Gone but not forgotten
Benazir Bhutto had a premonition about death. Her sister Sanam has talked about the strange look she wore in the last days, a look it was hard to fathom. One thing she did know. She had never seen or experienced before what she was now experiencing.
Others have spoken of a strange glow on her face, while some report that while she seemed to be sometimes sitting and talking to you, you had a distinct feeling that she was elsewhere. She was happy in the last days. She also seemed to be very little in need of sleep. Sanam says her sister would not sleep for more than two or, at most, three hours.
Someone I know remembers a call from her from Karachi when it was still at least two hours from daybreak. She was in an expansive mood and sounded happy. The call lasted a long time. “You must take some rest now,” her friend suggested. She did not need it, Bibi replied. She felt just fine. It was about 3.30 in the morning in Karachi.
On her last visit to Washington, she drove straight from the airport not to where she was staying but to Sindhi politician Abdullah Shah’s home to condole a recent death in the family. As she sat there, she suddenly said to Akbar Khawaja, who had picked her up from the airport, “When I die, I want to be buried in Naudero. I don’t want to be buried anywhere else. Someone might say, ‘Let her lie in Nawabshah or Karachi’, but that should never be.” Then she said, “I pray to Allah that I do not die abroad but in my own country.” “Please, Bibi, what are you talking about! Please don’t talk like that, please,” Khawaja pleaded. “Well, everyone has to go one day,” she replied.
She wrote the will she left in her own beautiful running hand, all seventeen pages of it, leaving no detail out. This surprised her family. She was even asked why she was writing it. But she was happy about it, as if a weight had been lifted from her heart. She said to a friend that this could be her last visit to Washington. When he protested and said “Please, Bibi, your last visit to Washington of your exile years”, she said nothing, just smiled.
During her exile years, we saw a good deal of her in Washington because she would almost always come here if she was anywhere close. She was much sought after as a speaker because she spoke so well and with such simplicity. The agency that managed her lectures is one of the top ones in the business with clients like Bill Clinton. She travelled so much in the last few years that one wondered at her strength and stamina. She never looked bored or fatigued.
And yet so heavy was her burden. She tended a very ill mother, who, she once told me, hardly even recognised her any longer. She also took care of her three children and kept an eye on their schooling and even tutored them at times. She told a friend, “This tutoring has elevated my blood pressure.”
And of course, she supervised her party affairs. She phoned people, and she took most calls made to her. She answered emails almost immediately, even when she was travelling. Her Blackberry was always with her (which Asif now uses) and if you sent her an SMS, back came the reply within minutes.
There was so much that she did and I never ceased wondering how she found the time and the enthusiasm to do it all. She had her father’s memory for names, faces and dates. She did not forget anything but she was forgiving. If someone had crossed her, she did not let that hold her back; she just moved on. I never really met anyone who hated her, even those who were opposed to her politics. She had this gift of inspiring love and loyalty among her friends and even those who met her occasionally or knew her in passing.
I recall asking Mark Siegel, her long-term friend and lobbyist in Washington, a month or so before her death as to how long he would keep working for her cause. “As long as I live,” he replied without a moment’s hesitation.
Last weekend, some of us held a meeting in her memory here and relived times spent in her presence. We had just heard about the suggestion by President Musharraf in London to his followers to beat up those who in his opinion were “unpatriotic”. “But no matter how awkward or even rude a question you put to Bibi, she was never offended, but proceeded to answer it patiently, never losing her temper,” someone pointed out.
And that indeed is true. I have seen her being asked not only rude but silly questions, preceded by rambling and sometimes witless statements, but there never was a sign of impatience on her face. Nor did I ever hear her tell any such person to keep it short. She had this great capacity to just sit there, hour after hour, and listen to others.
I would like to close this remembrance of her with two poems by Adrian A Husain, the finest Pakistani poet writing in English. Here is the first: ‘Death of an Icon — In memory of Benazir Bhutto’: A seismic shudder/skewing of/our TV screens/followed by flames/sirens/and in the midst of trees/figures in random flight/In the aftermath/nothing remains/except the image of/a space/vacated/above a jeep’s/sun-roof/and a/casket/with a small glass/vent/gliding, levitating/as it is eased/into an ambulance/held aloft/on the shoulders of/mourners/yet somehow moving/on its own/There is a sense of/a volition/inside the box/something living/if not quite a life/impelling/the moment/as if in defiance of/the arm that rose/the hand/that dared/the nod and the/wink of hell’s initiates.
Adrian Husain’s second poem is called ‘Elegy for Benazir Bhutto’: Charmed back from exile/by fond hopes/blandishments/you alighted/to our/tributes./Heedless of/what lay/ahead/flags, garlands/roadside clamourings/and the vague promise/of a future/drew you on./We/should have known/the moment of/betrayal:/your head turned away/the insidious hand/risen/the macabre/festivity of/death./Today,/accomplices, we plot/your homecoming/in reverse./ December yawns like a grave./It is all/over.
Khalid Hasan is Daily Times’ US-based correspondent