Friday, 4 April 2014

THE SHIMMER IN POLITICAL SEAS



31st December, 2007

I'm Very Sad.....

A familiar face is gone … and one grows accustomed to a face...
I’m feeling pain in a totally unexpected way.
I didn’t think it would affect me like this… Perhaps because I never thought it could happen.
It's one of those things you can't imagine, because she was one of those people you can't imagine it happening to.
I've been trying to put my finger on it since then, and I've finally got it.

Benazir Bhutto was alive.

She was SO alive, you couldn't think of her being otherwise.
And there you have it.

Watching her film-clips on TV during these three days of mourning, and taping some of them, I see it most when she's moving about in a crowd or just being informal with people.
The mobility of her face, the spontaneity of her smile, the upward tilt of the head and eyebrows…
The speed of her step, the quick gesture of her hand...
Her physical self and her mind come across vividly as a complete and vibrant whole.
It's like a calamity for it to be stilled.

She was so clearly not just a politician, but a person – and a personality.
 Watching the news programmes and old snippets is like a journey back in time. There have been such strong associations over the years, since the Bhutto days of the early 70's.
My parents, returning to their country from England after many years, worked in POF Hospital, Wah at the time.
[My mother, Dr. Sughra Hameed Asif, Consultant Neuro-Psychiatrist and my father, Dr. S.D.Asif, Consultant Surgeon.]
They liked what they saw of the charismatic Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and hoped he would make good changes in the country. They liked the fact that he was modern, wanted social reform, and was a cultured man. My mother liked his wife, Nusrat Bhutto, too. 
Election days, and TV programmes were shown day and night. The hugely popular Shoaib Hashmi show, “Such Gupp”, was on.
 Little jewels of humour, read out news-reader style, much of it making fun of the political scene, and performed with such poker-faces…All the other skits were brilliant too. There’s never been anything to match it since.
My father’s new favourite was on – Zia Moihuddin – with his show. His frilly cravats and flamboyant shirts in rather startling contrast to the high-class Urdu poetry and prose he always read out.
Singers with their ghazals – Iqbal Bano singing Faiz, Fareeda Khanum with something romantic. Habib Wali Mohammed with his deep voice, so evocative of those days…and my mother’s favourite, Tasavar Khanam with
“Sub Ton Soniye”, and a special way of wrinkling her nose that my mother, who sang, could never quite  imitate…
All this, interspersed with bits and pieces from folk singers who I found incredibly funny at the time, with their rustic voices, costumes [especially the dhotis] and instruments. But I later fell in love with them…
We were overjoyed with old re-runs of “The Rogues” from the 60s. What a combination of actors ! David Niven, Charles Boyer and Gig Young, each one more roguish than the last, with the regal Gladys Cooper keeping them in check.
We slept on the sitting room floor for those two nights, and our parents would wake us up whenever an episode came on. A high treat.
Bhutto as Prime-minister.  
My father getting more and more fond of him… enjoying his passionate speeches and fearless style.
I’m remembering Benazir from old TV news in those days, and how she could be seen often with her father. One particular time in Simla, wearing a saree, and meeting Indira Gandhi.

And that's another reason why my mother kept a soft spot for Bhutto.
 Growing up in the thirties and forties, she and her sisters had been brought up in a liberal yet disciplined way by a father who loved and respected them. They adored him in return.
So anyone who gave his daughter the respect Bhutto did was okay in my mother's eyes...

There were hot arguments my father would have about him in those days with others... And more temperate ones between my mother and friends.
Ridiculous lines she would get in answer to questions .
Q. “Don’t you want to see the standard of living improve for the poor?”
Ans. ‘Oh, don’t worry about them. They’re used to it.’
Q. “Shouldn’t they have coolers in summer and heaters in winter?”
Ans. “Don’t worry. They survive. They’re used to it.”
Q. “How can they be, if so many die of heatstroke??”
Ans. Don’t worry. They’re used to it.”
Im glad to say my parents continued to practice "socialism", [they were used to it] and saw their poorer patients free.
Life here being what it was in those days, where anyone well-to-do thought you were [literally] mad if you went to a psychiatrist, only the poor went to consult my mother, so she had hardly any private practice.
Interesting when you think of it, that these poor people, many of them factory workers’ families or uneducated villagers, had the wit to see a psychiatrist. [Maybe Bhutto did inspire them…] While those who were educated and well-off missed out, due to the “stigma” of being seen anywhere near the “mental” place…
My mother satisfied herself by spending quality time with each of her cases, and stirring up taboo subjects and obsolete religious customs in her patients families, often succeeding in getting concrete things done to change their lives for the better. [Her old patients still remember her.]
Some of the other idiotic things some people would say:
"How can you like Bhutto? He's a socialist.
The Chinese are
socialist...and atheist!!!
Are you an atheist???”
My mother's answer:
 "For your information, all the prophets you believe in were socialists. They all wanted to reform society and make it better. Thats what socialism means.”
[Horrified looks cast at my mother.]
[Blasphemy!!!?]
But people couldn’t get the better of my mother on the subject of religion. She was very learned on any subject she chose to get into, going about this one as a scholar as well. She read the Koran like a text book, pen in hand, making notes in the margins.
She was horrified to see how many people did NOT read it with a translation…and they didn’t know Arabic either !
Another question she would get was:
“So why don’t YOU help the poor instead of animals?” [We were known animal lovers.]
Her reply: A quote from one of the prophets about people not doing their duty if even one dog went hungry in their town…
She would also say:
“What makes you think I can’t help BOTH… And by the way, instead of throwing lavish wedding parties, why don’t YOU give the money you'd normally spend on weddings and dowries to the poor, instead of grudging me the little I do for animals. [who have every right to eat too anyway. It was their planet first… ]
[More horrified looks.]
“But Sughra, what will people say? There HAS to be a dowry!!!”
Then of course there would be the double-take about the reference to animals, and some religious remark about Adam and Eve being on the planet first of all.
Then my mother would really have fun. Her hero being Darwin and one of her favourite subjects evolution.
Oh dear, oh dear!
“Sughra!!!”
[If my father was around he wouldn’t be able to resist being REALLY wicked…]
He would get very emotional about Bhutto, and people had to be careful around him. If they weren't.......watch out!
He could be quite as colourful in his words, as Bhutto was in one of his more boisterous speeches…
And just as explosive too. Milder tempered friends had to sit through some awkward evenings…

Which reminds me of one of Bhutto’s “shockers”….

I don’t remember what had happened, but Pakistan and India were a little upset with each other over something and it showed in the public speeches.
One day Bhutto was addressing a crowd and, on the subject of India, yelled out,

“ Oh Indira Gandhi…! “

“ Oh MAI !! “ [a slang word for women, often used for domestic help ]

My goodness how the public loved that.
How my father chuckled in delight, and how my mother clucked in disapproval.
I remember feeling vaguely horrified, wondering what would happen next.
[I don’t remember what did…]

My father stayed committed to Bhutto. And my mother, though worried by some things, stayed loyal too.

They were both devastated by his death.
I'm just glad they didn't live to see Dec. 27th 2007.

Now, just three days after Benazir’s murder, as someone who was a more or less objective observer before, it’s as though I’m feeling what they would have felt.
As though I have somehow become them, and am grieving for three...
Its really strange, as if I can feel their pain so palpably, and have become some sort of medium reliving their memories of old times.......

They were so happy when Benazir was due to come after Zia ul haq's death. And I'll never forget the night of her first election win......
We sat in front of the TV with handwritten charts all night through morning, noting down each win carefully.
My mother would drop off now and then, and wake up with a start saying, "Jeet gayee??" [has she won?]
When they realised they were ravenous, one of them would dash off to make the quickest thing - double fried eggs on toast, and tea. [Their favourite, NOT mine !]

It was quite an event.
And how my father treasured the inauguration tape that I made for them,  with Benazir dressed in striking emerald green.

I dont think anyone expected me to get so involved in it...and they were all very surprised.
Not having been born in Pakistan, I had no bond with it and no interest at all in the two main obsessions here - religion and national [ and ethnic] identity.

Restrictive stuff. Barriers all round!
I just couldn’t understand why so many people I knew seemed to be so blocked by these two things, and had total blind spots where they should have been able to clearly see the problems created by them.

But their wheels would stay stuck in their tracks - immovable.
Even now, although many say they are much more open in their outlook, I see that same old subjectivity, and inability to take on those hurdles.
The fear of actually changing something seen as “religious” is so ingrained in them…like the misguided “respect” they can’t shake off for those with beard\headscarf who behave as if they are better than anyone else.

[For me, it was the free and easy, folksy ethnicity that caught my attention. The music, handicraft – anything ancient or rustic…I couldn't get enough of it.]

I didn't like politics or politicians either. Certainly not after the whole monstrous Khomeini\Zia experience.
And most of the others seemed like nothing better than stuffed or dead fish.

But since I was actually living here, the dangers lurking in these murky political waters hadn't escaped me. I was actively taking an interest after Zia to make sure the religious right-wing element didn't sneak back in again to circle, like so many sharks.
Besides, I had hopes of Benazir, as she was the only one who seemed different from the rest.
When she began her term, I remember my first reaction - being irritated that she covered her head. Knowing it was symbolic for mass appeal, still, it upset me that she couldn’t just be “herself”. That she already seemed to be making compromises to keep the opposition quiet.
Then I’d be happy when she let the veil slip off her head, and didnt care that it stayed off for a while, as if to show them that it was no big deal.
It was nice seeing her a la Fatima Jinnah in a gharara for formal occasions. That was a nice touch.

Then the frustration set in.
Every time she tried to do something different, she would be blocked, by a stupid and ranting opposition, until nothing new ever seemed to be happening.

To the last though, my parents always defended her.
My mother would have this little episode every time she talked politics with one of her relatives or friends who was in the other camp.
They would do some name-calling, blithely forgetting that my mother was not of the same opinion.
She wondered why others always took it for granted they could be as rude as they wanted with her favourites, without thinking at all about her feelings.

She would then do some name-calling of her own. Politely though, as she wasn’t going to pick a fight. But she had the satisfaction of shocking the others into [temporary] silence.

 Benazir’s term was short-lived, and then she was out.
Twice.
Alternated by the left over Zia people I couldn’t stand, who had been in the opposition. [Led by Nawaz Sharif]

Later on, there was a long period of time after her two terms when she was in Dubai, and I didnt see much of her on TV. When she did come on, I'd always be interested to see which persona she would show.
The more formal and stylized and rather "put on" one, as with BBC interviewers when talking about any international topic. Or the more sarcastic, hard-hitting style when it was about politics here.

I liked her sense of humour when she talked.
 And there was no doubt that whatever anyone said against her -  she talked well, whatever the subject.

 Reminds me of how she appeared at one time in the 70s as compere on a talk show called “Encounter”. She was very efficient and you could tell she was good in the role of leader.
I still remember a dress she wore. One of those batik-style kurtas with embroidery on it. Since TV was black and white I don’t know what colour it was….but it wouldn’t have been dull.

One thing that gave me a strange connection with Benazir, was the way, 20 to 15 years ago, people used to nudge each other and look at me, saying I looked vaguely like her as she had been in the 70s .
[Yes, I got that often.........due to the facebones and straight shoulder-length hair with fringe...]

Most recently, I was enjoying watching re-runs of her recent return to Pakistan.
Coming down the aeroplane steps, wearing a bright and interesting mixture of tailored jacket and chiffon.
Looking more soft and ethnic, rather than starched, with the simple hair and pretty pink glittery "gota" armband showing.
Seeing her pause for a moment, and the look on her face......
It was touching.

At that point I was glad she was returning and I thought,
"Maybe this time around she'll make it...and manage to keep the others at bay."

[The thought of Nawaz Sharif, and all the other pro-Zia, pro taleban lot, was not a happy one. During his earlier tenures, he had gradually turned himself into a religious autocrat pretending to be a democrat. Any sudden whim and who knew what you'd see or hear next day. There always seemed to be a threat in the air…especially directed at women.
I think the worst was that under his so-called democracy, the shameful hudood ordinance and blasphemy law [also zia-left overs] were not thrown out.
 Every time the opposition tried to remove these laws, they were pushed further in, entrenched more firmly than ever. [And of course when Benazir’s people had tried earlier they were completely drowned out by the religious groups egged on by Sharif. ]
Lawyers and judges should all have resigned THEN, in those  days. Civil rights activists should have done everything THEN, that they are doing now !
There should have been a civil disobedience THEN.........!!!
In fact the logical thing should have been to automatically remove anything from the constitution that was put there by Zia ul haq AND the discriminatory anti-Ahmadi amendment put there by Bhutto [who was trying to keep the support of religious parties.]
It’s a bit late now to talk about "democracy."  It really is a mystery to me how so many people can sit in their armchair TV talks and be so virtuous and smug about it all now, when they didn't do it before!
Have they all forgotten the way those  miserable laws, as well as so many other restrictive things, were nurtured in those days by this “democrat” Nawaz Sharif? That just because he was “elected”, it was okay?
And why does everyone forget the way his party hooligans stormed the supreme court in their day?
They’re fine ones to lecture others now about defending judges and judiciary……
I was so relieved when he and his brother were sent out with a swift kick from an army boot.

And then under that same army boot, how things changed.....
Maybe the technical term was not "Democracy” but who cared, when we'd seen how that word had been used as nothing but a hollow symbol... with actual ruling and law-making going on as a past-time for a chosen few.
But after ‘99,  life was normal again. You felt you could breathe and the constriction in the throat was gone. TV channels were liberal, music and dance, art and drama all came back in full swing. [Again…people forget that…]

It seemed things were going well.
And then the elections of 2002. The arrival of the religious MMA on the scene....And I knew something was horribly wrong.
Everything was still as free as before, [my rude letters were printed in the papers] things carried on as normal since ‘99.
But there was that big fat ugly threat again. [I say this literally.] And a big fat WHY?
Since then, I have had no clue as to the direction Gen. Musharraf has been taking.
On one hand showing his secular side but on the other, letting the bearded ones loose.
I was just glad that he never let them actually do anything to the existing status quo.
Unless of course you count the constant threat of new religious laws in NWFP, where the MMA ruled. The burning of cassette shops and the threatening of barbers there.
Not to mention the growing trend of acid-throwing on womens’ faces by “religious” men.
The ranting and raving they were allowed to get away with. Screaming reactions from them in the NA to any movement made against those same loathsome old laws!
A long list goes on……… starting with growing militancy and bombings, and ending with the whole red mosque business.
Why was it all allowed to get to that point!?
In recent days, it seemed like a good idea that Musharraf and Benazir were talking about future co-operation.
I could visualise them working together somehow. She would have someone behind her to battle the same old opposition. And he would have someone secular around for a change.
But then, everything seemed to be going wrong!
What on earth was happening?!!!

I was in Islamabad on the evening of 27th December, at a chemist’s in Jinnah Market, when I heard the TV news there. I asked the chemist to repeat what I thought I had just heard - and then left the shop. Went into the next shop, heard the same news, repeated the same process, and left again…
I just could not take it in. It HAD NOT happened!
You could see little clusters of people with serious looks on their faces, either in front of TVs or on the streets. Many standing alone, using mobile phones.
It had, indeed, happened.

We left Islamabad almost immediately. It was a stroke of good luck, not running into the trouble that started just after.
I switched the TV on, still in disbelief, and sat down glued to it. Slowly it came to me that what I saw and heard was reality.
Next day watched it over and over again.
And then funeral and family scenes.
Seeing my mother's photo in the same room with me and talking to it as if she was there. Thanking goodness every time I looked at it that my parents had not seen this day. Yet with an uncanny feeling as though they were in the room, watching through my eyes.
Getting bad chest pain...thinking it could be due to a new medicine I had started. Or was it the agitation of a parent manifesting itself in me......
Hardly sleeping much, as steroids I'm on have turned me into an insomniac. I'm on this treatment which is helping a scary and undiagnosed condition in my right inner ear, called "Sudden, sensory-neural hearing loss".
One of the other side effects of the steroids is an “Enhancement of Feeling”, or “Heightened Awareness”…Could that explain some of this strangeness involving my parents?
Or is my inner ear playing tricks on me ........? Maybe this fault in it has opened up some new dimension of communication in my brainwaves with those long gone. Who knows?
For now, I can’t get enough of the news programmes and old film-clips, and I know the shimmer has gone from the political seas…
There was  one gilded inhabitant of those seas, with a zest for life and a purpose in her direction. She gleamed one last time in all her bright colours, rose up on the crest of a wave…and was suddenly, brutally, swallowed up by the unseen sharks circling in the dark waters below.
As for me…… I CANNOT get used to the fact that this familiar face is gone forever.
On my own behalf, and my parents’………I CANNOT come to terms with the loss of Benazir Bhutto.
I’ll end with the two lines shown onTV again and again during these days of official mourning. I think my parents would have got a kick out of them, and I remember those old days most every time I hear them.  It’s a tiny snippet of Benazir in a rally, wearing bright yellow, a flower garland round her neck, and chanting at the top of her voice in true Bhutto style:
“Kal bhi Bhutto zinda tha,
Aaj bhi Bhutto zinda hai…”


Noshe Lynn