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On Victoria Schofield's book on Benazir Bhutto

The Bhuttos and tragedy share a grave. They are like the Kennedys and the Nehruvian Gandhis - privileged families who invoke (to borrow Homer’s thoughts) ‘the envy of the gods’; their mortal appeal lies in that ‘they are doomed’.

That sense of genetic foreboding permeates the pages of Victoria Schofield’s touching memoir of her long friendship with the late Benazir Bhutto - The Fragrance of Tears (OUP Karachi, 2021).  It began when they were both Freshers at Oxford University in October 1974 and ended thirty-three years later with the assassination of Benazir in December 2007.

A telling image Ms Schofield includes in her book shows Benazir and Rajiv Gandhi together in December 1988, taken during Gandhi’s official visit to Islamabad. Both third-generation scions of political dynasties and by then both prime ministers of their respective countries, they smile at the cameras, exuding a naïve expectation of Indo-Pak amity that all too soon invoked the envy of lesser gods.

That Zulfikar Ali Bhutto emulated in many ways Jawaharlal Nehru’s example is well-known. Nehru saw Indira Gandhi as his political successor; Bhutto regarded Benazir as his. They groomed their daughters to battle in a masculine world. Each woman in time became a Joan of Arc, fighting to recover her country from occupying forces - in Mrs Gandhi’s case, obscurantism within India’s political space, and in Ms Bhutto’s the presence of the military within Pakistan’s democratic boundaries. In the end, like Joan of Arc, they were made to pay with their blood for their spirited nationalism.

During their lifetimes, jail became an annexe to the family home. Oriana Fallaci, in her book Interview with History (1976) quotes a story of the young Indira Gandhi opening the door to visitors, saying: ‘I’m sorry, there’s no-one at home. My father, mother, grandfather, grandmother, and aunt are all in prison.’ For Benazir Bhutto, prison was home, and home too often a sub-jail.

She witnessed her father’s inhuman incarceration, suffered unconscionable solitary confinement herself, and then was forced to share half her married life to Asif Ali Zardari with his jailers. It was a price few politicians would be prepared to pay. Certainly, her opponent Mian Nawaz Sharif never did. His stint in Attock Fort in 1999 was made palatable by his wife Kulsum, who flew from Lahore to Islamabad every day with home-cooked delicacies.

The bond between Benazir and Victoria deepened during the experience they shared preparing Mr Bhutto’s appeal to the Supreme Court. Confined in a stuffy room in Flashman’s Hotel (Rawalpindi), they typed up a pamphlet - ‘Rumour and Reality’ - and later a 300-page rejoinder to General Ziaul Haq’s muscular White Paper about Mr Bhutto’s maladministration. Schofield recalls: ‘Benazir never learned to type properly and, after a few days, she had to put band-aids on all her fingers because they kept getting stuck between the keys and had started bleeding.’

Until Mr Bhutto’s hanging in April 1979, Ms Schofield’s Oxonian instincts refused to allow her to admit the inevitability of Bhutto’s judicial murder. She did not believe that Pakistan would hang its own prime minister. She had forgotten perhaps that a British regicide Oliver Cromwell, 330 years earlier in 1649, had beheaded an anointed king.  An eyewitness recorded that the crowd let out ‘such a groan [...] as I never heard before and I desire I may never hear again.’

According to Schofield who later wrote an authoritative account Bhutto: Trial and Execution (1979), that April morning in 1979 the PPP hierarchy was less moved. The demonstration called by them was soon dispersed by the authorities. PPP supporters - even women like Yasmin Niazi Islam - were arrested. Correspondents from The Daily Telegraph and The Guardian searched for Mr Mumtaz Ali Bhutto and Abdul Hafeez Pirzada and found them having lunch, ‘their desertion of the crowd unexplained.’
At the time, Ms Schofield’s book on Bhutto’s trial was dismissed as  fawning ‘hagiography’. Another reviewer commented: ‘She is biased, of course, but no more so than the judges who tried him.’

Since then, some judges who sat on that infamous bench have recanted, fulfilling the prophecy of an eye-witness Robert Badinter (later France’s Justice Minister): ’History will judge the judges.’

Benazir did not live long enough to see her son Bilawal graduate from her alma mater Oxford, nor her daughter Bakhtawar marry. In her will, she named her husband Asif Ali Zardari as her political heir. His instincts proved sounder than hers. In his full-term elected presidency, he applied her advice that ‘democracy is the best revenge’. He continues to dance the civil-military tango without stepping on any boots.

Schofield quotes Benazir telling her: ‘I did not choose this life. It chose me.’  Benazir could not have chosen anyone better to write an epitaph than her friend Victoria Schofield.



[DAWN, 15 April 2021]

15 April 2021
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