October, 2007. Pakistan’s former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto returns home after eight years of exile to seek political office once more. Assigned to cover her controversial arrival is TV journalist Ali Sikandar, the estranged son of a wealthy landowner from the interior region of Sindh. While her presence ignites fierce protests and assassination attempts, Ali finds himself irrevocably drawn to the pro-democracy People’s Resistance Movement, a secret that sweeps him into the many contradictions of a country still struggling to embrace modernity. As Shah weaves together the centuries-old history of Ali’s feudal family and its connection to the Bhuttos, she brilliantly reveals a story at the crossroads of the personal and the political, a chronicle of one man’s desire to overcome extremity to find love, forgiveness, and even identity itself.
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About the Author
Bina Shah is a regular contributor to the International New York Times and is a frequent guest on the BBC. She has contributed essays to Granta, The Independent, and The Guardian. She holds degrees from Wellesley College and the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and is an alumna of the University of Iowa’s International Writers Workshop. Her novel Slum Child was a bestseller in Italy, and she has been published in English, Spanish, German and Italian. She lives in Karachi.
Read an Excerpt
A Season for Martyrs
By Bina Shah
DELPHINIUM BOOKSCopyright © 2014 Bina Shah
All rights reserved.
The week after General Charles Napier defeated the last of the great Sindhi chieftains of Hyderabad, he sent a one-word telegram to the governor-general to inform him of the victory.
"Peccavi," he told his clerk, Jephson, a young man from Dorset who had only landed in Karachi three weeks before, and was suffering from a terrible case of dysentery.
"Sir?" said Jephson, wondering if he had misunderstood. The twinges in his stomach were crippling his concentration, and the army doctor had filled him up with so much castor oil and calomel that his head seemed to be swimming. His mother had warned him about the mal aria, about the typhoid, and about the heathen women (she was far too genteel to use the word "whores"), saying that each malady, taken singly or all together, could ruin a young man's life forever; but she had never told him that a simple flux could give him so much misery.
"Are you deaf, man?" said the general. He raised his chin and stared at Jephson; Napier was shortsighted and to glance down his high-bridged nose lengthened the distance between his face and the object of his vision, making it easier for him to focus his unsettling blue eyes on Jephson's quavering fingers. "Write it down. Peccavi. Oh, for Christ's—didn't you learn Latin at that damned hole you call a school?"
"Yes, sir," murmured poor Jephson, a sudden spasm twisting through him. He wrote down the word painstakingly and waited, pen poised above paper, for further instructions, massaging his stomach surreptitiously with his free hand.
Napier clenched his hand, then brought it down onto his table with such force that Jephson jumped in his seat. His face dark as the bark of a burnt tree, he proclaimed: "Six thousand dead at Miani. Five thousand at Dubba. I have Sindh, and for that I have been paid sixty thousand pieces of silver."
Only then did Napier's telegram make sense to Jephson—peccavi being the Latin phrase for "I have sinned."
Jephson looked up at the general, but the man was far away in his thoughts, mulling over his recent victories, no doubt. The persecution of Mir Rustam and his escape into the Thar Desert, pursued by Napier and a group of his very best English officers and native sepoys. The thousands of Sindhis marching into the battle of Miani Forest, falling to their knees as their bodies were blown apart by the English cannons. And the Talpur traitor, Ali Akhbar, who called off the Sindhi cavalry at the last minute during the battle at Dubba, his bribe money jingling in his pockets as he fled the hamlet on his dappled stallion, another gift from his grateful employer: Napier himself.
In truth, Napier was thinking about his wife and three daughters, who had all inherited their mother's dark Greek skin and Mediterranean temperament. He had betrayed Sindh for their sakes; the blood money given to him by the East India Company—whose directors he called "a parcel of shopkeepers"—would pay his daughters' dowries, and what was left would be used to appease his wife's formidable appetite for expensive clothes and ruthless entertaining. Not a moment too soon, because his youngest daughter was threatening to elope with a minor, disgraced aristocrat, and a suitable marriage had to be arranged quickly. And nothing was done quickly in this world without very great sums of money.
Napier, a career soldier, was haunted at night by dreams in which he was paraded through the streets of Calcutta with a sign hung around his neck, on which was painted a single word: MERCENARY.
And so the telegram was sent, and the company was very pleased, and General Napier was made commander in chief of India for a time, and his daughter married a captain in the Guides; and Jephson got over his dysentery but was struck down the next year by typhoid and buried in the military cemetery in Karachi, while his mother in her cottage in Dorset wept copious tears and embroidered countless cushion covers and pillowcases with his name.
For the next one hundred years, Sindh became a distant outpost of the Bombay Presidency. The British built railway lines and barrages, irrigating the fertile lands of the Indus basin until they blossomed into patchwork quilts of wheat, rice, cotton, and fruit orchards that stretched up and down the Indus River for a thousand miles. The British governed Sindh hand in hand with the local rulers, achieving their supremacy through a delicate balance of collaboration, bribery, and brutality pioneered by Napier and carried on by a proud line of governors-general with equally high-bridged noses and clerks of questionable education and dubious health.
But Sindh was the land of the Sufi saints, who wandered all over South Asia, converting millions to Islam, that relentless religion that had roared out of the Arabian deserts with all the strength of an army of lions. With their gentle ways and their message of peace and love, the Sufi saints sang and composed poetry and bewitched the Sindhis into the worship of Allah and his Messenger, long before the British ever set foot on their shores.
The Sufi saints were buried in tombs all around the province; and over the centuries and generations their bones crumbled into the sand, imbuing all of Sindh with a peculiar strength that fired the souls of warriors, and would one day inspire them to throw off the yoke of British occupation. Then the Land of the Sufis would merge with the Land of the Five Rivers, the Land of the Pakhtoons, and the Land of the Baloch in 1947 to become a greater entity, a newly birthed country: the Land of the Pure.
The story of General Napier's telegram is only a rumor, originating from that famous cartoon in Punch that shows the general clutching a telegram in his hand that reads "Peccavi." But it is true that one hundred and sixty years after it was sent, the only tribute to the Conqueror of Sindh remains in the form of Napier Mole Road, an area in the Karachi ports famed for two things: the bridge that connects Karachi to Keamari, and its red-light district, where prostitutes hope to become movie stars, especially if they possess the light skin and blue eyes that may or may not have been gifted to them by some distant British ancestor.CHAPTER 2
October 18, 2007
Ali Sikandar sat at his desk, surfing the Web while fact-checking the special program his television channel was preparing for the arrival of Benazir Bhutto. She was to fly into Karachi tomorrow from Dubai after eight years of exile; Ameena Hai, Ali's producer, had just told Ali that not only did he have to write the copy for the background segments of the report, but he also had to go with the cameraman and sound technician to interview people at the airport for their reactions to Benazir's return.
"Dammit," Ali growled to Jehangir as soon as Ameena walked away. They worked as researchers for the television channel City24 News, where Ameena was well-known for taking particular delight in torturing her junior staff: making them rewrite copy, tearing to shreds what they'd already written, ordering them to stay in the office all night to work on a segment that was always cut from the final edit. Ali didn't have a choice: saying no to any of her demands would have cost him his job. Jehangir possessed a college degree from America and useful contacts all over the media industry, but Ali had only managed to finish a year of business studies at a university in Dubai before he had to return to Karachi to take care of his mother, and younger brother and sister. Now he attended evening classes at Bhutto University three days a week so he could look for a better job as soon as he had his BBA in hand.
So when Ameena leaned over the partition that divided the sweaty, cramped office into even more sweaty, cramped cubicles, placed her substantial arms on top of the partition in a way that emphasized her breasts, and informed Ali that he would travel to Jinnah Airport and follow Benazir's entourage into the city even if it took nine hours to crawl the twelve miles from the airport to Bilawal House, Ali had to agree to fulfill the assignment.
"Are you a Benazir supporter, Ali?" asked Ameena.
Ali returned her gaze coolly. "I'm not."
"Really? I thought all Sindhis loved Benazir. Bhutto's daughter, daughter of the soil ..."
"My father was a supporter," said Ali. "I'm not that impressed." He noted with a sense of relief how much easier it was to speak of his father in the past tense. He no longer had to check himself, to make the mental effort to change from is to was. And he no longer had to deal with people's sympathetic glances, the hushed tones and the occasional how-did-it-happen that people cast in front of him like fishing lines, hoping to get some kind of drama or gossip on the end of the hook. Ali had already told his stories about his father's death, his widowed mother, the orphaned younger brother and sister, enough times that people's curiosity had been satisfied.
Now, when the occasional question came up, he knew exactly how to handle it: he simply said that his father, a Sindhi bureaucrat who worked in the taxation department, had died two years ago of a heart attack, leaving him, the eldest son of the Sikandar family, responsible for the family. Said with just the right amount of detachment, a sad smile, a tightening of the lips, he could change the subject quickly then, and nobody would be the wiser.
"Well, that's good," said Ameena. "At least you won't be too biased. Remember, no editorial comment, just the facts, when you file."
Jehangir stared at the blue-green veins traversing Ameena's cleavage and bombarded Ali with juvenile emails urging him to take a picture down her shirt and post it all over the Internet.
- It's easy, Jehangir wrote in his tenth overexcited email, an hour later, as Ali still sat and stared glumly at his Facebook page. Just get a webcam, and then when she comes over, turn it in her direction while she isn't watching and then—
- That's sick, Ali fired back, not bothering to read the rest. But I can't believe she's sending me over to the airport! Two hundred thousand people are going to be showing up there. It's going to be a mess!
- Stop complaining, wrote Jehangir. Always complaining, Ali. You're going to get to see history in the making.
- History? I could care less about any of this.
- Wait, wait, wait. Wasn't your father a PPP man?
- He was. I'm not. I'm nobody's man.
- What about Sunita, aren't you her man?
- Shut up, loser.
-You first, jackass!
The abusive nicknames were a constant running joke between them, a way to express affection, exasperation, and boredom in the office. But Ali was always careful to keep that one particular insult out of his repertoire—fag! —because Jehangir had recently confessed to him that he was, in fact, gay—or at least bi; he wasn't sure. In return for that particular confidence, Ali had told Jehangir about Sunita. Two young men, needing to appear invulnerable and in control most of the day, ended up telling each other a lot of secrets when they were the only people in the office at three o'clock in the morning, making sure that all the graphics were correct for a program that had to be aired in another four hours, bickering over McDonald's Big Macs delivered two hours ago, now stone-cold and tasting like congealed cardboard.
Ali clicked back to the Wikipedia website, where he was pulling up information about Benazir Bhutto for the background report:
Benazir Bhutto (Sindhi: [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] Urdu: [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]; pronounced [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]; 21 June 1953—) is a politician and stateswoman who served as the 11th Prime Minister of Pakistan in two non-consecutive terms from November 1988 until October 1990, and 1993 until her final dismissal on November 1996. She was the eldest daughter of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, a former prime minister of Pakistan and the founder of the Pakistan People's Party (PPP), which she led.
In 1982, at age 29, Benazir Bhutto became the chairwoman of PPP—a centre-left, democratic socialist political party, making her the first woman in Pakistan to head a major political party....
Benazir Bhutto's popularity waned amid recession, corruption, and high unemployment which later led to the dismissal of her government by conservative President Ghulam Ishaq Khan.
In 1993, Benazir Bhutto was re-elected for a second term after the 1993 parliamentary elections....
In 1996, the charges of corruption levelled against her led to the final dismissal of her government by President Farooq Leghari. Benazir Bhutto conceded her defeat in the 1997 Parliamentary elections and went into self-imposed exile in Dubai, United Arab Emirates in 1998.
Ali skimmed the rest of the entry and picked out the important facts, cutting and pasting them into the Word document that was next to the DesiBeauties page that was open beneath the Wikipedia page. Education ... family ... marriage ... Prime Minister ... policies ... policies for women ... It was mindless work; Ali often thought a dog or a robot could do his job, but it was thirty thousand rupees a month—City24 paid that much to their researchers, hoping to lure them away from the older, more established rival channels—so Ali was not, despite Jehangir's accusations, complaining.
Ali stopped short at the part about all the corruption cases. Ameena had told him to stay away from too much controversy, to stick to the basic facts. "I'm not going to turn this into some kind of tabloid show just to get the ratings," she told Ali.
"Isn't that what this business is all about?" said Ali.
Ameena frowned. "We get pressure from the advertisers all the time to make things juicy. They keep saying the viewers need more masala. But I don't want to do that here. Someone has to try to show a little class."
Ali had a sudden memory of his father shouting that the accusations were all a pack of lies and that Benazir's father, Zulfikar Bhutto, was the greatest man that ever walked this earth. Ali thought that if Sikandar Hussein were to read the Wikipedia entry about the Dassault case and Surrey palace and Asif Zardari's polo ponies, he would become apoplectic. It was this image of his father, spluttering and red-faced, that Ali found he missed in an odd way now, even though it had upset the entire family whenever he had exploded like that in front of them.
Ali paused from his work to imagine a conversation with his father: Sikandar would bellow—he always thought that the loudest voice won the argument—that it was all cooked up by the army and the president, who didn't want Benazir to come back and win the election. Ali, certain that his father didn't know what he was talking about, would coolly argue that foreign courts wouldn't file false cases and there was enough evidence to convict a hundred times over. Sikandar would retort, in his raspy, cigarettes and whiskey-raw voice, that anything could be cooked up; even history could be rewritten if you put the right amount of money into the right palms. Just look at 9/11! What proof do we even have that they were actually Muslims? Anything can be made up, anything can be true or not true, depending on whose interests it serves.
Yes, Ali would answer. Just like the National Reconciliation Order the president had signed, which proclaimed all the politicians innocent of crimes of which they'd already been convicted. Even murders.
Then he'd say, "But Baba, we don't have to defend criminals just because they're Sindhis like us."
And Sikandar would have no answer to that.
The conversation would never really have happened: Sikandar would brook no argument about his beloved Benazir. Ali could still remember how his father boasted that he was one of the thousands who accompanied her on the procession when she'd first returned to Pakistan in the eighties. "She was standing on top of that truck for eighteen hours, smiling and waving to everyone, like a heroine—a princess. No, a queen. I swear she looked right at me and I started to shout, Jiye, Bhutto and everyone began to shout and then the whole crowd was shouting and it was like thunder, no, it was like the roaring of the sea...."
Excerpted from A Season for Martyrs by Bina Shah. Copyright © 2014 Bina Shah. Excerpted by permission of DELPHINIUM BOOKS.
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