Riveting, Engaging and Personal
By Michael Ronald
*** – A Must Read For History Buffs
As the Gandhi family took hold of national politics in India, the Bhuttos were Pakistan’s equivalent of a political dynasty. Brought to the forefront by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the one time Foreign Minister, Prime Minister and President, the Bhutto clan has captured the imagination of many Pakistanis and neutrals all over the world. Leaving behind a legacy partially marred by assassinations, corruption and a nuclear programme which leaves South Asia in a tenuous position 4 decades later, the Bhuttos have been comprehensively and painstakingly portrayed by Fathima Bhutto, the only daughter of Murtaza Ali Bhutto, son of Zulfikar and brother to Benazir Bhutto.
Few countries have gone through as tumultuous a period as Pakistan post independence. With an overweening military, dwindling resources, a sullen, oppressed population and a gross disparity of wealth, Pakistan has suffered at the hands of it’s most trusted servants – their Armed Forces. Military rule is a sad inevitability in Pakistan with military coups occurring at an average of one a decade. The history of the Bhutto family and their contribution to both the malaise within Pakistan and the struggles of the common people are expertly and personally detailed by Fathima Bhutto.
The book is covered from the perspective of Fathima Bhutto, niece to Benazir Bhutto and granddaughter of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. She paints a vivid description of the celebrated president of Pakistan, a flawed and ruthless individual, who nonetheless, had an undeniable love for his country. Her anecdotes of Zulfikar’s behaviour, personality, jokes and political stratagems paint an alluring picture of a man credited by many as being the driving force behind the 1973 Constitution of Pakistan.
Similarly, Fathima tries to put aside her antipathy towards her aunt, the controversial Benazir Bhutto with some success. Depicting her as a murky, corrupt individual who disregarded Zulfikar’s legacy, Fathima goes even further to accuse (albeit vaguely) Benazir of orchestrating her father’s – Benazir’s brother, Murtaza, murder. She reserves particular ire for Benazir’s husband, the untrustworthy, underachieving Asif Ali Zardari, nicknaming him Mr. Ten Percent, for his practice of taking a cut or kickback out of every major business transaction in Pakistan.
Benazir’s legacy has long been tainted by accusations of illegal wealth accumulation and convictions of corruption. Fatima has described Benazir, rather unflatteringly, as a political vulture who never had much conviction in herself and who rested upon her father’s laurels.
Through Fatima’s admiration and dislike for her family members, she paints an engaging portrayal of her life through the upheaval of the aftermath of Zulfikar’s arrest and execution by Zia-Ul-Haq. She travelled the world with her father, almost a fugitive, as they were effectively ‘stateless’ while they tried to drum up opposition to Zia’s regime in Pakistan. Her picturesque depictions of the countries they travelled to, including Syria, Lebanon and Libya are both moving and graphic, with the reader being transported to these countries in a whiff.
Fatima also witnessed many meetings with noted heads of state, including Gaddafi, Yasser Arafat, Idi Amin Dada amongst others. Her vibrant recollections of intimate dinner conversations, political arguments and their personal lives are both witty and entertaining and provide a welcome respite to the book’s overall sober detailing of facts and history.
The book is guilty of being over simplified, with the characterisations of Benazir and other members of the Bhutto family tainted with familial prejudice. As families are complicated and the emotion they invoke excessively personal, there is bound to be over-dramatisation and embroidered imagination. ‘Songs Of Blood And Sword’ is essentially the personal diary of a member of one of the world’s most famous families, with all the impetuosity and precociousness expected of an entitled person born to a legacy.