My Grandfather’s Library, Relic of a Freer Pakistan - 2
By Fatima Bhutto
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.”)
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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 Qur’ans 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 labor, 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.
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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.” – Literary Hub