Tearful Pakistanis Observe Benazir’s Chelum in San Francisco
By Ras H. Siddiqui
This was a journey that this journalist would not have dreamed of making just over 40 days before this writing but when the invitation came from Khuda Bux Bhutto, the President of the Pakistan People’s Party (California ), how could one turn it down?
It still seems hard to believe that Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto (Bibi) is no longer amongst the living, but that is the bitter reality. Her chelum (fortieth day after death) was observed in Pakistan and numerous places around the world (starting on February 7th here in America) with the customary reading of the Holy Qur’an for her departed soul. One can only wonder how many times the Muslim Holy Book has been read for the secular Bhuttos by admirers to ease their journey to the hereafter?
In the San Francisco Bay Area, the tilawat of the Qur’an started at the home of Benazir’s Iranian cousins. With all the political storms that Bibi has been through in her life one often overlooks the fact that she was of part Iranian heritage too through her mother Mrs. Nusrat Bhutto. Today we acknowledge her Pakistani-Sindhi-Iranian heritage and say a prayer for her in many languages including Farsi.
Another invitation received was from Daisy Rockwell, a relative of the famous American painter Norman Rockwell. In an unconventional setting in Downtown San Francisco, Daisy was displaying some of her paintings at the Bollywood Café with Benazir featuring in most of them. So on Friday, February 8 this reporter ventured to drive to the Bay Area. Incidentally, Daisy also happens to be the former Vice-Chairperson at the Center for South Asia Studies at UC Berkeley and knows Pakistan better than many of us, especially through her past involvement in the American Institute of Pakistan Studies.
The acrylic paintings (with glitter) appeared small for the wall space, but Daisy had certainly captured some of the late Bibi’s pictorial journey on canvas with 10 historical poses. Especially striking were Benazir in prayer, a glamour pose, one with her cat and in my opinion “Contemplating Return from Exile” was just superb. The display also had a couple of paintings of the Mahatma and Indira Gandhi, Z.A. Bhutto and Mrs. Nusrat Bhutto and President Pervez and Mrs. Sehba Musharraf. The fact that I could order a chai tea or a drink called the Shahrok Khan while viewing these paintings did seem a bit strange. But the name given to this set “ICONIC/IRONIC” did become clearer.
The residence of Khuda Bux Bhutto (KB) and his wife Najma in San Pablo was sadly my next destination. They had set up a wall full of pictures in Benazir’s memory. For most of our lives we have witnessed the PPP struggling and I could certainly tell from the faces of this usually happy couple that this was a very sad day. As usual they were gracious hosts but we were partners in extreme misery at this meeting. Earlier in the evening many supporters of the Pakistan Peoples Party had driven long distances to read the Qur’an and offer prayers for Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto’s departed soul. A resolution was also passed to make December 27 a national day of remembrance for the Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto.
The gathering was addressed via telephone by PPP Vice Chairman Makhdoom Amin Fahim and later a message from Co-Chairman Asif Zardari was conveyed. Both reiterated that the work of Benazir Bhutto should go on and the democratic struggle should continue. “She gave her life so that Pakistan may live again. Let’s fight for her. Let’s fight for Pakistan ,” was the message from Asif Zardari.
The hosts also took the time to reflect back on Mohtarma’s impact on our lives. KB and this writer spent an hour looking back. This couple had revived the official PPP in northern California after 20 years of dormancy and Benazir Sahiba had attended at least two large gatherings of this newly formed grouping in this area. Before their efforts we would only hear of her visits from the mainstream media after they had taken place. Then the Pakistan Link entered the picture. We remembered her charm and her ability to brighten up a gathering. She certainly lived up to her name.
I left with a deep sense of sadness. She was certainly larger than life for us in the media. I still remember the photograph of her receiving the Sindhi Ajrak from KB and Najma. And now the two had set up a solemn pictorial memorial for her on a wall in their home. And Daisy Rockwell’s small paintings also came to mind. Pakistanis may be iconoclasts by nature but they do make exceptions. Benazir Bhutto is no more but they have not finished reading their last Qur’an in her memory. Rest in Peace Bibi.