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Verve People
January 27, 2014

Shifting Sands

Text by Shashi Baliga. Photograph by Ankur Chaturvedi

Though her life has been overlaid with emotional turbulence, the global nomad says she is now comfortable anywhere in the world. In India, for the release of her first novel The Shadow Of The Crescent Moon, Fatima Bhutto talks about her literary works, her creative muse and her political legacy

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All she’s ever wanted to be was a writer, she says. With her delicate, translucent beauty; political inheritance and the life of a truly global citizen, you might have expected Fatima Bhutto to have nursed a rather different dream.

But I believe her. Because she makes a simple, grateful statement of it: “My dream job is to be a writer and I feel so blessed to get up each day and be able to do what I love.”

References to writing and literature creep into our conversation at every turn: “The lovely thing about being a writer is that for brief magical moments, you can have other lives, different possibilities or different imaginings, inhabit different worlds.”

And our conversation plays out like one journalist talking to another: just when I get around to asking about all the stories about her and George Clooney, my phone rings and snatches the moment away; we both laugh as I mutter “Bad timing!” She smiles knowingly: “Yes.” (I do manage to get a response from her later, though.)

So it’s back to writing; more specifically, her first novel, The Shadow of the Crescent Moon. It is a slim, tautly told tale of three brothers and two women in a village in Pakistan. “For me the women are the heart of this novel. It’s really about how women suffer and how they struggle,” she says.

It is not her first book; there have been three before it: a book of poems, Whispers in the Desert; next, an account of the impact of the 2005 Kashmir earthquake titled 8.50 a.m. 8 October 2005; and, three years ago, a memoir, Songs of Blood and Sword. The memoir created a stir as it accused her late aunt Benazir Bhutto of having Murtaza Bhutto (Fatima’s father and Benazir’s brother) murdered in Karachi. The book was called everything from ‘highly readable’ to ‘vengeful’.

Little controversy surrounds the new book, though. And its author seems to be in a different mood and phase of her life. Today, compassion is a word that crops up often. “If you believe in compassion, you can’t pick and choose who you’ll be compassionate to. It has to be there for your worst enemy and in your worst situation. You’re either compassionate to everybody or to nobody,” she believes. “But it is a deep struggle.”

Much of Fatima’s life has been overlaid with emotional turbulence. She was born when her father was in exile in Kabul and just three when her parents divorced. Murtaza’s second wife, Ghinwa, a Lebanese, is the woman Fatima refers to today as her mother. She spent much of her childhood in different countries as her father was on the move, and there’s no one place she calls home because, she points out, “I grew up in exile; home has never been permanent, it has always changed and shifted. Everywhere was home and nowhere was home.” She was 11 when her parents returned to Pakistan. At 14, she hid in a cupboard, protecting her baby brother as her father was shot dead outside their Karachi home. She was 26 when her aunt Benazir was assassinated on her return to Pakistan. Though that chapter has ended, Fatima has been scathing in her remarks about Benazir’s husband Asif Zardari.

It’s not a pretty story but Fatima seems to have navigated her turbulent life remarkably. Her explanation is: “It’s at the times when it’s the most tumultuous that you feel it the least – because you simply have to survive. If your foundation and values are solid, you’ll come through not scathed in the way you otherwise might; not be angry and hateful, not to wish what is happening to you on others.”

She leans on a great writer for further explanation: “Chekhov said that any idiot can face a crisis; it’s the day-to-day living that wears you out. It’s when the crisis is gone that you wake up and think, my god, now what? You constantly have to learn how to handle that.”

She’s had her bit of everyday life in college in London and then, Columbia University in the US (which explains why her accent is an unpredictable English-American mixture). After her studies, she became a journalist, writing for papers all over the world and in Pakistan as well. “The travelling allows you to speak to other people, hear people’s stories.” She’s a global nomad now, comfortable anywhere in the world. “You could put me anywhere and I’ll feel at home in three days. And then, after another three days I’ll want to leave again because it doesn’t feel like home,” she half-laughs.

India is one place she felt at home, from her very first visit as a schoolgirl. “I’ve always felt very welcomed here. And when people say, ‘Oh, you look Indian, that’s why they’re nice to you,’ I tell them that when Indians find out I’m Pakistani, they’re even warmer!”

She has travelled quite a bit across India. But Mumbai is special, she says: “Mumbai is where I fell in love with India. It reminds me of Karachi. And this energy you feel in Mumbai, the lights and the life, the noises… it makes me feel at home.”

One memory that’s obviously dear comes from a trip she made to Mumbai with a friend when she was 23. On their first shopping trip, she recounts, “We were bargaining away and my friend told the salesperson, ‘Oh, come on, we’re from Karachi.’ And I muttered to her, ‘Why did you say that? Now they’re going to be angry and mean.’ But the opposite happened. The moment she said that, they said, ‘Oh, just take the stuff!’ So, she would keep using that line all through, and people would say things like, ‘Come in, meet my family,’ or ‘Meet my wife, she has family in Karachi and Hyderabad.’ It’s so welcoming, I feel like I belong in India.”

Varanasi is another city that reminds her of Pakistan. She remembers her trip there last year, “As we were driving into the city, I was overcome by this thought: why do I feel like I’ve been here before? It was when we drove further into the city that it struck me that it was just like Larkana (the city where the Bhutto family home sits). You have the Ganges, we have the Indus. It’s the same light on the river, the feel of a river… and the same bazaars.”

Travelling is clearly a passion. Especially since life in Pakistan may not always be easy for her. “It’s tough because I don’t really have the freedom that other people have, which is just to be anonymous,” she says. Can she walk down the road in Karachi the way she might elsewhere? “I have tried that and it didn’t go very well,” she says wryly. “Then, one day, I decided I would go running on the beach; try and stop me! So I went, but I wasn’t very comfortable. It was mainly because people there aren’t used to seeing a woman bounding across the beach. You can either let that kind of thing control you and say okay, I give up or you can keep trying in these other little ways. We try to live as normally as possible.”

This is the point at which I ask her my aborted question about George Clooney, whom the international press linked her with some four years ago, claiming that the Hollywood star had fallen for her. But Fatima brushes off the stories: “Just gossip, there’s nothing to it.” I change tack slightly, asking her if he really is as charming as he’s said to be. This time, she is firmer: “For me, it’s a real struggle to talk about all the things I do, about women, about violence. This angle really disrupts that.” Clearly, she has her strategy all figured out, so I let it go; a girl’s entitled to her privacy in such matters. Especially if she’s in a situation as tricky as Fatima’s.

But politics is legitimate ground.

As is the constant speculation that she will step into the political arena, despite the fact that she has consistently said that she does not believe in what she calls ‘birthright politics’. I remark on the many tragic similarities between her life and that of Priyanka Gandhi’s; have they ever met? “No, but I’ve always admired the Gandhi family. I think they’re very brave and I find them to be deeply compassionate and sensitive,” Fatima replies. Then adds carefully; “From the outside.” That’s the journalist in her. I suspect, circumspect in voicing an opinion.

Though Fatima, for obvious reasons, cannot but be politically aware and does write on politics, it’s not a space she sees herself in actively. “I don’t think I’d be effective at a job that I didn’t want to do,” she says simply.

What she is interested in unequivocally is women and women’s issues. And it’s not just women in Pakistan. “I’m part of a globalised youth and we care about issues whether they belong to the countries we live in or elsewhere. So the violence we saw against women in Delhi or Mumbai recently, we felt it regardless of the fact that it was not our country,” she explains. “I think women face betrayal constantly. It’s something that women understand in a unique and intimate way much better than men do. All women have some experience of it.”

Betrayal and fear have been a constant cloud hanging over her life. Has she got used to living with fear, I wonder. “I never forget fear,” she replies quietly. “The body is conditioned to remember fear for its survival. I wish we didn’t, I wish we remembered love and hope and happiness. But understanding that fear only takes over if you let it do so is important. Fear is like a phantom – it’s as real as you make it.”

It is a very real presence in her life, though. And a deep concern as well. “I don’t have children yet but I always think that all the fears I had and all the worries I have — I don’t want the next set to carry them,” she remarks. “The peace that one wants is a constant journey. There’s so much of pain and worry in the world in which we live that it’s difficult to not get jaded or numbed. I am still learning to be the woman I would like to be. I keep trying.”

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