Book Review: Songs of Blood And Sword by Fatima Bhutto

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By Naveed Qazi | Editor, Globe Up Front

A couple of years back, a chord of curiosity struck me after I read a review of Fatima Bhutto’s awaited memoir by a friend on a local daily, alongside my own column. Having avidly listened and adorned to her articulations, as a charming intellectual, her third book lingered on my bucket list for a while, and I finally decided to appraise her most important work so far.

The book is not just about Fatima Bhutto’s account of personal experiences and the chronicles of murderous executions of her scions, but it is also a lauding compilation of revealing reportage. She takes you into the history of Pakistani politics, the authoritative past of the Bhutto feudals,  their powerful awakenings, the pains of exiles and personal lives. The leaves of the book are filled with compositions of a building Pakistan, its epochs of corruption and the politics of vendetta of an important geo-strategic country in South Asia.

The title of the book is borrowed from Khosrow Golsurkhi’s poem ‘Poem of the Unknown.’ The words speak of metaphors that affirm struggles and wailings of pain. ‘Songs Of Blood And Sword’ is a tribute by a daughter to her murdered father, who she regarded as a true heir apparent of Pakistan People’s Party. It would have been an exhaustive research for the Afghan born poetess. After-all, she was writing about one the most influential families in the region and its politically ridden relation with the State of Pakistan.

‘If there is anyone born to write this story, it is Fatima Bhutto,’ says William Dalrymple. The book is filled with family epistles, political history, violence and prose churned out through interviews with acquaintances, coteries and foreign journalists from Europe and Asia. As a reader, the content of her memoir arouses attention. The paragraphs are free flowing, with a vocabulary which is highly educative at times, and the author successfully fills the void of those boring moments which one encounters while reading an average memoir - the book is a finely penned work and serves as an important reference for political developments that have shaken Pakistan with time. I was also impressed with the way the substance of the book had been organised  because it has likely helped in keeping the pace of the narrative.  

The subject matter of the book is a must not only for a Bhutto buff, but also for researchers of politics - it was September 1996, when a fourteen year old Fatima hid herself in a windowless dressing room, with her little brother, when she heard that her father had been shot in 'Operation Clean Up' by the police in Karachi near her residence. The book draws accusations of a significant, if not a damning evidence of her father being killed as a vindictive victim of Asif Ali Zardari and his aides. The narration of his death and the pain of the separation mentioned in the epilogue makes the book a distinctive tale penned by a brave journalist.

Importantly, the book speaks of an ideological shift of Bhuttos, from a Sunni gentry class, the land warriors, to avowed Marxists. Since a young kid, she has been a witness to the power broking struggle of her family members, with the land they belong. In this book, Fatima Bhutto vouchsafes Zulfikar Ali Bhutto as an architect of constitutional reform and the father of foreign diplomacies for Pakistan. She also portrays him as the most important advisor to Murtaza in shaping his life. There are reading moments where Murtaza Bhutto’s tryst with progressive socialism, in emancipating the farmer class, labour unions, the tyrannies of Zia and his junta serve as important contentions for an edifying read. I don’t want to dwell much into the personal accounts of her family members, illustrated with attached portraits, which are so prevalent in memoirs, because I wrote this review on the basis of political calamities that have hit Pakistan and its relationship with the Bhutto family - that’s what makes this book as an important read to me.

What I took from the book was that it is the story of Fatima where she portrays her father as an unsung hero – that’s the main acquittal for Fatima Bhutto in writing this book. The narrative serves as a reminder to people who think that fearless writing for the pursuit of truth can’t create ripples of change. These candid attempts by an individual are sometimes dismissed as bias, but when things haven’t been reported or written, how can prejudice occur at the first place? It is for this reason we should give the author the benefit of doubt because she slips into a similar position. However, in context of recent interviews, Fatima has also expressed her changing viewpoint regarding recent demerits of dynastical politics ruling the region, and the need for meritocracy.

Going back to the book, the genre is mostly catered towards the watchers of politics and hailers of feminism, where a word coming from a woman serves as a purpose to equality. Fatima’s piece of work is part of this aspiring development, especially in places like South Asia, where emancipation coming from highly educated women, who are good orators, writers contribute towards building of a society.

‘Songs Of Blood And Sword’ should be marketed for good because the content of her authorship is honest and very pertinent, not only for the people of Pakistan, but also for the sympathisers of the Pakistani State who want the country to be prosperous and strong. I found the book as a creditworthy research and a personal outrage against injustice. The book can definitely hold you and it’s not a disappointment.


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