Thursday, September 10, 2009


Legacy of a name: Fatima Bhutto has lost much due to politics.
In an exclusive interview, Fatima Bhutto, granddaughter of the late Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, talks about her writing and why she stays away from the political furnace.
“My father wanted me to be a writer. He sent my poems to the publisher with his signature the night before he was killed. After he was killed, I kept writing in his memory.”

In a perfect world, Fatima Bhutto would have been behind a desk or with her laptop, putting together her next poem. Her father, the late Murtaza Bhutto, would have been around, lending a helping hand in drafting letters to publishers, just as he did when she was a teenager.

However, life is no fairytale, and hours after he put his signature of approval to her first book, he breathed his last.

Today, Fatima, from the illustrious clan of the late Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, who would rather not use her surname to enter politics, writes books. Never mind, life has not been a bright book for her.

At 25, that age when you are neither too young nor too old, she still maintains good cheer. Moral cretins abound in her universe. But hers is a peculiar world, as one found out in the course of a discussion at the Jaipur Literature Week recently.

Ernest Hemingway, Sartre, Asma Jehangir and Mukhtar Mai occupy the same mindscape. And young Fatima, smart enough to be a politician, and wise enough to stay away from the crucible that took the lives of three of her family members — grandfather Zulfiqar, father Murtaza, and most recently aunt Benazir — would rather talk about her work, how she has been saved from great tragedies by a divine hand — she was in the U.S. on 9/11, in London on 7/7 — and the like. Yet her life has followed a tragic trajectory.
Sorrow and creativity

Angst and sorrow have stirred her creative juices: her poetry and the book on the Kashmir earthquake have both stemmed from sad events. Is it essential for a writer to experience the adversities of life rather than having only good things happening to her?

“I think what is essential for a writer is a strong and sensitive imagination. Certainly tragedies can enhance a writer’s creativity and ability to empathise, but it’s not essential. I think imagination and that ability to empathise are keys for creativity.”

Simply put. Just like her writing that has a simplicity, which makes it more identifiable to the common reader. Did her father specifically groom her to write simply in an age when children tend to flaunt their vocabulary? “I was raised to speak openly and honestly. I think that moved into my writing. When you write what is true to you and what is earnest, you write in a manner that people can identify with, whether they agree with you or not. I do have to thank my parents for instilling this in me, but as I started writing I found that when I wrote that way I loved the process of creating. It felt most natural.”

This “natural” writer started early, real early. She was just 15 when her first collection of poems was published. “I started writing for a school project. I have always enjoyed writing and my father wanted me to be a writer. After reading my poems, he made me write a covering letter and send it to publishers. He had sent the poems to the publisher with his signature the night before he was killed. He had even named the book, Whispers of the Desert. I asked him, why ‘desert’? He said, ‘Well, because you hail from a desert, Sindh’. After he was killed, I kept writing in his memory.”

Ask her to describe the poems in her book brought out by OUP in 1997, she simply says, “They reflect my relationship with my father. They are about loss, emptiness….”

Her speech still retains the memories of her father’s death. “He returned from Damascus in 1993. He won an election in exile. We campaigned for him. In 1996 Dad was killed, he was shot at point blank range. He was hit on the jaw, bled on the street for 45 minutes. The cops responsible for the investigation, and later trial, got double/triple promotions. One went on to head the commission on women.”

Her second book was about the earthquake victims, particularly children orphaned by the earthquake in Kashmir. “We had never had anything of that magnitude in our country. There were 80,000 deaths and an entire generation of children was lost because they were in school. I wanted to do something. People were living in tents even months after the tragedy. I did not want to send blankets and the like, as relief was pouring in from all quarters. We gave blood, medicines but I wanted to do something more lasting.

“I went to Balakot and other places. I went to hospitals where the affected were being treated. I met girls who wanted to be doctors. My mom went to a girl called Afira Zara Naaz. She had been amputated. She wanted to be a doctor too. She was a survivor. I said if kids want to write their stories, I will help them publish. I had almost forgotten about that when two weeks later, to my surprise I got an envelope with their stories. We published a book, 8.50 am, 8 October, 2005. The proceeds went to a charity.”

Natural too, that being a young woman with a mind of her own, she would write about women as well. As she has about Iran, where her work has been a bit of an eye-opener. Incidentally, Iranian women, according to her, have found their own niche, taken strides in the field of education. All in their hijab during the Islamic Revolution.
Women in Pakistan

But the situation in her own country, despite a brave unlettered woman like Mukhtar Mai, and even more intrepid Asma Jehangir, is far less impressive. They are not quite symbols of liberation yet. She agrees, “We are not yet in the same position that Iran is in regard to women — and I’m sure people will find that strange if they’ve never been to Iran and seen first hand the courage and strength that is the Iranian woman. But we have strong women role models. Fatima Jinnah was a political and public woman decades before her time. Asma Jehangir is another role model in terms of activism, and Mukhtar Mai is a brave symbol of dignity and struggle.”

Talking of struggle, her life has been one too. “I was brought up in Damascus. There was a military coup in 1977 by Gen. Zia ul Haq unseating my grandfather’s democratically elected Government. My father moved to Syria, raised me as a single parent. I got my own space to grow up there. I had a modest upbringing, doing my own laundry and the like. I had to learn, work, earn. Back in Pakistan I was like an outsider looking in. Pakistan was a dream, nostalgia, folk songs, ice-creams. I went to Karachi, Larkana… These were mythical things that only existed in my mind until then. I went to my grandfather’s grave too. I felt tall.”

So much for a girl looking for her roots! Soon the writer in her takes over as she describes her ancestral place. “Larkana is very close to Mohenjo Daro. A city of four million people, it is located in Sindh. Here rickshaws and cars compete for the same space. My house is an old haveli-like structure with a zenana and mardana — sections for ladies and men. Initially, it was frightening. There were people everywhere in the city. But once there I realised people were interested in my last name. In Damascus I was an individual. Here I was a Bhutto.”

Back in Pakistan, she discovered “feudalism is an attitude, not a lifestyle”. It is an attitude that does not suit her. “I don’t believe in birthright politics. I have lost too much in politics. My dad was 42 when he went away, my uncle 26, my grandfather 50… Benazir lived the longest at 54.

“I don’t have to be in dynasty politics to make a mark… my name does not prevent me or take me forward. Certain things I can say as a writer that I cannot as a politician. For instance, I can say that Mukhtar Mai changed the culture of silence. She is an illiterate woman who was punished for raising her voice after a gang-rape. But she stood up, and has now built a school for girls from the money that poured in for her… By writing we chronicle the injustices of our times."

Fair enough. But isn’t it a tool she has used with adeptness in her regular writing when talking of her father’s political adversary, her aunt, Benazir Bhutto, whom she calls “Wadi Bua”?
Memories of Benazir

“I don’t believe in dynasty. I don’t regret what I wrote about Benazir. It was never personal. It was political. People wrote to me in response to my articles, saying ‘Shame on you…your grandfather won’t have approved of it.’ I write what I believe in. My earliest memories of Benazir are very beautiful. I had great affection for her when I was very young. I loved her. A little later, I respected her for the fight she showed in the mid-1980s. She was struggling, fighting the State, the system, the dictatorship. But, with her, there was always that element of looking back to look forward.

“I regret she is not there anymore. If she were, she would have given me more ammunition. However, the manner of her violent death has to be stopped. If we have to foster democracy, violence has to be stopped. Politics in many places is like family business. Power does not change hands in my country. For instance, I have been told in Pakistan, 20 political families monopolise politics, 20 families monopolise the economy.”

So, what is the way out? “Spread power, make those in power accountable. And I am a great believer in people. They have to build bridges. Governments will do what they do. As citizens of India and Pakistan, we are like twins. We are like siblings who occasionally fight but still remain siblings. People want buses, trains, peace. It does not pay to wonder what would have been the condition of the subcontinent if there were no Partition. I would say, there would have been no Faiz without Pakistan!”

But isn’t she limiting the prospects of peace by writing in English alone? “I write in English but I am published in Urdu as well,” she says, adding, “I speak Arabic fluently. My Urdu is good, I know a bit of French, even a smattering of Sindhi.”

Is the purity of English being compromised in Pakistan too? “To a lesser extent I think it happens here. But rather, it’s the purity of Urdu and other vernacular languages that is most compromised here as everything has become Anglicised and made ‘foreign’. We don’t use our language as a primary one, it’s become secondary to English. That’s a great tragedy for such a beautiful language.”

Having lived in Syria, the U.S., the U.K. and, of course, in Pakistan, does she feel like a citizen of the world? “I am a proud Pakistani. I would like to remain in Pakistan,” is all she offers. Politician? Maybe. A young writer at ease with words? Certainly.

A family in politics
Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto (born on January 5, 1928) was the founder of Pakistan’s People’s Party and the President of Pakistan from 1971 to 1973. Deposed by a military coup he was executed on April 4, 1979 after a controversial trial for authorising the murder of a political opponent.

Benazir Bhutto (born on June 21, 1953) was the first woman to head a Muslim-majority state. She was elected as Prime Minister twice in 1988 and in 1993 but removed from office on corruption charges. She was killed at a rally in Rawalpindi on December 27, 2007.

Mir Murtaza Bhutto (born on September 18, 1954) won a seat as an independent in the 1993 elections. In 1995, he led a breakway faction of the ruling Pakistan People’ Party. He was killed in an encounter with the police on September 20, 1996.

Shahnawaz Bhutto (born in 1958) was in Switzerland when his father was executed. He was believed to have links with Al-Zulfikar, a group dedicated to overthrowing Gen. Zia’s regime. He was found dead on July 18, 1985 at his home in Nice, France.