Housing in-laws

January 25, 2018


FEW sons-in-law have had the good fortune of marrying as well as Mr Asif Zardari did. Mr Feroze Gandhi married into the Nehrus, then lost his wife Indira to her possessive father. Mr Zardari lost his wife to posterity. He buried her next to her father Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the father-in-law he never knew.

Father and daughter and other dead Bhuttos are interred in a shining white mausoleum in Garhi Khuda Bakhsh, in Sindh. Like the Taj Mahal, it is a monument to retroactive devotion. The mausoleum lies off the main road from Naudero, accessible to the determined who must run the gauntlet of three security checks before they can reach the inner sanctum, or to the PPP faithful who on martyrs’ days throng the vast open area before it.

Whoever designed that mausoleum had been weaned on Mughal architecture. Its design follows the tenets of imperial Mughal tombs — the crowning domes, the tiered edifice, pillars and screens carved in marble, and an inner void in which the meditative recitation of the Holy Quran can resonate freely.

The first gallery one enters there is a family album, displaying plex enlargements of Benazir reading the Holy Quran, of her with her three children when they were still young, of Benazir and her son Bilawal, and on the far wall a collage of the PPP trinity: Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, his wife Nusrat Bhutto and Benazir Bhutto. None of the tomb’s caretaker Mr Zardari.

Inside the main hall, three covered graves dominate the foreground. Above each, a roof is supported by pristine white marble pillars carved with coils. The grave in the centre needs no introduction. At its head, instead of a conventional tombstone, is an oversize metal diadem around a turban, surmounted by a plumed aigrette. Its design is not dissimilar to a Qajar dynastic crown. The Urdu inscription reads: Shaheed Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.

The Bhutto mausoleum is a monument to retroactive devotion.

To one side of Mr Bhutto lies his second wife Nusrat Bhutto and on the other the modest, self-effacing grave of Benazir Bhutto, draped in a green sheet embroidered with scarlet flowers. Facing these three graves is a sloping glass frame that protects the black panel heavily embroidered in gold thread. It once hung over the entrance to the Holy Ka’aba. It is a gift from the Saudi government.

The location of this sacred fragment is strategic. It is almost as if it promises a direct portal into heaven.

Less than a cricket ball throw away from this main group is the grave of Ameera Begum, Mr Bhutto’s first wife. The unadorned grave of an unmourned Murtaza Bhutto is nondescript by comparison, and in the far background are the graves of the Bhutto elders, including the patriarch Sir Shahnawaz Bhutto.

The fortunate (or the well-connected) are escorted up a staircase to the upper storey where again the Mughal influence is unmistakable. The domed roof has a lower ring of calligraphy and frescoes delicately painted arching upwards. Beneath the dome, on a raised marble platform, are two marble cenotaphs of the devoted daughter and her doting father. This too replicates a feature of Mughal tombs in which the actual grave lay in the earth, above it an ornate cenotaph, and on the roof a stone cenotaph, open to the skies for the blessings of the Almighty to rain down on the deceased.

This upper storey in the Bhutto mausoleum is designed for VIP visitors. They can climb the broad staircase from the outside and enter directly into the upper chamber. This suspicion of exclusivity is reinforced by the inscription on the two marble slabs. They are both in English. One lauds Benazir Bhutto as ‘the first female prime minister in the Muslim world — martyred, fighting for democracy and the peaceful message of Islam’, while the second honours Mr Bhutto as a ‘Poet & Revolutionary’. Unconscionably, Mr Bhutto’s name has been misspelt as ‘Zulfiqar’ instead of his preferred ‘Zulfikar’.

It is said the hair and nails of corpses continue to grow for some time even after death. That is equally true of the reputation of political dynasties: the Kennedys, the Nehru/Gandhis, the Bhuttos. Their fame grew posthumously and then gradually disintegrated. In the 1970 elections, Mr Bhutto led his PPP to a surprise landslide victory in West Pakistan, garnering 6.1 million votes. Forty-three years later, in 2013, his grandson Bilawal Bhutto could secure only 6.9m votes. Now, in a recent effort to retrieve receding ground in the Punjab (once Mr Bhutto’s stronghold), a hamstrung PPP led by Mr Zardari has had to share a platform in Lahore with faux leaders who were in their cradles when Mr Bhutto was already in his grave.

The 2018 general elections will show whether Garhi Khuda Bakhsh is a family necropolis or also the cemetery where the political legacy of the Bhuttos lies buried.

The writer is an author.


Published in Dawn, January 25th, 2018