Part of what captivates about Fatima Bhutto's memoir Songs of Blood and Sword is her portrait of her father, Murtaza Bhutto. Murtaza was the oldest son of the President and former Prime minister of Pakistan Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and a formidable political activist in his own right, who, after the execution of his father by General Zia, led the resistance to the Zia's rule from abroad, first in Afghanistan, then in Syria. When he ultimately returned to Pakistan and became a member of parliament, he was a tough critic of the cronyism and corruption of his sister, Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. Songs of Blood and Sword vividly captures the high politics of both the Bhutto family and the era but it is Fatima's quest to uncover the mystery of her father's life and death that is the heart of her book.
Reading Songs of Blood and Sword one realizes there was more to Murtaza than just a father; he was a best friend to her, a mischievous co-conspirator. One of the riches of this book are small but delightful vignettes where she recalls the diplomacies and negotiations between parent and child. There's one awfully poignant moment when a nine-year-old Fatima rages at him when he dumks her in a hotel swimming pool — this was a prank he seemed to delight in doing — and says that he can never do that to her, ever again. Under protest she relents and says he can only do it again when she is fourteen. She recounts:
Papa's laughter petered out and he surprised me by saying, somewhat softly, "But Fatushki, what if I'm not alive then?:
I burst into floods of tears. Here I was trying to reach a compromise, banning pool dunkings till the reasonable age of fourteen and there was Papa talking about his death. I bawled and bawled. He sat me down on his lap, soaking wet and ruining his silk suit, hugging me and rocking me back and forth. He didn't take it back. He didn't say he was just kidding. He just wiped my eyes.
In between my tears, I shouted at my father. "Fourteen isn't far. Of course you'll be alive. You have to live till I'm a hundred." I wiped my nose on his shoulder. Papa kissed me and continued to rock me. "I hope so" He said.
Murtaza was murdered when Fatima was fourteen, outside her home in Clifton, Karachi, on September 20, 1996, in what was euphemistically called a "police encounter" during his sister's premiership, a murder that Songs and Blood and Sword goes to compelling and convincing length to argue that her aunt Benazir and her Uncle Asif Ali Zardari (now president of Pakistan) were involved in.
On father's day, we publish an except from Songs of Blood and Sword where Fatima recounts the pain and ordeal of having to visit her father in prison, when he was jailed by Benazir. Fatima was eleven.
Visiting Papa in Prison
By Fatima Bhutto
We made the trip to Landhi jail to see Papa once a week. I remember it being midweek, Wednesday or Thursday. It took us forty-five minutes to get to Landhi from our school, which was near Karachi's Jinnah Airport. Our visits began at 4 pm sharp, if we were held up in traffic or for some reason delayed, the time started without us. We couldn't have a minute longer than the forty-five given to us once a week.
During the first few trips, I'd ask, beg, for a few more minutes with Papa. He wouldn't ask. He knew that his warden, Durrani, who was kind and accommodating, would lose his job if it was discovered that he was treating Murtaza Bhutto too well. So I would ask. Could we have one more minute please? The warden would bow his head, unable to grant my request, and shake his face from side to side without looking at me. It wasn't his fault, I knew that, but I had to ask. What damage would an additional sixty seconds do? I remembered, in those minutes, those head shaking minutes, Wadi's [Benazir's] descriptions in her book of how she was torn from her father, from Zulfikar, when he was spending his last days in Rawalpindi Jail. Why didn't she remember that? I used to stay up late at night thinking, why was she punishing us the way she had been punished herself?
It bore away at my heart to have only forty-five minutes a week with my father. Mummy assures me we only had forty minutes a week with Papa, I don't remember. Five minutes extra seems generous to me now, three hundred glorious seconds, so I add them on. We couldn't speak on the telephone there were no mobile phones around then, and even if there had been, Papa would not have been allowed to keep one. I had grown up with my father being my sole property until the age of seven, I couldn't handle not sharing my day with him, not having him nearby to listen to jokes or check my homework. It was too much for the eleven-year-old me to handle.
So I wrote Papa a letter on my adolescent stationery, the kind printed on day-glo paper and covered with unicorns and rainbows. "For Papa: FOR YOUR EYES ONLY" I wrote on the envelope. I spent two pages wailing and moaning. It wasn't fair that Mummy got to see him in court when I was at school, I whinged. I offered, quite creatively, to miss school on the days when Papa had court appearances or Sindh Assembly meetings, which always met in the mornings and during the week. He wrote back and marked his own plain white envelope: "To Papy from Papa". The top right hand corner had PRIVATE AND CONFIDENTIAL underlined in all capitals and on the bottom left FOR YOUR EYES ONLY, also underlined.
"Dear Fatima (frustrated) Bhutto," he wrote, instantly making me laugh. My little darling, I read your letter and sympathize with your complaint. You have every right to see me and be with me as much as possible. And you know that nothing gives me greater pleasure than to see you, be next to you and to hold you in my arms. But, because I love you so much I want to make sure that you get your full education. You are a brilliant child and will one day become famous in your own right. But that won't be possible without a complete education. Grandpapa used to say that you can take everything away from a person homes, money, jewelry but you cannot take away what is in the mind. That is the safest treasure. If my court meets on Saturday then I would be more than happy if you came. When I am free from this jail where Wadi has put me then we will again be virtually inseparable. Until then, and forever, I love you and adore you more than you can imagine. Love Papa. P.S Papy, you know when you were much younger you already had a natural talent for poetry. I still have in Damascus one lovely (and funny) poem you wrote about Mummy about 2 or 3 years ago. And the poem you read me recently (during your last exclusive visit) was beautiful. Here is a small one on Wadi and Slippery Joe [Asif Zadari]:
Inky, Pinky, Ponky
Her husband is a donkey
Both loot the country
Her husband is a monkey
Inky, Pinky, Ponky"
From then on, buoyed by my father's letter and his efforts to make me laugh and look at the bright side of our strange life, I reconciled myself to counting the minutes until Papa was released from jail, but resolved to make the most of our miserly time together.
Soon, the jail visits became a normal part of our bizarre lives. We would always arrive full of jitters and sit in the empty cement room, which was unpainted and grim but at least cool in Karachi's repressive heat and open the tiffin boxes we'd packed with food to share with Papa. Mummy and Zulfi both ate earlier in the day, small meals so they'd have room for another later, but I'd starve in school so I could have lunch with Papa at 4 pm.
We sat on wooden chairs that would have seemed uncomfortable if we weren't so thrilled to be there and put the food and plates out on the rectangular table covered with a gingham plastic tablecloth, waiting anxiously to see Papa. Zulfi and I would stand at the window until we could make out Papa being escorted across the dusty prison yard at which point we'd bolt out of the room to run to him. The warden would always smile when he saw us and would pat Zulfi's head affectionately.
Zulfi would often sit on Papa's lap during our visits and would get his father's undivided attention whenever he spoke; he was going to be four years old and was already a chatty and clever young boy. Sometimes Papa would ask us to bring Kashmiri tea. He never drank tea or coffee, but he liked Kashmiri chai, a strange drink of coagulated pink tea, flavoured with spices and pistachios. I never cared for it much then, but I always had a cup. Now I can't drink it. It reminds me too much of those forty-five minutes.