Review of The Bhutto Dynasty, by Owen Bennett-Jones, pub. Yale University Press
“As a result of dealing with so many suicide attacks, the Pakistani police had noticed that the force of a suicide bomb blast often peeled the bomber’s face clean off the skull and propelled it far from the epicentre. Police could gather these so-called “facemasks” and get a very good idea what the bomber looked like.”
The laconic, matter-of-fact utterance of what might easily have been sensationalised is typical of this biography. It is what it says on the tin, an account of several generations of the powerful Bhutto family and its effects on Pakistan. The three family members who dominate it, obviously, are Benazir, her father Zulfikar Ali, and his father Shahnawaz, but it really is about a family as much as about individual members of it, and as often happens, there are peripheral characters who sound worth a book in themselves.
Though Zulfikar Ali flirted with left-wing politics, he and the rest of his kin were basically hereditary feudal aristocrats from a family which originated in Rajasthan but had removed in the late 17th century to Sindh, where they owned vast tracts of land and did pretty much as they pleased, just like English aristocrats of the time. The first chapter does give some of the historical and social background against which they operated, but personally I would have liked more. The country and the way it worked remained a little shadowy for me; in particular it was never clear to me how the army had come to be so powerful.
Sir Shahnawaz, Zulfikar’s father, was an able time-server whose most interesting act, late in life, was to marry a Hindu girl who was never accepted by his family, a slight which seems to have rankled with her son all his life. But Shahnawaz’s own father, Ghulam Murtaza, was a larger-than-life character who seems to have been deplorable and fascinating in roughly equal measure. His grandson took after him, and here I think is this book’s greatest achievement: it manages to describe a dodgy but undeniably charismatic man dispassionately, factually, not falling for his charm but managing nonetheless to convey what it was that made him so popular with so many. I doubt this is easy. I have read accounts of the Russian revolution that make Lenin sound a complete bore, and whatever else he was, he cannot have been that.
A similar objectivity is maintained with regard to Benazir; inevitably she elicits rather more sympathy from the reader because she seems to have wanted power at least partly for what she could do with it, rather than, like Zulfikar, simply because it was there, but the author remains resolutely neutral, unless one counts a certain dry, occasional innuendo: “For some reason the highly ambitious Beg, despite being with Zia on the day of his death, had not been with him at the precise moment he was assassinated.” This objectivity is the more admirable given the difficulty the author clearly had with sources. He has read many books and government papers and conducted many interviews, but constantly has to remind us that most of the people whose words we are reading had axes to grind and may not be wholly reliable. One source, Sir Shahnawaz’s memoir, was drawn upon by an earlier writer and certainly seems at one time to have existed in the family library, but they now disclaim all knowledge of what may have been the only copy.
This is a properly scholarly book with proper notes, source and index but also manages to be an absorbing and informative read.