My Grandfather’s Library, Relic of a Freer Pakistan
By Fatima Bhutto
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—e.g. 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 Valentine’s day, Pakistan’s president Mamnoon Hussain (it’s worth noting that Mamnoon 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 Valentine’s 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… Courtesy Literary Hub