Fatima Bhutto: My Grandfather’s Library, Relic of a Freer Pakistan
Discovering Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto Through His Books
In his letters, bound in dark leather and organized according to year and subject, there is a note my grandfather, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, wrote to Pakistan’s provincial Chief Ministers who had forwarded him their suggestions regarding upcoming land reforms (the last large land reforms carried out in this country were helmed by Bhutto himself a year later in 1974). He called his ministers proposals “insipid and insufficient” but seemed especially irritated that they had bothered to go through the trouble of printing and binding their report. “My library contains some of the best books that can be found anywhere. Many of them are on revolution and reform,” and to keep this collection of so called ‘reforms” on his shelves, Bhutto wrote, would be “an insult to my library.”
I write this from Bhutto’s home in Karachi, which was passed down to my father, his eldest son, and now falls upon my family to live in and care for, if one can actually be said to care for a house. Much of 70 Clifton has changed since my grandfather constructed it in 1954—there are fewer roses in the garden, more vegetable patches; the furniture has been ravaged and recycled and the walls painted and repainted countless times. Very little of Bhutto’s original house remains, except for one room, which is untouched all these years later: his library.
Three rooms large (and they are large rooms), Bhutto began building his library as a young man. The books date from as early as his time as a university student at Berkeley in the 1940s all the way to 1977, the year his government was deposed by a military dictator General Zia ul Haq, who hanged my grandfather, Pakistan’s first democratically elected head of state, two years later.
Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s library could not have been built in today’s Pakistan.
It is not Sir Syed Ahmed Khan or Mohammad Ali Jinnah who line the shelves that hold over 20,000 titles (together, those two they make up a shelf at most–in fact Jinnah’s papers, three chunky lime green volumes published in 1997 were added to Bhutto’s collection decades after his death).
No, the names you see most often in my grandfather’s library are Jawaharlal Nehru, M.K Gandhi, Napoleon Bonaparte, Bertrand Russell, James Baldwin. He was a prolific writer but an even more omnivorous reader. His library has literally everything—Nick Cohn’s History of Pop (Jimi Hendrix is on the cover), Trevor Ling’s Buddha, Marx and God, Ghana! by Kwame Nkrumah, The Bhagavad Gita, a five volume Biblia Sacra displayed in a special shelf, antique Korans, plays by Eugene O’Neill, books on gardening and a first edition of Che Guevara’s The Bolivian Diary.
It is a library that could only belong to a free man, built in a much freer time.
* * * *
At the entrance of the library, after you open the old mirrored Sindhi doors, are several seals embedded in the walls. Napoleon, hand pressed to heart, an Incan god holding a sheaf of wheat, and Jehangir and Nur Jehan, the fourth Mughal emperor and his beloved wife. Are you sure it’s Nur Jehan? I ask my brother Mir Ali who has just finished studying the Mughals at school. If so, she was missing her characteristic uni-brow. Yes, Mir Ali confirms with the typical South Asian expertise of a 12 year old, she isn’t beautiful enough to be Mumtaz Mahal.
* * * *
The first room of Bhutto’s library belongs to India.
The shelves are overwhelmed by colonized, but united India—travel diaries, gazettes, maps, reports from know it all Raj administrators—eg Events of the Court of Ranjit Singh 1810-17: Translated from the Papers in the Alienation Office, Poona (a great name for a colonial British bureau)—and volumes devoted to the brave souls who gave their lives to the Indian freedom movement, among them Tipu Sultan’s letters, Nehru’s Discovery of India, and rows upon rows of leather bound reports on rebellions from Oude, Lucknow, Calcutta, Nagaland.
In a letter to the Minister of Education and Foreign Affairs in 1973, Bhutto, who was Prime Minister at the time, writes of Britain’s decision not to turn over the contents of London’s India Office Library to India and Pakistan. While India sent a team of archivists to catalogue and microfilm their heritage, “Pakistan has not bothered at all to do anything on similar lines” he complains, telling the ministers to set up a cell and get on with it. A visit to the national museum of Karachi is proof enough that they continued not to bother.
Bhutto, on the other hand, did. His books, which he kept fastidiously free of markings, are stamped from booksellers in Rawalpindi, Peshawar, Karachi, Bombay. He collected them on his travels and placed them in a room that he built, consciously or not, along the lines of India itself.
On the wall hangs a terrifying, modern painting of Jesus Christ on the cross—his neck bent and his ribs marked with blood—nearby, a small side table houses small icons of Buddha and Shiva. There is a bust of Buddha in every room of the library.
Facing Christ, on the opposite side of the room, is a map of the subcontinent in black stone. The borders of what was Pakistan, East and West, are lined in silver. Our cities are marked with small turquoise pins: Larkana, Karachi, Quetta, Dacca and Chittagong. But India itself is dark. Its periphery does not shine with metal; its cities are not remembered with gemstones. The map bears no remembrance to the partition of Pakistan, no snuffing out of its Eastern parts, that would come later. Just like we broke India, so too would Bangladesh break us.
The collection moves from India to Afghanistan and from Afghanistan to ancient Rome. Eliphinstone’s Kingdom of Caboul shares a corner with Ovid on Love. From there the titles expand to pre-war Europe and Latin American revolutionary movements. And from there, up in the higher shelves, a section of erotica.
The Decameron, books on Tantra, Tropic of Cancer, Simon de Beauvoir and Graham Green’s May we Borrow your Husband? among others make up a respectable four shelves—erotic art is elsewhere, ZAB organized his library meticulously and did not cross genres. And though they’re a stretch for someone my height to reach, they are kept in plain sight.
My grandfather worked in his library, it is where he read his files and composed his letters. He received friends and official guests in these rooms. It is where his children came to sit with him in the evening. Like all those who love books, he preferred to be surrounded with them at all times. He was neither scandalized nor driven to rage by the idea of the sensual. But how could this exist today, in a country where, this spring the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority announced that they were removing Vaseline ads from airing on television after public complaints. Vaseline did not, PEMRA announced gravely, fit with Pakistan’s “socio-cultural norms.”
Which means what exactly? That we, as a nation, are sociologically and culturally in favor of dry skin?
Just how sexy can Vaseline be that a governmental body met to ban it?
This Valentines day, Pakistan’s president Mamnoon Hussain (it’s worth noting that Mamnoo’ means forbidden in Arabic) wasted precious government resources and the peoples time when he gave a long winded speech “urging’ Pakistanis not to celebrate the holiday. “Valentine’s day has no connection to our culture and it should be avoided,” he warned. In a monumentally absurd effort, a “complete ban” on swimming and driving motorcycles was issued in Karachi to hinder Valentines day outings, Peshawar banned Valentine’s day in its entirety and nearby Kohat ordered its police force to clamp down on shops selling cards and Valentines related gifts.
Though Pakistan was founded as a refuge for Muslims, the Pakistan of my grandfather’s era was open to the world. It respected other faiths besides its own, it welcomed new ideas and people and existed in harmony with the values of those around it—at least that’s what I have always been told by my elders. But sitting in my grandfather’s library I wonder how that could ever have been true. The Pakistan of my lifetime bears no resemblance to that tolerant, compassionate place of memory.
Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s government was overthrown by a military dictator, General Zia ul Haq, an Islamic radical who brutalized Pakistan. It was under General Zia that barbarous laws were introduced, making adultery and sexual intercourse before marriage crimes punishable by death. It was under General Zia that women news anchors were forced to cover their hair if they wished to read the 9 o’clock news, amputations were prescribed as punishment for theft, and the nascent Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan (then the Mujahideen) were supported and trained by the Pakistani Army, acting as a proxy of Reagan’s America. It was under Zia that Saudi Arabian-inspired puritanism was introduced to the study and practice of religion that Pakistan has not, nearly 40 years since Zia’s coup, ever recovered from.
During martial law, Zia’s censors vetted newspaper stories so strictly that newspapers were often filled with blank spaces. White boxes free of text or images covered the broadsheets, emptiness over unfit, anti-national news. Journalists, editors, and writers in the late 1970s and early 1980s fought the dictator’s heavy handed censorship and paid for their resistance; many were jailed and some even publically flogged.
But today, The Express Tribune—a privately owned Pakistani newspaper that carries an insert of the International New York Times—censors the NY Times with such gusto you would be forgiven for assuming they had a fundamentalist military dictator breathing down their neck. The Express Tribune brought back Zia’s white boxes with no prodding, no flogging and no marital law. In the past year they have censored an incredible amount of stories, including erasing from print a photo of Rodin’s “The Kiss,” a story on the killing of Bangladeshi bloggers, news of gay marriage in China, and Nicholas Kristof’s “How Well do you Know Religion” op-ed.
Pakistan’s population was not always so sensitive.
In a drawer, somewhere underneath the shelf on guerrilla warfare in the first room of my grandfather’s library, is a collection of old Pakistan People’s Party newspapers, Musawat, or equality. They are printed from East London, during the height of Zia’s junta, by my father, Mir Murtaza, in both English and Urdu. They were sold in England for 20p and smuggled back into Pakistan. Someone placed them here for safe keeping, probably my aunt, Benazir. One of the Musawat has an ad announcing a demonstration against Zia’s visit to New York. “Accomplishments of Gen. Zia: military dictator in Pakistan” it lists:
25,000 to 50,000 political prisoners
Journalists and political prisoners flogged in public
Over 100 workers massacred in Multan on Jan 2, 1978
Murdered Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto
Amputations, floggings, public hangings.
The protest was sponsored by Eqbal Ahmed, Ramsey Clark, the Reverend Daniel Berrigan and Professor Edward Said, among others.
* * * *
The second room of the library is perhaps the most personal. Atop a 1960s-style winding staircase are three wall length sections of legal books, from the days that Bhutto trained as a barrister. He was called to the bar at Lincoln’s Inn in London and his nameplate, slightly rusted with time and the heaviness of Karachi’s salty sea air, hangs outside our house, listing only one of his accolades: Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Barrister at Law.
The light upstairs filters through small, rectangular blue Sindhi window panes, and though titles like Census of India 1891 and Jurisprudence in Holland don’t exactly make for gripping reading, Bhutto’s flair is still evident here. Even in rows among rows of dry penal codes, there is The Law as Literature, Kalshoven’s The Law of Warfare, and constitutions from Ghana’s to Uruguay’s.
Downstairs, the library’s only photographs besides framed photos of Bhutto’s four children and his father are hung on a walnut colored wall: A disembodied astronaut head hovering in space, signed by the crew of Apollo XVII (to my disappointment as a teenager, not the ones from the movie) who thank the Prime Minister for the warm reception they received in Pakistan in the summer of 1973; an official portrait of my grandparents and the Nixons at the White House; and curiously, the American declaration of Independence. But for all this Americana, the books devoted to the United States make up a relatively small section. Though, technically, they creep into everyone else’s shelves too.
The room is split between World War II, Russia and the Soviet Union (Collected Works of Lenin, Dr. Zhivago), and China. During my grandfather’s time, Pakistan and China’s relationship was at its mutually adoring zenith. Pak-Chini Bhai Bhai (literally, Pak-china brother brother) was at its most affectionate, pervasive and believable. There may not be Chinese memorabilia in the library but my grandfather’s fondness for China made its way around the rest of the house. Nestled next to “Agrarian Policy of the Chinese Communist Party” are two volumes of poetry written by Mao Tse Tung, bought in Peking in 1976.
(Before a state visit to China, Bhutto wrote to his Chief of Protocol about a banquet the Pakistanis were set to host for Chinese leaders, diplomats and dignitaries, “This banquet should not be like the banquet we gave in Pyongyang. The Pakistani food served there was simply atrocious. The Biryani was cooked very badly, it was just awful. There was one small shami kabab with many tiny danas (seeds) of illaichi (cardamom). I saw President Kim il Sung desperately struggling to remove the illaichis. It must have reminded him of his guerrilla days in the mountains.”)
* * * *
Oh, the letters.
History generously allows us to assume we know the men and women who rule over us because we’re overindulged with op-eds and biographies and talk shows. Twenty-four hour punditry means we know all there is to know, about everyone. Ever.
But we are ignorant of inner lives. In my family, my grandfather was known for his humor. He was a great mimic. For all his fastidiousness, and he was fastidious, he had a wicked sense of humor.
In the last and largest room of the library, filled with maps, plays, art books, histories of the Middle East, Africa, and East Asia, are what remains of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s letters. When he was deposed by a military coup in 1977, soldiers stormed our house and removed my grandfather’s papers—along with some of the library’s most valuable books, old Korans especially—from the library. They were never returned to us. When my mother, Ghinwa, began the painstaking process of cataloguing the library’s thousands of titles, she noticed just how many of the letters—bound in numbered leather—were missing.
In the thousands of notes and directives that remain, Bhutto’s observations and thoughts are recorded in great detail. He wrote constantly and carefully filed away every note, every reply. He wrote extensive directives on agricultural outputs, water disputes, the functioning of Pakistan’s railways, the denuding of our northern forests, his ministers lack of interest in preserving Pakistan’s cultural heritage, party affairs, foreign relations and more. Much much more.
To his Chief of Protocol (who received a lot of letters like this) and had recently allowed state gifts to Germany and Sweden to be delivered in tin cases rather than simple, “neatly wrapped paper,” Bhutto notes, “As we’re going to China and Democratic People’s Republic of Korea we should at least guard against taking huge and conspicuous trunks which might give the impression that we are carrying dead bodies or live ammunition.” In a note from Gilgit, he recounts a meeting with General Ayub Khan, whose government Bhutto resigned from as Foreign Minister, disagreeing with the Tashkent peace treaty Khan signed after the 1965 war with India. “I did tell him, however, that I saw no point in the attempts he made to get me assassinated on two or three occasions.” The General, Bhutto notes, “demurred.”
Noticing a pile of garbage left at the airport while receiving a visiting head of state, he fired off this missive to all his Chief Ministers “This happens because people are not interested in their country and in its appearance. This happens because people are appointed to positions they do not deserve to have.” He writes many of these letters—suggesting British-built government “Rest Houses” be renamed because the psychological effects of reading “Rest House” every few kilometers was damaging to the people, “I want this nation to be on the move, I want this nation to sweat and toil; I want it to be doing strenuous labour, to be working morning and night…,” criticizing the lack of care for Karachi’s Frere Hall Gardens, asking for lawyers to defend poor workers against the police, noting that the asbestos roofs of Rawalpindi look dreadful from the air as one flies over the city, insisting on the creation of conservatoires across the country (not a word against Valentine’s Day, mind you). There’s an incredible attention to detail, but Bhutto was building a country.
In a note that sums up the lethargic stylings of South Asian bureaucracy ahead of a state visit to Afghanistan, my grandfather writes “I suppose we will go to Kabul, do Assalam-u-alaikum, embrace old friends, eat shish kabab and chapli kabab, laugh, make merry and come back to Pakistan without any results… I find no one concentrating on position papers concerning our forthcoming visit. I see no research being done. I have not heard of any committees being set up to examine in depth the course of our discussions. Nobody has prepared alternate proposals. Nobody has anticipated what the Afghans will put forward and what should be our answers in precise and concrete terms. Who cares?—Some excuse will be given. Somebody will say that the Afghan protocol broke down; we are good Muslims; we should leave everything to Allah! Foreign office be praised!”
In the ten volumes of letters I read this past week, there are more notes concerning Afghanistan than any of Pakistan’s other neighbors, even India.
But the letters also have a dark prescience. Writing in 1973 of an aborted coup attempt, only two years after the country’s first democratic government took oath, Bhutto writes of Pakistan’s revanchist armed forces, “they must be taught to give unflinching loyalty to the civilian government, government established by law, government born out of a constitution, government carrying the mandate of the people. They must be taught to subordinate their ambitions and their savage appetite to the will of the people.”
But the Armed Forces of Pakistan would never learn to curb their wanting of power. And so the military deposed and murdered Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.
* * * *
Time, which distorts all things, moves in a curious way in Pakistan. No seasons have to pass before what was up becomes down. What was left shifts into right. And who was in is thrown out. We oblige all these manglings. We forget injustice after injustice; we remember no one’s promises; we hold no one to account for their actions. The military, which broke the back of Pakistan’s fledging experiment with democracy, now poses as its savior. Men who Bhutto bemoaned in his letters as being divisive and dangerous have since proclaimed themselves the bearers of his political mantle. His meticulously charted plans of growth, equality, and inclusion are now spoken of as dreams.
My grandfather was killed three years before I was born. I know him only from this room, from my father’s memories, from inscriptions in books and letters to his children. At least, that is all I allow myself to trust. My grandfather’s country and mine are stars apart and reading his letters, I find it hard to recognize my Pakistan in his. In the 1970s, Pakistan was emboldened by a momentum that consisted totally, and sincerely, of hope. It was a new country, not even 30 years old. A country born out of not one but two partitions, and yet Pakistan never imagined itself as broken then. It was only being reborn, always propelling itself forward by the idea of what was to come.
We shattered the promise of this country in one generation.
But sitting in this room, in the quiet, the smell of books everywhere settled like dust into the carpets, I think of the power of libraries and all the stories, and countries, they hold. “You think your pain and heartbreak are unprecedented in the world,” James Baldwin wrote. “And then you read.”
Photos courtesy of the author.