May Issue 2015
Book Review: Benazir Bhutto, A Multidimensional portrait
It was the story of ‘Shalimar’ that puzzled Russian scholar Anna Suvorova for a long time during her wanderings around the life and times of Benazir Bhutto. And in case you’re making historical connections in your mind, it is not about the Mughal gardens in Lahore. This Shalimar, the ingenious creation of the French perfumer Jacques Guerlain, “is a sensual, spicy, and purely feminine perfume, with no male equivalent.” So why did Zulfikar Ali Bhutto love to wear it?
Anna quotes from Benazir’s autobiography to recall that after her father’s execution, Benazir was given his personal belongings. His shirt still had the fragrance of ZAB’s favourite cologne, Shalimar. Benazir recounts how she “tried to keep my father near me by sleeping with his shirt under my pillow.”
Now, take this as a measure of Anna’s painstaking investigations that she has located this apparently trivial detail about a perfume as a part of the Bhutto family myth. She mentions that “in the memoirs of Benazir’s niece Fatima, her assassinated father’s memory also has the scent of ‘Shalimar,’ which hardly fits such an aggressively macho personality as Mir Murtaza Bhutto.”
I may be expected to clarify how Anna resolved this riddle of why ZAB, “a dandy and bon vivant who lived in Europe for a long time,” loved this perfume when he must surely have known it was a fragrance for women. It was a Pakistani friend of Anna’s who supposedly solved it by explaining that men in Pakistan sometimes use their wives’ eau de toilette. “So ‘Shalimar’ was most likely Nusrat’s choice.”
This is just one of the many little pieces with which Anna has crafted the Benazir mosaic. Her subtitle says it all: ‘A Multidimensional Portrait.’ Hence, it is a biography with some unusual features. While the focus is meant to stay on a life that will remain the stuff of legend, Anna has sought to explore the entire scene around that life. At the same time she begins with an acknowledgement that “this book does not aim to say anything new or sensational about Benazir Bhutto.” It is born of Anna’s reading of Benazir’s books, articles and speeches “which sometimes uncovers unexpected aspects of her motives and behaviour.”
The idea, then, is to uncover Benazir’s mystery by attentively reading her own words, “leading to an inter-textuality between her writings and mine in the post-modern sense of the term.” Without making an attempt to interpret this assertion in an academic context, I can only attest to a new way of looking at a major historical figure of our times. The material that has been collected in this relatively short volume — around 300 pages — has extremely diverse sources. At times, the story is embellished with relevant rumours and gossip.
There are some engaging asides. Mohammad Ali Jinnah’s wedding extends to about five pages. An account of Lady Margaret Hall of Oxford University, where Benazir studied for three years, is very extensive. There is a mention of Ghinwa spreading rumours that “Benazir had originally intended to marry Yasser Arafat, who was her father’s age.” There is a Nusrat Bhutto quote about Benazir from a newspaper interview given after Murtaza was arrested and relations between mother and daughter were spoiled: “She tells a lot of lies, this daughter of mine… She talks a lot about democracy, but she’s become a little dictator… I can’t forgive her… Somehow she has gotten paranoiac about her brother.”
There is a reason why I picked this book with some anticipation. I had already read Anna Suvorova’s heartfelt tribute to Lahore. It also had a subtitle with a touch of mystery about it: ‘Topophilia of Space and Place.’ I was not familiar with the term ‘topophilia,’ and this exactly is the subject of the first chapter.
This would legitimately be considered a diversion, but I am dealing with it to partly underline my suggestion that Anna has credentials that lend a certain freshness and ingenuity to her observations. We have to bear in mind that she is a specialist in Islam in the Indian subcontinent and classical Urdu literature. She has studied Indian and Pakistani theatre and representative arts and has headed the Department of Asian Literature at the Institute of Oriental Studies in Moscow. She has translated many works of Urdu prose into Russian.
Since I have cited the term, here is Anna’s description: “The term ‘topophilia,’ which literally means ‘love of place,’ is extremely rich in semantic meaning and is widely used in contemporary philosophy, psychology, sociology, and cultural studies, although it arose in the field of humanistic geography — an authoritative discipline at the junction of geography and other humanities and social sciences.”
This rather extensive insertion is meant only to highlight Anna’s incomparable comprehension of our social, political and historical setting as well as her academic stature. Still, her portrait of Benazir is more impressionistic than exhaustive. It does not delve into the deeper reaches of Benazir’s life and political performance. What is remarkable about it is that it brings together so many relevant anecdotes from a vast perspective. This makes the book very readable, providing some surprising details that have a bearing on Benazir’s life.
In 10 chapters, Anna has projected what she calls “an anthropological portrait.” Like the book on Lahore, Anna wrote this portrait of Benazir first in Russian, specifically for the Russian reader. That is why it includes so much background material about Pakistan and its society. Its success led Anna to conclude that “my image of Benazir Bhutto that emerges at the intersection of history, culture, and myth-making differs from the images that I have seen in books by Pakistani and western authors.”
In the first chapter titled ‘Women and Power,’ we have a brief history of the rise of a woman to power in a number of Asian countries. We then move to Sindh and the history of the Bhutto family in ‘Heiress to a Glorious Clan.’ And then, we have an insightful analysis of what it means to be a woman in Pakistan, covering honour killings and other primitive traditions. As in other chapters, Anna has collected a wide range of interesting and often surprising references and tales to brighten her narrative.
Talking about women in Pakistan, she is able to recall Hina Rabbani-Khar’s extremely expensive Hermes bag which she took along on her official visit to India as Pakistan’s Foreign Minister, and how it evoked a wave of indignant reaction in the media. But Anna does not forget that “this wonderful female success story has a ‘skeleton in the closet.’” We are reminded that Hina’s cousin Bilal, son of former Punjab Governor Mustafa Khar, had splashed acid on his wife Fakhra Younus for her attempt to divorce him. And yes, there is a reference to Tehmina Durrani’s autobiographical account, My Feudal Lord.
Anna has been candid in exploring the myths and facts in Benazir’s life and how she — Benazir — had presented it. “Benazir could distort historical facts to support her father’s policies.” Giving the example of ZAB’s fatal mistake of appointing Zia-ul-Haq as the army chief, Anna writes that this “was wholly in keeping with the family tradition of overestimating one’s forces and underestimating the possibilities of one’s opponents.”
Perhaps the most illuminating and informative chapter in the book is ‘Sibling Position,’ suggesting that many of Benazir’s personality traits and actions were determined by the fact that she was the oldest of the four children of the family. Austrian psychologist and philosopher Alfred Adler is extensively invoked. Mir Murtaza’s hatred towards Asif Ali Zardari, his brother-in-law, is also attributed to his sibling position.
I am tempted to quote numerous anecdotes that relate to the main characters in Benazir’s life. But in the end, we have the tragic visage of a brave hero who, in Anna’s words, “struggled against the prejudices of patriarchal society, predominant male sexism in religion and politics, discrimination against women, and Islamic extremism and fanaticism.” The last chapter is aptly titled: ‘The Story Ends; Begins the Legend.’
This review was originally published in Newsline’s May 2015 issue under the headline “Myth and Reality”.
Ghazi Salahuddin is a respected senior journalist in Pakistan. He currently works with the daily The News and the Geo television network.