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The Woman Who Wouldn’t Give Up

Fatima Bhutto on her first novel,learning to struggle in Pakistan and the cathartic effect of fiction.

Written by Paromita Chakrabarti |
November 10, 2013 5:20:40 am

Fatima Bhutto was seven when she first came to Pakistan to visit her dadi Nusrat Ispahani. As the car waiting for her moved out of Karachi’s Jinnah International Airport,the salty tang in the air assailed her senses. The sea was close by,she was told,and she waited impatiently for a glimpse of it. Later,as the car made its way through the busy thoroughfares,she was amazed at how sprawling the city was. She took in the palm trees,familiar to her from the ones back in Damascus,where she lived with her exiled father Murtaza and step-mother Ghinwa,except that these were coconut palms and not dates. She felt exhilarated,but not scared. But for the size of it,the city and the country didn’t seem all that foreign. “I already had my father’s memory of Pakistan with me. I was busy matching up what I saw with what he had told me,filing away the new things in my mind so I could go back to Damascus and tell him about them. It was quite a romantic homecoming,” says the 31-year-old.

It would take Pakistan’s ninth prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s grand-daughter many more years to look at her country differently,in the aftermath of her father’s assassination seven years later,in 1996,outside her family residence. “It wasn’t as if I was unaware of the violence that existed around me. We were constantly alert,moving at the first hint of danger. But in Pakistan,I learned how to struggle and I began to notice how other people struggle too,” she says,sitting in a small conference room in her publisher’s office in Delhi.

During her frequent journalistic excursions around the country,particularly to Afghan refugee camps in the semi-autonomous tribal areas of the trouble-ridden north Pakistan,she would be struck by the resilience of the people,especially of the women. There would be accounts that never fitted into the news reports she wrote,stories of fortitude,of quiet struggle,desperation and even of depravity. Stories that kept up a constant chatter in her mind. So while she worked on a memoir on her father (Songs of Blood and Sword),she found herself simultaneously writing about characters living in a small town in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa,not in the more familiar Peshawar,but in Mir Ali,a real town in Waziristan,that in Bhutto’s account becomes a fictitious amalgam of the tribal north. “Most Pakistanis thought of Mir Ali with the same hostility they reserve for India or Bangladesh; insiders — traitors — who fought their way out of the body and somehow made it on their own without the glory of the crescent moon and star shining overhead,” she writes in The Shadow of the Crescent Moon (Penguin),her first novel,that was released last month. In it,Bhutto tells the story of three brothers and the two women close to them through the course of a morning,a bitter tale of betrayal,discrimination and oppression and a war that has no closure because there are just too many sides to it — the Taliban,the army,the religious sects of Sunnis and Shias and the people of the land. “The north is one of the most beautiful parts of Pakistan,but that’s lost now to drone attacks and military action. I wanted to speak of the region through its people who have to learn how to survive afresh with each new assault,” she says.

It’s a bleak story,one that adds to the narrative of a generation of young Pakistani writers like Mohammed Hanif,Mohsin Hamid and Nadim Aslam engaging with the politics of the land. Bhutto has seen the repercussions of politics up close,but,like them,she would like to believe that the strife and corruption that corrugate her country is not organic,that her generation has moved ahead. “There’s a culture of silence in the subcontinent that demands complicity from everyone. In Pakistan,there are few forums for young people to engage with each other,but I do know this,that there are enough people who think that our history can be different,that we can do better with it,” she says. Malala Yousafzai,the 16-year-old schoolgirl from Swat,who was shot at by the Taliban for her commitment to education for girls is an example of this generation,“a phenomenon so completely new”,she says,that it is misunderstood. “In our country,we are condemned just to repeat each other. People have this misconception that Pakistani women are quiet and compliant. But you need extraordinary courage to be a woman in Pakistan because when you break out and stand up for your rights,you realise how powerful your voice is — so powerful that there will always be those who don’t want to hear it at all,” she says.

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It’s a courage she appreciates and nurtures,but one that,she believes,gets appropriated on entering politics. “Power robs you of free will and your voice and that’s one thing I am not willing to let go of,” she says. Her own politics,therefore,is away from party lines and family legacies. “When my brothers and I were growing up,we were always told we could be anything we want to be. The sense of freedom it gave us was very liberating. I see myself as someone who engages with the world as a writer and not as part of a system,” she says.

Her brand of activism,however,is a curious mix of emotional response and intellectual judgement. If,in Songs of Blood and Sword,she volunteered a daughter’s testimony to her father’s innocence in the 1981 hijacking of a Pakistani plane,she has also been fearless in speaking up against American drone attacks in Pakistan and the state’s complicity in them. “I grew up in exile,moving around with my father wherever he went. It makes you feel at home everywhere. But it also gives you a sense that no place is ever home,not even the place where you belong. You always remain a bit of an outsider everywhere,even at home. It makes our memories very emotional,but it also gives us a distance to look at things objectively,” she says.

It’s one of the reasons why it’s difficult for her to negotiate her response to Pakistan. She is possessive about it,but also dispassionate enough to stand back and attempt a discourse. Her interest in journalism,she says,grew largely from the “binaries that defined Pakistan in the foreign media” and a thirst to know more of its people. “There’s no such thing as subjectivity,but what matters is that you be truthful. I am tired of the unidimensional picture of Pakistan in the news. There’s more to the story,there always is,but few people bother to delve into it,” she says.

Fiction,though,has given her the

catharsis that she looked for in journalism. “It’s less judgemental and doesn’t let you get away with the good-bad trajectory. There is no fiction without people. And where

you have people,there is bound to be complexity and some amount of compassion.

In that,it’s more human,humane even,” Bhutto says.

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