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‘A modern woman in an unmodern world'

Shyam Bhatia spoke to Pramit Pal Chaudhuri about various aspects of Benazir Bhutto and his own writing of her life.

books Updated: May 20, 2008 14:02 IST
Pramit Pal Chaudhuri

Shyam Bhatia spoke to Pramit Pal Chaudhuri about various aspects of Benazir Bhutto and his own writing of her life.

Excerpts:

On interviewing Benazir
I interviewed Benazir Bhutto more times than I can count over some 30 years, going back to when we were in college together. I also was one of the last journalists to interview her before she was killed. When Benazir was planning her return to Pakistan, I had asked her, "Why are you going back?" She replied, "I have to go, you don't understand." I had asked for some answers to some questions. Benazir said, "Send me the questions." I wasn't too enthusiastic about an email interview, so I didn't send them. Then she went to Karachi and phoned me, "Where are the questions? Send them to Sherry [Rehman, PPP legistlator]. Ten questions." I did. She answered in due course.

On corruption charges
There was one interview in which she defended her husband, Asif Ali Zardari. She said, "I know people call him Mr 10 Per Cent. He's a businessman, what's wrong with being a businessman?" I said that he should have been like Caesar's wife, beyond reproach. She listened, but didn't respond. Instead she spoke of people ganging up on her. When asked about claims she had spent £117,000 on a necklace in Knightsbridge in London, she said, "I never did.".

On her contradictions
Benazir had so many contradictions. She believed in democracy while being , feudal by instinct. She was a symbol of the empowered woman, but couldn't get her country's terrible laws on rape overthrown. She hated the army but was , forced to deal with it. She claimed to have clamped down on Sikh militants but in 1998 was out whipping Kashmiri militants into a frenzy In the end, she . was a very modern woman who had to deal with a very unmodern reality .

On the gentle Benazir
A number of things used to strike me about her. One was her obvious passion for her dead father. Another thing, and I don't care what else you may say about her, was that she was not vindictive. When we were at Oxford University she asked me to support a campaign to get her father an honorary degree. I said no, given what Zulfikar Ali Bhutto had done in Bangladesh in the 1971 war. She was furious and we screamed and shouted at each other. I thought it was all over between us.

Then suddenly I got an invitation to an event co-hosted by her. There were some 40 to 50 students. I decided to go and when I ran into her she said, "Why don't you bother to call me any more?" I, somewhat sarcastically, replied, "Aap to shahzadi hai." ("But you are a princess!") But it was all patched up after that. And she wasn't above accepting her mistakes. Later, on the issue of 1971 again, Benazir told me, "I didn't know then what I know now."

On writing
I wanted to write this all down before the memories began to fade. It's an anecdotal book, I wasn't trying to produce anything scholarly I wanted . Benazir to be shown in a more holistic light, to show her as someone who did evolve.

The young woman of Radcliffe, who threw ashtrays like flying saucers at the servants during tantrums, who developed into a more caring and mature person. I genuinely believe the world is poorer in not having someone of her calibre.