Benazir: A friend remembers

Book cover of The Fragrance of Tears: My Friendship with Benazir Bhutto
Benazir Bhutto, twice prime minister of Pakistan, and Victoria Schofield became friends at Oxford. Their 33-year confraternity, refreshed by correspondence, constitutes the latter’s personal portrayal of the person behind the scene in The Fragrance of Tears.  

The book kicks off with their “salad days” at university. Ms Schofield succeeded Benazir as president of the Oxford Union. On hearing the news of his daughter’s election, an exultant Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, then Pakistan’s prime minister, cabled: “Overjoyed at your election as President of the Oxford Union. You have done splendidly. Our heart-warming congratulations on your great success, Papa.” Her position paved the way for a meeting with former British prime minister, Harold Macmillan, who had become chancellor of the university; and tea at the House of Commons with Margaret Thatcher. 

Unusually, Benazir owned a conspicuous yellow MG sports car — a present from her parents. “I used to love whizzing from Oxford to London in 50 minutes,” she is quoted as saying. “I would drive to London just for an ice-cream.” Ms Schofield writes: “At weekends, it was not uncommon to have a handful (literally) of invitations and to work our way around the various colleges, making an appearance at five or six parties on one night.”

In July 1977, Bhutto was overthrown in a military coup orchestrated by Pakistan’s chief of army staff General Zia-ul-Haq and accused of conspiring to murder a political opponent. In 1978-79, Ms Schofield spent a year in Pakistan around the time of Bhutto’s appeal in the Pakistani Supreme Court against the death sentence administered by the Lahore High Court, while Benazir was shunted in and out of detention. She sent dispatches on the trial and execution to The Spectator; and helped Benazir produce a pamphlet to rebut the allegations against her father. She also assisted the defence lawyers. 

Ms Schofield worked on Bhutto’s rejoinder to a White Paper issued by the martial law regime against him. In 1979, Indian publishers Vikas printed this titled “If I am assassinated…” 

In 1981, Ms Schofield clinched an interview with Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Before this she had been deported from Karachi airport. “So they did not allow you into Pakistan?” Gandhi enquired. “Never mind, you are welcome here in India.” 

Ms Schofield was twice refused a visa to attend Benazir’s wedding in Karachi in 1987, before being granted one. The groom Asif Ali Zardari told her he gave his betrothed an engagement ring with the words “Until death do us part” engraved on it. Benazir admitted to her friend she did not love him. But added: “My mother tells me that love will come.”

After Benazir became prime minister in December 1988, one of the first official guests was Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. 

Ms Schofield records: “I wasn’t the only one to think what a great opportunity there was for these two political leaders — as Benazir said, ‘both young and children of the post-Partition subcontinent’ – to set in motion the beginnings of a new relationship which would resolve India and Pakistan’s longstanding enmity.” 

The Fragrance of Tears: My Friendship with Benazir Bhutto
Author: Victoria Schofield
Publisher: Head of Zeus Ltd
Pages: 365  
Price: Rs 2,300
Following her second, rather extended spell in exile, Benazir returned to Pakistan in October 2007. Ms Schofield accompanied her. She pens: “As with her return in 1986, thousands — some said millions — had come to the Jinnah International Airport. A special open-top truck had been organised for her progress along the road leading from the airport before turning right on the Shahrah-e-Faisal road towards the Mazar-e-Qaid — the large white domed mausoleum where Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, was buried — from where she intended to make a  speech.”

Midway through the convoy’s crawling progress, there was a loud explosion, then another more deafening blast. She quotes a voice from the crowd which said: “It was a suicide attack – I’ve just seen a head.” Benazir escaped unhurt. In December, she was assassinated after addressing a rally in Rawalpindi.  The book cites the charges of corruption against Benazir and Zardari and devotes chapters to the former’s two aborted prime ministerial stints. But she refrains from lending her conclusions on these. 

At a drinks party when she returned home for Christmas halfway through her long stay in Pakistan, she found: “No one knew anything about Pakistan and they had no idea about Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s appeal against the death sentence.” I suspect not much has changed about the West's curiosity about South Asia.     

At an online launch of the publication, Aitzaz Ahsan, who was once Benazir’s interior minister, narrated that when Soviet troops were withdrawing from Afghanistan in 1989, the Pakistani army had “decided to occupy Afghanistan… the army chief Aslam Baig thought if India attacked, Afghanistan on the other side would be our strategic depth…This was a kind of neo-imperialism….The Jalalabad operation was a total failure; dead bodies started coming back. The Pakistan army had to call it off.”

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