Michelle Styles, who is a beekeeper and that’s just bloody awesome, sent me a link to an article in The Guardian about the late Benazir Bhutto titled The Flawed and Feudal Princess. The author, William Dalrymple, met Bhutto on an interview, and attempts to write a contrasting account of her life, personal and political, in light of her assassination last week.
I won’t pretend in the least any ability to speak intelligently about Pakistani politics and Bhutto’s legacy as a former Prime Minister and candidate in the upcoming elections. But the mention of Bhutto’s love of romance novels in Dalrymple’s article is interesting:
For the Americans, what Benazir Bhutto wasn’t was possibly more attractive even than what she was. She wasn’t a religious fundamentalist, she didn’t have a beard, she didn’t organise rallies where everyone shouts: ‘Death to America’ and she didn’t issue fatwas against Booker-winning authors, even though Salman Rushdie ridiculed her as the Virgin Ironpants in his novel Shame.
However, the very reasons that made the West love Benazir Bhutto are the same that gave many Pakistanis second thoughts. Her English might have been fluent, but you couldn’t say the same about her Urdu which she spoke like a well-groomed foreigner: fluently, but ungrammatically. Her Sindhi was even worse; apart from a few imperatives, she was completely at sea.
English friends who knew Benazir at Oxford remember a bubbly babe who drove to lectures in a yellow MG, wintered in Gstaad and who to used to talk of the thrill of walking through Cannes with her hunky younger brother and being ‘the centre of envy; wherever Shahnawaz went, women would be bowled over’.
This Benazir, known to her friends as Bibi or Pinky, adored royal biographies and slushy romances: in her old Karachi bedroom, I found stacks of well-thumbed Mills and Boons including An Affair to Forget, Sweet Imposter and two copies of The Butterfly and the Baron. This same Benazir also had a weakness for dodgy Seventies easy listening – ‘Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Old Oak Tree’ was apparently at the top of her playlist. This is also the Benazir who had an enviable line in red-rimmed fashion specs and who went weak at the sight of marrons glace.
Curious use of romance novels to create an understanding of a female leader. As Styles said in her email to me, “In many ways, it is unremarkable—an intelligent woman reading romance.” True – and say what you will about Bhutto’s political leadership, she was not unintelligent.
The article itself is thought provoking, and one of the few that painted a both-sides portrait of Bhutto, who was both singular as a woman leader in that part of the world, and not so extraordinary as she had a large amount of controversy and allegations of corruption surrounding her. That Dalrymple makes a it a point that she read “slushy” romance is interesting, though, because on one hand it makes her relatable to Western women who do read romance for leisure. But on the other hand, I wonder if the comment was meant to illustrate a flippant, uncaring side of her personality, who spent the wealth she had without worrying about those who lived under her administration – a point underscored by the account of how little her administration did to support the poor in Pakistan.
Truthfully, this is one of the few uses of romance reading as a marker of some degree of femininity or womanhood that didn’t raise my hackles. However, I’m not holding my breath for the release of an article detailing Hillary Clinton’s top favorite romance novels. Not a chance.