track now to her twilight period — June 2003. Uniquely (as her name Benazir suggests) she decided during her exile in Dubai to give herself a birthday present and composed a series of poems she captioned: “The story of Benazir — From Marvi of Malir and Shah Latif.” Some extracts are reproduced here:

“When the world was still to be born
When Adam was still to receive his form
Then my relationship began

When I heard the Lord’s voice
A voice sweet and clear
I said “yes” with all my heart
And formed a bond with the land I love.

When all of us were one
My bond then began

An exile now by destiny
I am nearer home than the bear of my heart
I wonder: when will I be free
To return to Larkana

From dust to dust
Loved ones return
To what they were
When will I walk home from Arab lands
To my own sweet motherland

Waiting for news in dreams and day
Waiting for messengers in dreams and day
When will the messengers come
Taking me from here to there
I want the answer to my heart
I want to pass God’s test

Strands of white my hair now show
My face is gaunt with sadness
I to my people want to go.”

I would like to end with a quote that so aptly suits her:

“She is brave and strong and broken all at once. As she speaks it is as if her existence is no longer real to her in itself, more like a living epitaph to a life that was.” — Anna Funder, Stasiland: Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall

The writer is Benazir Bhutto’s first cousin

Published in Dawn, EOS, December 24th, 2017