Benazir Bhutto: The Exile's Return

Benazir Bhutto: her history, life story and her return to from exile to Pakistan.

By Amy Wilentz
Illustration by Chang Park
During her 20-year political career, she has been a victim of several assassination attempts; even outside Pakistan she is wise to take precautions. She lives now with her younger daughter, Aseefa, in the house Caesar guards; her son and older daughter are off at university. Her husband, Asif Ali Zardari (from whom Bhutto’s reportedly estranged), lives with his dog, Maximilian, in New York. Today, her household is in flux, with furniture moved here and there to accommodate the television crew and sofas turning up in strange places, like the foot of the stairs. But a life spent in Pakistani politics has accustomed Benazir Bhutto to chaos and disarray. She thrives on it.Daughter of DestinyIn the front sitting room, where I’m waiting for Bhutto, is a little library with shelves of books labeled by category: not just BIOGRAPHIES, FICTION, SPEECHES, RELIGION and SOUTH ASIA but also COOKING BOOKS, YOGA, SELF-HELP, HEALTH and ASTROLOGY. I see one section called FAMILY. Based on the quantity of self-help and health titles — such as Facial Workout, The Little Book of Stress and Eat to Beat Your Age — I expect the family shelves to include books on how to listen to your kids so your kids will talk to you. Instead I discover that the 60 to 70 volumes there are either about the Bhutto family or include chapters about a member of the family, most often her father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, a progressive, democratically elected prime minister who was ousted, imprisoned and hanged in 1979 by General Muhammad Ziaul-Haq, one of the presidents who preceded Musharraf. Open on a small table next to the bookcases is How to Know God: The Soul’s Journey into the Mystery of Mysteries, by Deepak Chopra.I knew Benazir Bhutto slightly when she and I were at Harvard together in the early 1970s. I met her through her younger brother, Mir, my friend and classmate. This is not exactly the library — especially the public library — I would have expected of a graduate of Harvard and Oxford University who was elected president of the prestigious Oxford Union debating society back in 1977. I would have expected Shakespeare, John Stuart Mill, Milton, Carlyle and Disraeli perhaps, and possibly Trollope or Dickens. Maybe V. S. Naipaul and Pakistani novelists like Mohsin Hamid and Hanif Kureishi. But then, when she is not in her role as a former and possibly future world leader, Benazir is surprisingly unpretentious.Perhaps this is because during her life, she has been not only celebrated but also humbled, as a central actor in a family saga that seems sometimes like a Greek tragedy — with zeniths of political power and nadirs of violent death — and at other moments like a lowbrow soap opera.I remember visiting Benazir with Mir back in college, at Eliot House, a big brick dormitory next to the Charles River. Her room was splashed with bright, mirrored fabric and bedspreads made in Pakistan. Her nickname, given to her by her father, was Pinkie, because of her fair skin. Mir was a little awed by his big sister, but they had an easy, teasing relationship. The writer Anne Fadiman, who roomed next door to Benazir then, later noted that when Bhutto arrived in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a prodigy at the age of 16, "She had never cooked a meal, washed a blouse, walked more than a block without being picked up by a chauffeur or lifted a ringing telephone." She had been raised like an Indian princess during the Raj, surrounded by lackeys and ayahs.Of herself at that time, Bhutto told me later, "I have lived a life of contrasts, and I give thanks to God that I was in the U.S. in those hippie days and we were all so informal. I learned to look after myself. I could go to airports and pick up my own luggage and make my own bed. I came from so privileged a background; there, I became self-sufficient. In the face of what later happened to me, I would have crumbled otherwise."One of the things that happened to her was General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, the man who orchestrated the 1986 arrest during which she had to leave her cat Sugar behind, the same tin-pot, mustachioed dictator who had ordered the execution of her father.

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