Why did I choose this book to read and then write a review about? Because I’m unabashedly political. And because I wanted to understand the psyche of a country (read: Pakistan) which has been repeatedly accused of exporting terrorism across the world. Even as I post this, India, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, and Bhutan have pulled out of the SAARC Summit that was to be conducted in Islamabad, as a form of protest. I’m talking about Pakistan and its role in the recent Uri Attacks. For those of you who don’t know about it: here’s the story. And now, back to the book.
I’d recently read Fatima Bhutto’s Songs of Blood and Sword, and I really liked it. That’s it, though. Because, this book is very emotional, very political, and very biased. It’s a memoir, I know. But then, it’s a memoir of the daughter of Pakistan’s most powerful family: The Bhutto Family. And I guess I expected something else entirely, because what I’ve been given in this book is a glimpse of what shaped Pakistan’s current political scenario through the eyes of a young woman who practically lost half of her family in the violent adolescent stage of the nation.
Fatima Bhutto, as a person, is very intriguing. There’s this deep sadness in her eyes, that makes you want to hear her story. And in this book, she’s done precisely that. She’s given her story without mincing words. In her book, she recounts the history of her illustrated family, and challenges the legacy of her aunt Benazir Bhutto Zardari, the first Female PM of Pak.
And anyone who reads the book will understand that the person who Fatima is today, is shaped by her father and his death.
Fatima’s father, Murtaza Bhutto, was killed in a police encounter when she was only fourteen years old. And the worst part of it: his own sister (i.e her aunt) might have ordered his death.
Benazir (left) and Murtaza (centre) in happier times
To understand the tragedy that is the Bhutto family, one must go back to the time of Fatima’s grandfather and former Prime Minister of Pakistan, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. The first democratically elected PM of Pak, who was also sentenced to death by the Supreme Court of the same nation: Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.
In my opinion, that’s when the political scenario in Pak started going downhill. Zulfikar is practically hero-worshipped by Fatima throughout the book. She sings praises of his foreign policy (in my opinion, he’s got to be the last true Foreign Policy Minister Pak ever had, because if you look at the country now, you’ll realize that it has no Foreign Policy whatsoever). He was the one who tilted the nation in favor of China rather than USA, and that is a friendship that has stood the test of time. She writes about his vision for his nation and the love his people had for him.
But then she glosses over Zulfikar’s hand in the violence that erupted in Balochistan. For those of you who don’t know, Balochistan is a province in Pakistan and the people there are ethnic minorities who’ve been fighting for freedom from the country, as they believe that they’ve been unfairly annexed into Pakistan. Pakistan has often been accused of mass killings and human rights violations in the region.
She doesn’t really make an effort to show how much of a role he’d played during the time of Bangladesh’s liberation from Pakistan in 1973. Again, Bangladesh was a part of Pakistan that had ethnic community of Bengalis as a major part of its population. These Bengalis of Bangladesh felt that they were being sidelined by the Pak Govt. So, they started their own independence movement. After months of brutal violence which saw millions of Bangladeshis killed, women raped, people displaced, a decisive war saw to the independence of Bangladesh.
For the record, during the time of Pak’s formation, there was 23% minority population. Now, it’s only 6%.
The book’s central focus, however, is not her grandfather. It’s her father Murtaza. Charming, charismatic, soft-spoken, dynamic and heir to the legacy of his father, Murtaza is portrayed as a hero by his daughter. The book successfully traces the journey of the Bhutto children (there were four): two daughters, Benazir and Sanam, two sons, Murtaza and Shahnawaz.
From right to left: Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Nusrat Bhutto, Sanam Bhutto, Murtaza Bhutto, Benazir Bhutto, and Mir Shahwanaz Bhutto.
All four of them studied in the top universities of the world and enjoyed the best that life had to offer them. Until their father was jailed.
Then began the long fight for his release, and when that failed and Pakistan fell into the hands of the dictator General Zia-Ul-Haq, its future also changed drastically. Extremist Islamic propaganda reached its heights under his tenure, and I guess that is when Pakistan started its journey down the road today where it’s practically isolated by every country other than China.
After the dictator died in a mysterious plane crash, the Bhutto family returned home, sans Murtaza and Shahnawaz. Shahnawaz because he was dead due to poisoning; and Murtaza because his sister Benazir didn’t want him to return.
Benazir goes on to become the Prime Minister, a post which Fatima feels should have been taken by her father. This is where the ugly head of patriarch-ism rears its head. But then, its also evident that Benazir anf Fatima shared a level of intimacy. Fatima chaperoned Benazir during her date with her future husband Asif Ali Zardari. And several times she mentions how much she misses the wonderful and loving woman that her aunt used to be before the struggle for power alienated her.
This part intrigues me the most because I’m a millennial who has no experience of having read about Benazir while she was alive and in power. What I did read about her was from the Nobel Laureate Malala Yousufzai’s autobiography, and the news articles that appeared about Benazir when she was assassinated.
Both these sources painted Benazir as a paragon of virtue, as the change that Pakistan desperately needed. So what I read from her niece’s account was, honestly, a shock to my system. A little more research revealed that eminent historians like William Darlymple too agree with her.
Benazir’s legacy is definitely questionable. Because she evidently sidelined passionate workers, and instead gave important Election seats to the wealthy and corrupt elite. Her husband, Asif Ali Zardari (who assumed the role of Prime Minister after her assassination), was accused of corruption several times, but was never brought to book.
When one looks at it like this, Benazir may have harmed the democratic structure of Pakistan more than anybody else. Maybe not as much as General Zia, who introduced hardline Islamism to the nation, but definitely she altered the way politics played in Pakistan permanently.
And this is where Murtaza’s story becomes even more tragic. Fatima shows him as the one who could have changed Pakistan’s destiny itself. She shows, how, by refusing Murtaza’s repeated requests to return back to Pakistan from exile, Benazir has inadvertently harmed the nation.
Fatima (aged 7), with grandmother Nusrat and father Murtaza
Fatima plays into the patriarchal nature of Pakistan by practically declaring Murtaza as the “Chosen One”, the torch-bearer of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s (who’d become a legend by then) legacy. Her blatant suspicion towards Benazir and her husband is basically screaming out at the reader. Finger-pointing aside, she essentially portrays how the children of the male members of the Bhutto family have been mistreated.
Is it just that, then: a biased memoir? No.
Because women shine in this book. Fatima’s grandmother Nusrat Bhutto is shown as a strong woman who stood her ground and tied the family together even as her husband headed to the gallows. The book highlights the warm bond that Fatima has formed with her step-mother Ghinwa, and the way Ghinwa chose to continue her husband’s fight even after his assassination. The women in the Bhutto family are resilient, and are way too familiar with the violence to which the family loses a member to in every decade.
Fatima with step-mother Ghinwa, and step-brother Zulfikar Ali Bhutto Jr.
Fatima rues the way in which a non-family member like Zardari (Benazir’s husband) has usurped the family legacy to play sympathy politics and gain votes from people who have supported the family since long. She also points out the fact that Zardari has had his three children’s surnames officially changed from Zardari to Bhutto.
A very valid observation, in my opinion.
Inspite of all the shortcomings, Fatima’s Songs of Blood and Sword manages to rise above it all and stand as a chronicle of Pakistan’s most respected, most political, most powerful and most tragic family, where the quest for power saw the downfall of its most prominent members.
And in this chaos, Murtaza rises as the symbol of what Pakistan could have been but lost due to one misfortune after another: a democratic, developing, secular country. Not the impoverished exporter of Islamic terror that it is now.