Daughter of the East
Political autobiography, as a genre, tends to produce tiresome, self-serving, ghost-written works. But once in a while a book stands out; not necessarily because it is better written than the usual stuff, but because it is the closest thing we have to classic mythology. The message is moral; the characters stand for Good and Evil; the story is a variation of the quest for a holy grail, involving not just hardship—“tests”—but exile of one kind or another. The authorship is often anonymous—ghostwriters seldom reveal their names.
When the heroes and villains come from countries where pure myths still cast their spells, where, as a Pakistani politician recently put it to me, “words have magic,” these political fairy tales follow the traditional patterns more closely than in the modern West, where the drama tends to get lost in media buzzwords, earnest political analysis, academic jargon, or a ghastly combination of all three. Besides, the complexity of modern life leaves little room for mythical feats of heroism. Good and evil are not so clear-cut. Our politics, as puritans of all persuasions keep telling us, has lost its moral dimension.
We can be just as much enchanted by myths of course, and sometimes something approaching classic myth will occur: Winston Churchill emerging from “his years in the wilderness” (exile) to save the world from evil dragons in the name of freedom and democracy (the grail). But this could only happen in a war, and Churchill was rather exceptional in that he was the greatest narrator of his own myth—no ghostwriters for him. Today’s great leaders, the Iron Lady, the Gipper, even Gorby, might aspire to mythical status, but cannot really pull it off convincingly.
No, for the truly inspiring tales we must turn to that mythical land called The Third World. That is where we can escape from not so much the decadence as the banality of Western life, and be enchanted once again, like children, our disbelief suspended. More than that, in the third world we can retrieve the pure moral order that we feel is lost to us in the West. The story of Cory Aquino—already made into a TV miniseries, by Australians I believe—was perfect: she, a religious paragon of modesty and virtue, her opponents, symbols of villainy and greed. How enchanting it must have been in 1986 for American senators and congressmen to take a break from their daily affairs and don yellow ribbons for St. Cory of Manila.
Kim Dae Jung tried his hardest to be a mythical hero, and many Western reporters did their best to help him, but he never quite made the grade. His story had all the makings of the real thing: evil generals, exile, heroic hardship, the quest for freedom…. But then something went wrong: Kim suddenly appeared less heroic, more like his opponents, aggressive, intransigent, hungry for power. Perhaps South Korea is too prosperous now, not third world enough, in a word, too modern for fairy tales.
Pakistan, on the other hand, is about as third world as you can get, and the story of Benazir Bhutto’s quest to avenge her father’s death at the hand of the wicked General Zia ul-Haq fits all the requirements of the classic myth. Her book, clearly written to enchant Western readers, does not disappoint. The heroes are saintly, the villains drip with poison. There is excruciating hardship; there are years of exile; there is the wonderful combination of Western high life and ancient Oriental culture (at one point in the story, our heroine is “enthused with a sense of Asian identity”); and, finally, there is victory, made all the sweeter for the difficulties of the quest.
Miss Bhutto’s prose, though satisfyingly breathless and emotional in parts, shows the dead hand of the ghost in others. Those interested in the true language of myths should turn to a collection of Benazir’s speeches, interviews, and assorted public utterances, aimed at her domestic supporters, entitled The Way Out.1 There we find the “clarion calls,” the “night of the tyrant,” the “streets painted in blood.” To quote one typical clarion call:
We must face the oppressor, the Tyrant, the Usurper, the unjust in whatever fashion or manner he manifests himself. The martyr is the life of history and history is woven of the threads of revolution….
But how fragile it is. How easily it is crushed. How easily the crystal that dazzled the rainbow color in the morning light vanishes.
The martyr is of course Benazir’s father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who was hanged for murder in 1979, on orders of General Zia, who had ousted Bhutto two years before in a military coup. But that is getting ahead of the story. Let us begin at the beginning.
Benazir Bhutto was born in 1953 in Karachi, “my skin evidently so rosy that I was immediately nicknamed ‘Pinkie.”’ Very soon Pinkie began to lead what can only be called a bicultural life. There was Miss Bhutto, educated in English, first at Lady Jennings’s nursery school and later by Irish nuns at the Convent of Jesus and Mary. The older students were divided into houses with such inspirational names as “Discipline,” “Courtesy,” “Endeavour,” and “Service.” This was the same Miss Bhutto who later went to Radcliffe, where she savored the delights of peppermint ice cream, apple cider, Joan Baez, and peace marches. It was also the Miss Bhutto who moved on to Oxford, her father’s alma mater, where she drove a sports car, sharpened her wit at the Oxford Union, and was squired around town by dashing young men in velvet jackets. Let us, for the sake of simplicity, call this stylish young woman the Radcliffe Benazir.
There is another Miss Bhutto, however, one who expresses herself better in the mythical language of The Way Out. This is the Benazir, sitting adoringly at her father’s feet at the family estate in Larkana, listening to his tales of heroic ancestors, “directly traceable to the Muslim invasion of India in 712 AD.” One of these heroes, her great-grandfather, defied the British by taking an English lover. Rather than hand her back to the outraged officers of the raj, his retinue killed the woman. This, said the hero, was a matter of honor.
We might call this romantic lady the Larkana Benazir. She was the one who, as she writes in her autobiography, “loved hearing these family stories, as did my brothers Mir Murtaza and Shah Nawaz, who naturally identified with their namesakes. The adversities faced by our ancestors formed our own moral code, just as my father had intended. Loyalty. Honour. Principle.”
Here, clearly, is a family born to rule. The Bhuttos are landowning grandees, in the desertland of Sindh, a backward part of the subcontinent, a kind of sandy Sicily, where politics consist of murky family feuds. Benazir’s grandfather, Sir Shah Nawaz, founded the first political party in Sindh in the days of the British raj. He was, as his title suggests, a very grand personage indeed. Benazir tells us nothing much about her paternal grandmother, Sir Shah Nawaz’s second wife, for she, a humble Hindu from Bombay who converted to Islam just before her marriage, does not fit in so neatly into the illustrious family annals—something, by the way, which Z.A. Bhutto’s political opponents exploited in their campaigns against him: he was, they said, not a “real” Pakistani, but the son of an Indian, and a Hindu Indian to boot.
Just as there are two Benazirs (who sometimes get mixed up: only the Radcliffe Benazir could be “enthused” by her Asian identity), there are two Bhutto families: one is compared to the Kennedys; the blessed clan destined to deliver the people from poverty and oppression, but punished by political martyrdom. Like Kathleen Kennedy, “who had worn her father’s parka at Radcliffe long after the Senator had been killed,” Benazir “tried to keep my father near me by sleeping with his shirt under my pillow.” And then there is the family inspired by Muslim martyrdom. Benazir calls her father shaheed, a martyr for Islam. In The Way Out she finds the appropriate words:
The same dedicated workers whose courage is higher than the mountains and whose dedication is deeper than the oceans are even now ready to come forward and to sacrifice inspired by Shaheed Bhutto and in the manner of sacrifice known only to the political descendents of Muslim Martyrs.
It is sometimes tempting to sneer at the Radcliffe Benazir, shocked at army thugs “lolling on one of Mummy’s delicate blue and white brocade Louix XV chairs,” trying to act as the daughter of a Muslim martyr. So much about the Larkana Benazir smacks of kitsch; so much of the Radcliffe Benazir strikes one as half-backed. But to reconcile the two roles, or, indeed, to forgo the sports cars and May Balls and risks torture or death, took extraordinary courage. After her father’s execution in 1979, Ms. Bhutto spent much of the next five years under appalling conditions in Zia’s jails. And having braved the worst at the hands of a military dictator, her political success has given hope to millions. It all makes one feel a little churlish to challenge some of her more cherished myths. But, as Benazir herself remarks, when describing some fraud perpetrated by General Zia’s government, “what matters is the truth.” And the truth, however enchanting and moving Benazir’s own tale may be, is an elusive thing.
But let us return to the story. When Benazir was still with the Irish nuns, her father was foreign minister in the government of General Ayub Khan. In 1966 the general and Z.A. Bhutto parted ways, one year after India and Pakistan had fought over Kashmir. Bhutto thought Ayub Khan had been soft on the Indians. Benazir appears to agree: “During the peace negotiations held in the southern Russian city of Tashkent, President Ayub Khan lost everything we had gained on the battlefield.” But, according to Benazir, her father’s resignation was a matter of democratic principles: “After my father broke with Ayub Khan in 1966, the words ‘civil liberties’ and ‘democracy’ were the ones that came up most, words that were mythical to most Pakistanis.”
The general’s rule, in Benazir’s account, was marked by lawlessness, violence, corruption, and economic failure. Only Ayub’s “family and a handful of others had become rich.” But now, with Z.A. Bhutto on the loose, the first crusade for democracy, that mythical word, was about to begin. The first clarion call, so to speak, had sounded.
This is not entirely the way less partisan observers saw things. Shahid Javed Burki,2 for example, has some interesting things to say about the Ayub years. First of all, he argues, Ayub’s rule made far more people rich than his family and friends. Tax incentives and land reforms created a new middle class of small businessmen, entrepreneurs, and middle-sized farmers. The ones who suffered were big industrialists, unskilled urban workers, and the landed aristocracy. The aristocracy was Bhutto’s traditional constituency. The new middle class would turn against him, as did the industrialists when Bhutto nationalized their assets. This left him with the support of landowners and the urban poor, whose interests were by no means always identical.