FOREIGNERS who encountered Benazir Bhutto tended to like her. While some Pakistanis complained about her sense of entitlement and her record in office, Westerners liked the fact she was so open to them. Despite her international star status, she gave them time and even took an interest in their families.
It’s a trait that is very apparent in one of the most surprising books written about Benazir Bhutto: a 21-page Kindle edition BB and Me: Letters from Benazir by someone describing himself as Mitch Sanding who says he worked in operations at Chicago’s O’Hare airport. Mitch Sanding appears to be a pen name as does the name of the editor, Mary Unbehaun. At 2,649,056 in the Kindle books sales ranking, it is by no means a bestseller but I came across it whilst researching my own recently published book on the Bhutto dynasty. Having tried, but failed, to track down Mitch Sanding to confirm his claims I decided I could not be sure enough to refer to BB and Me in my own book. However, the emails published in BB and Me ring true and were I a betting man I would place a large wager that the correspondence did actually happen.
Mitch records how he enjoyed Benazir’s autobiography, Daughter of the East. Following his normal practice, he sent a short note to the publisher passing on his compliments to the author. Three months after sending his note, he received an email from Benazir thanking him. Thinking it must be a hoax by a member of staff at the publishers, he wrote back a satirical note saying that he was sorry taking under the table pay-offs hadn’t worked for her but at least she had a career ahead as a writer. And that, he presumed, would be that.
Three weeks later he had another reply: Benazir told him that she did not take under the table pay-offs but: “Your email made me laugh though, which isn’t an easy thing to do as I sit in exile with my children while my husband sits in a Pakistani jail.”
‘I don’t want to hear back from you until you have had a nice dinner with a nice woman,’ she wrote.
Mitch still thought he was being hoaxed but the publishers assured him that they had forwarded his original email to Benazir: he was indeed corresponding with the former prime minister of Pakistan. And then she wrote something that very few politicians would ever ask — especially of someone who would never have the chance to vote for them — “After reading my book, you probably know a lot about me. Tell me about you.” He did just that, revealing eventually that he was single and looking for a partner. Benazir immediately sprung into a somewhat bossy, advising mode and told him he had to go on a date. “I don’t want to hear back from you until you have had a nice dinner with a nice woman,” she wrote.
To cut a long story short, Mitch eventually ended up following Benazir’s advice which was delivered in a series of emails. He then told Benazir how he found a new partner and was going to marry her. “CONGRATULATIONS!!!,” she replied. “You wanted more and you went out and got it! Never stop wanting more.” She would have loved to accept his invitation to the wedding but “my life’s ambition is keeping me here in Dubai”.
In the course of her correspondence, Benazir told him about Asif Zardari’s medical condition and also discussed some of her political plans, asking him to keep it all confidential. “Don’t stop writing me, Mitch. Your letters mean a lot.” By which I can only think she meant she enjoyed a glimpse into a normal life with travails less dramatic than her own.
On one occasion she wrote: “I specifically sat down to write this email because these have become therapeutic for me and it’s nice to have a confidante that is outside of my inner circle … I can’t always find the time to write back but I can take a few seconds to read so write me back. Let me know what you are doing.” Mitch and Benazir never met but the email exchanges continued until her death.
It is hard to imagine any other major politician having an email exchange with a man who had no power and who she would almost certainly never meet. Her father would have considered such a thing beneath his dignity and her husband would not have seen any reason to reach out to a stranger. After Benazir’s death there were an extraordinary number of articles by foreigners who had met her and who described their various encounters. Most of these obituaries were positive and admiring — a reflection of the fact that her outgoing nature was appreciated and liked.
The writer’s book The Bhutto Dynasty: The Struggle for Power in Pakistan was published by Yale University Press last month.
Published in Dawn, October 6th, 2020