Saints and sinners sugarcane songs and blood

April 22, 2010

LARKANA: The security at the Bhutto mausoleum is less than that at the Sukkur airport. I suppose the dead are already dead. Though an attack on this place would have symbolic weight. This place is certainly a symbol. A symbol of what? Of many things, including that the Bhuttos are dead. Long live the Bhuttos. In central Larkana, I visit the family home which is called al Murtaza House.

They allowed me into the front courtyard to see the façade of the complex. I catch a glimpse of an old American car Zulfikar Ali Bhutto drove in 1978. The man had style. They said I could only see the rest of the house and the spacious grounds if Fatima Bhutto gave permission. I thought of beautiful Fatima coming here to this sad house in Larkana and feeling lost. What was she doing? Where is she now? She could be holed up at 70 Clifton or sipping a latte in California. I hear she has written a book about the family.

Maybe she was in Larkana recently to walk over the mounds of the dead and retrace the legends once again. I know nothing about her other than the family she is from and a few articles she has penned. But I remember the one time I met her. I felt I was meeting a ghost. Her eyes were an open book. They told her story with intelligence and sadness. Her accent was from everywhere and nowhere. I felt she wanted to say so much but had struggled to find a voice. Her mannerism was studiedly and charmingly polite as if she were a princess coming down to our level and making us feel good. This role did not come to her effortlessly a la Princess Diana.

It was something of a chore. Circumstances had compelled her to take it up and be a step removed. But more than anything her aura was ghostly. Death hung on her like a heavy cloak. They are a family of ghosts. And saints. In this land of holy places and holy men, Benazir Bhutto really is the patron saint. Her father is revered and respected but the real worship is directed to Mohtarma. I have mentioned that her face is everywhere to be seen and it really is.

I go to a medical college and even in the central courtyard her face can be seen in four or five places and as young men play cricket by twilight the image of BB seems to hang in the air over the pitch like a huge moon. A stone’s throw from al Murtaza House I sit by the road and drink sugarcane juice. I ask the juicer why everyone loves BB so much. “Bhutto saheb and Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto were the only ones who cared for the people,” he explains.

“They really cared for us. How we lived.” Whether father or daughter or both or neither were good or bad for the country, one thing can not be denied - They both told the man at the sugarcane press that his vote counted. That Pakistan belonged to him. This would never be forgotten. I want argument, so I say, “But did BB really do that much for you when she was in power? And everyone complains about corruption but wasn’t she just as coloured by scandal?” “No sir,” comes the reply.

“That was all Zardari. That was her husband.” These are the words on every tongue. Every sentient being in Larkana adores Benazir to the point of near divinity and despises Zardari with the contempt deserving of a rat. I ask about the future. Benazir is gone. Let’s look forward. “What about Bilawal,” I ask. “Is he next in line?” The juicer says, “Bilawal is a Zardari. He has changed his name but we all know who his father is. That can’t change.” Bilalwal is tainted. He is a Zardari and can only ever be a Zardari in these men’s eyes. This is a land where hereditary privilege is the norm but in Larkana Bilawal’s lineage is his curse. It is his barrier.

Forget the fact that he’s essentially a foreign kid with an English accent who knows nothing of Pakistan. It is his paternity that rules him out. He is the co-chairman of the party. He may yet lead Pakistan one day. But Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari will never be loved by the sugarcane juicers of Larkana. “Then who would you like? Fatima Bhutto?” “Yes. Fatima,” says the man. “Or Zulfiqar Junior. As long as it’s a true Bhutto, we will be fine. Pakistan will be fine.” The Bhuttos are the great myth of Larkana and beyond. Like all great myths they are powerful and enduring but their validity is open to debate. But this validity will never be challenged by the faithful. The true believers are, as ever, still true.