Fatima Bhutto’s new book examines the culture of assassination and the dangers of state power. Raghu Karnad wonders why it’s an uncomfortable read
It’s not often that interviews begin by asking about the likely martyrdom of the interviewee, but with Fatima Bhutto, the question seems irresistible. In her most publicised recent interview, Indian TV journalist Barkha Dutt broke the ice by asking whether ‘an inevitable destructive end [was] written into’ Bhutto’s destiny (Bhutto answered no). But it isn’t the fault of a ghoulish streak in journalism, or even the unsubtle cover design of her new book, Songs of Blood and Sword, super-titled with a list of murdered family members in crimson. Bhutto is the most sympathetic voice addressing Pakistan’s culture of assassination, and it’s easy to imagine premature death as her birthright.
Songs retells the lives of her grandfather and former prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto (executed in 1979), her dissident uncle Shahnawaz (assassinated in 1985) and then mainly her father Mir Murtaza (assassinated in 1996). It concludes after the assassination of her aunt Benazir in 2007. The rest of the book is a memoir, not a memento mori, and in it 28-year-old Bhutto’s searing concern is not the superstitious doom of a family, but the all-too-natural danger of state power.
‘I always say that in the period in which my father was killed, some 3,000 men were killed in Karachi,’ Bhutto says. ‘It was happening on an almost daily basis. As with the other cases in my family, it goes back to power, to the lack of access to justice.’
A personal history so full of bloodshed as Bhutto’s was always going to make a book, but the success of Songs is the way it drives up the story, at every chance, from a personal to a national situation. You might expect in Bhutto a daughter of trauma with open wounds. But she says her ability to write Songs in the way she did is a mark of her own recovery (in comparison her poetry, published in her mid-teens, now seems ‘the work of a very frightened young person’).
We ask about her interviews with the families of other murdered men. ‘It was enormously difficult,’ she says. ‘It doesn’t make it easier knowing that other people have experienced violence like this too. It’s overwhelming, to know that it is more normal than it is abnormal.’ An especially difficult meeting was with the family of murdered Justice Nizam Ahmed. ‘I knew that his family blamed [current president Asif Ali] Zardari. But I didn’t know that Justice Nizam’s son was killed with him. Even for me, especially when you’re surrounded by violence, it’s easier to just close your eyes.’ She understands that this is what most Pakistanis (and not just Pakistanis) want to do.
In the deluge of media exposure since the release of Songs, a rhythm has formed in Bhutto’s interviews. A journalist asks about personal fears, she responds about political fears; the journalist presses her on the truth of Zardari’s involvement, she goes off on the truth about state violence. Before the end, she is talking about evictions and low-cost housing.
Amid this storm, it’s unsurprising how little we’re aware of her earlier book, about the forgotten victims of the 2005 earthquake, or her next one, about the changing face of Karachi. ‘People say, “Oh, do you have to talk about the drones all the time? Why don’t you talk about nice things?”,’ Bhutto says. Maybe we’d prefer her to play the victim of power rather than its critic, because then the story starts to involve us. Songs of Blood and Sword is published by Penguin Viking