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View from US: The past is but a dream

November 06, 2011

The true story on the loves, deaths, feuds, vendetta and tragedy will not be revealed as long as the Bhutto cult is around. The fight for the political throne between a brother and a sister that cut asunder familial ties pitching mother against the daughter may never get written. Fatima Bhutto may well write one day, but it will have a tilt towards her father, the murdered Murtaza Bhutto. Besides, she never knew her grandfather; she was a little girl when grandma left them to go live with her aunt in Islamabad and later Dubai.

Only an independent scholar on the Bhutto saga that has haunted Pakistan for over half a century can do justice. If walls could speak, we’d know what went on behind the fortress-like 70 Clifton between a charismatic man and his stunningly beautiful wife and their kids as they reached adolescence. As time went on, and the couple’s gravitas grew, landing them in the Prime Minister’s House, their children went their different ways, attracting unusual attention and notice from the world around them.

But Begum Nusrat Bhutto was different. She was not interested in stealing her husband’s or her children’s thunder, preferring to remain in the background. Private, aloof and magnificently statuesque, as the wife of the foreign minister during Ayub Khan’s reign, she preferred her Persian cats to company. I never saw her in the garden, even though the walls between our identical homes were see-through at the top. We were neighbours in Lane no. 1 , Civil Lines, Rawalpindi. Due to a housing shortage when the capital moved to Islamabad (still under construction), the government requisitioned the two homes built by the industrialist brothers of Kohinoor Mills.

Word had it they were haunted. The house we lived in was earlier occupied by Mohammad Ali Bogra, then foreign minister. His second-wife Alia, a Lebanese born had laid out a miniature Japanese garden with white pebbles, lanterns chiseled in stone that burnt at night, and little pagodas in the front lawn. Sights like these were a rarity for the Pindiites providing us and our visitors’ wondrous amazement. Bogra had a heart attack and died within a year. We moved in. The Bhuttos had just arrived. ZAB had succeeded Bogra as the foreign minister.

Residents on our bustling lane rarely felt the foreign minister’s wife or the children’s presence. It seemed as if nobody lived there. A mysterious air hung heavy. When the 1965 Indo-Pakistan war broke out, Nusrat Bhutto stepped out in the public to spearhead a committee of wives collecting goods for our army fighting the war. I remember attending a couple of those meetings at the Pindi Club. Always regal in her silk saris, outstandingly erect with a gait of a queen, Begum Bhutto would preside. The boisterous begums, some overdressed and over made-up, would gratuitously hover around the wife whose husband was considered the most powerful and influential minister in Ayub’s cabinet. But Nusrat Bhutto shunned politics and public appearances. Many called her a strange bird, exotic nonetheless; some thought her too vain; others viewed her as an outsider, unable to gel with the crowd. And this is exactly who she was: different, disinterested, occupying a disapora too diverse for the chattering classes of those times. Once I saw Begum Bhutto with a small group of close friends on the dance floor of the Pindi Club. I forget what the occasion was, but she was as usual, standing out among the crowd with her height, youth and beauty.

So impressed was General Ayub with his youngest and brightest foreign minister that he happily ‘adopted’ him as a son! A power struggle went off. Cabinet ministers like Generals Khalid Shaikh, Burki and Azam Khan, who had helped bring Ayub Khan to power, were eager to see ZAB go. Bhutto’s growing pomposity, bravura and swashbuckling mannerism expanded his list of enemies. The rest as you know is history.

Years later, I went to 70 Clifton to interview Nusrat Bhutto a day before Murtaza arrived from exile. We sat out on the front lawn. The winding afternoon shed a pale gold light playing peek-a-boo with the leaves on the trees as they flirted in the sea breeze. The matriarch looked happy at her son’s homecoming. Speaking guardedly of the kind of reception he may get (he could get a jail term for the cases filed against him), the mother was optimistic that her son will one day take over the reins of the political party her husband had founded. Two three times, I had seen Begum Bhutto at parties in Karachi with her little granddaughter always dressed in fluffy frocks with bows and black patent pumps. They called Fatima “Fati” lovingly. Begum Bhutto’s relations with her daughter-in-law were friendly. They got on well. Life held promise. But tragedy hung in the wings.

The mother who had counted the days for her surviving son to return from Syria didn’t know she would lose him for life. While Begum Bhutto was a regular visitor to Damascus, his sister as the prime minister remained estranged. Never once did any directions come from the prime minister’s house to our embassy personnel in Syria about her brother who lived in the capital.

Now that the long and troubled life of Nusrat Bhutto has come to an end, the government has given her the highest award – Nishan-e-Imtiaz. Better it would have been for the daughter as the prime minister to decorate her mother in recognition of her leadership role during the Movement to Restore Democracy (MRD). The woman who braved beatings, incarceration and abuse during tyrant Zia’s rule was instead unceremoniously pushed away and removed from PPP chairmanship. She faded into the darkness, around which swirled the murder of her son; estrangement with her daughter and son-in-law; and a long and lonely battle with Alzheimer’s that eventually banished her for life to Dubai. She died all alone in a hospital there. Sanam, her own child and her daughter Benazir’s children were not around to hold her hand. Fatima and Zulfikar Jr were denied the last viewing of their beloved grandmother. They held fateha after she had been buried.