Lahore Literary Festival: Remembering Benazir Bhutto

In the stronghold of their biggest rival, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, the Lahore Literary Festival’s Sunday session on Benazir Bhutto’s biography Daughter of the East was a resounding hit.

The session, although not very well-attended, was brilliantly planned and one could tell that a lot of thought and discussion had gone into organizing it. While moderator Victoria Schofield, a British biographer, and the book’s author Linda Bird Francke had a conversation about the writing process of the book, audio and video clips of Benazir were played that moved the audience to tears.

Schofield began the session by asking Francke what her first impression of Benazir was. “I hadn’t known her before [writing the book]. She would take me everywhere and she did not hold back. She was emotional and angry, and was honest and forthright with me.”

Francke was of the view that writing the book was a cathartic process for her. “She was in perilous position when we did this book. She did it to keep herself alive – by keeping her story alive in the US, we were keeping her alive in Pakistan,” she said, mentioning all Benazir’s friends from Harvard and her social circle in America that was working to make sure she stays relevant to politics even when she was not in Pakistan.

They then cut to a short audio clip of Benazir talking about the death of her brother Shahnawaz. The audio wasn’t clear, but everyone could feel the pain in her voice.

Realizing that the session had become too serious, Schofield switched the conversation to lighter moments and Francke’s sense of humor did the trick. “There were plenty of light moments. The first rally I went to with her, the crowd was so dense that I lost a shoe. I was also told to get off the stage.”

Benazir was very particular about her appearance, it seems, as Francke narrated tales of her love for exercise and make-up. In the mornings, Francke said, she would march up and down her garden for 20 minutes because she had read about its benefits in some ladies journal. “I would be running alongside her!”

Once, she even gave Francke a makeover who she always used to describe as a “women’s lib type”. “She pulled a miracle morning. She did my nails and my hair, and she thought I looked much better after that.” All this was happening while the Pakistan Army’s soldiers stood guard outside and Benazir’s life was in considerable danger.

Schofield then asked Francke if she ever felt insecure when she was with Benazir. “I never felt endangered when I was with her because she didn’t. The only time I did was when I was leaving Pakistan after 6 weeks following my first visit to the country. She called me and told me, you are red-listed which means that you’re an unwelcome foreigner here and they will thoroughly search you at the airport.”

PPP guards were sent to escort Francke to the airport, who accompanied her throughout the process and took her to the first class lounge, waiting outside until she had boarded her plane. “It was like a scene from Argo. Once I was in the plane, I handed my work to the stewardess with my sister’s address written on it, and told her that if anything happened to me, this was to be shipped to my sister in London. The only reason of my fear was that I had her diaries which were clearly not too flattering for Zia.”

So how long did the first draft take to write such an all-encompassing book, Schofield asked Francke.  “It took me six months, but this book never ended. I finished it four times!”

Francke then listed each time when she felt she was finally done with the book but something would come up and she would have to update the book again.

The first time that she thought the manuscript was complete, Benazir announced that she was having an arranged marriage. “Then, we met in London. Her fiancé Asif was there and her mother was there too who was very happy that Benazir was finally getting married,” she said. “The night before her wedding, she was still working and we were recording. The lights were flickering and she was furious, claiming that Zia was trying to destroy her wedding.”

The second time was when she met in a restaurant in Long Island, US. “The idea of the meeting was for her and Sanam to read through and sign off the book. They ordered potato skins and realized that there was bacon in it. So they are sitting there with a candle, picking it out. Benazir had ordered skimmed milk with ice!” This was in 1989 and just a few months later, in May, Zia ordered elections and the book went back into the writing phase.

The third time was in August 1989, when Zia died. “I was going on vacation and I am greeted at my resort by the manager who has a huge pile of messages for me. And I find out that Zia is dead. I go back on the plane and the book starts again!”

The last and final time that the book had to be updated was during the November elections. “I am in Larkana in Sindh and the women have camped out, singing and dancing. Then we went to Naudero. And then miracle of miracles, she wins! December of that year, she was named the prime minister and the book finally ended.”

The session then closed with the clip of her last rally in Rawalpindi, from December 27, 2007. There was loud clapping when her voice was heard and she was shown making a speech, and then there was pin drop silence as the sound of the bullets and bomb that killed her boomed through the room. The impact was huge – many in the audience left the hall teary-eyed.

This article was written for Dawn Books & Authors and originally appeared here in edited form:


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