Thursday, January 24, 2008

The Death of Benazir Bhutto

The assassination of former prime minister of Pakistan Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto, who returned from exile on 18 October has all the ingredients of a Frederic Forsyth thriller . The knowledge of a clear and present danger, compounded by a near miss on the night of her return from years of exile, makes it a chronicle of a death foretold.

Benazir returned under a flawed U.S. mediated plan to shift Pakistan from direct to indirect military rule and give it a civilian fa├žade. For much of her exile, Benazir was considered irrelevant by Washington, but after Musharaf's crackdown on civil society in Pakistan, she emerged as America's safest bet in a region where US policy makers have huge stakes. Mark Penn, Hillary Clinton's image-maker presented her as progressive, secular, female, reformed during her years of exile and willing to compromise.

Benazir was an enigma. Brilliant, beautiful, fearless, compassionate but with a will of iron, ruthless ambition and deeply devious. Far removed from ordinary life in Pakistan, she had an English governess, went to a convent school and graduated from Harvard and Oxford.

'London is like a second home for me,' she told William Dalrymple. 'I know London well. I know where the theatres are, I know where the shops are, I know where the hairdressers are. I love to browse through Harrods and WH Smith in Sloane Square. I know all my favourite ice cream parlours. I used to particularly love going to the one at Marble Arch: Baskin Robbins. Sometimes, I used to drive all the way up from Oxford just for an ice cream and then drive back again. That was my idea of sin.'

Known to her friends as Bibi or Pinky, she liked royal biographies and Mills and Boons romances. Khalid Hasan, Press Secretary to her father, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, said, "If Benazir Bhutto was to be summed up in one word, that word would be ‘kind’. Indomitable though her will was, and extraordinary the courage she was gifted with, behind her sometimes steely exterior lay a deeply humane woman who felt for the poor and the deprived. Benazir was forgiving. She had an amazing capacity to take personal abuse – and that was one count on which she was never to want. She would shrug her shoulders and move on. She preferred to concentrate on the essentials of her relationships with people, not the trivia that often gets to define them. She was by nature a generous person."

Husain Haqqani, who did a lot of work on her behalf in Washington and with the US media, wrote, "Benazir Bhutto was the most amazing, loving and lovable person I have ever known. For those who only saw her as a distant political figure, her human dimension clearly did not matter. For everyone whose life she touched, her humanity transcended the politics. Benazir Bhutto had the capacity to turn critics into admirers. When I first met her, I worked for her opponent but she won me over by her charm and persuasion, leading to fifteen years of close relations and my absolute personal loyalty to her".

However, Benazir had many loathsome detractors and critics. They painted Benazir Bhutto as a frivolously wealthy feudal landlord, more concerned with power than with the wellbeing of the average Pakistani. It was trumpeted with ferocious frequency that she and her husband shamelessly looted the nation’s treasure and ended up fleeing the country, pursued by the courts. It is also widely claimed that during her years as Prime Minister, Pakistan went backward, not forward.

It is not clear who killed Bhutto. She told crowd of supporters that fateful evening, "I risked my life and came here because I believe our country is in danger". The government says that Baitullah Mehsud, a militant with links to Al Qaeda and the Taliban, was behind it. That exonerates everybody else.

This attack was carefully planned and executed. Benazir’s behaviour during and after public gatherings had been well researched and carefully plotted. She often used that top sunroof to greet her supporters during processions and public gathering. But her assassins could not assume she would continue to use the sunroof. They probably had a plan to get her to come out while she was about to leave the gate of Liaqat Bagh, Rawalpindi.

The killers learnt from the unsuccessful attempt of 18 October when Benazir survived because her armoured truck withstood the blast that while a bomb may fail because of the protective measures, it is necessary for the target to shift to another vehicle. There lies the opportunity for the kill. The assassins therefore probably planned for the 27 December attack to include a shooter, a suicide bomber and, in all probability, a sniper. They were determined to get her.

The publicly available video footage and photographs show a pistol firing gunman and a suicide bomber. The suicide bomber and the shooter probably did not know about each other's mission or presence. The shooter was not on a suicide mission and was given an exit plan. If the bomber was to be used to get her out of the armed vehicle, this shooter would have been eliminated with the bomber. So who was to take final shot? The logical conclusion points to a highly trained sniper. This therefore becomes something more sophisticated and professionally orchestrated.

Official accounts of the cause of death kept shifting. Bullet wounds became concussion. A Ministry of Interior spokesman said Benazir had died by hitting her head on a lever of her vehicle's sunroof during the attack. The other passengers refuted this. The doctors who examined Benazir afterwards also distanced themselves from this theory.

Considering what is known and statement of the DSP at the scene, the alleged shooter was almost at 8 o'clock position at a distance of about 3 to 4 meters from the vehicle. Though it's fairly close range, it is still difficult controlling a pistol/revolver. A revolver is more difficult to control than a pistol. As Benazir was standing in her vehicle, the angle of the shooting arm was about 35-45 degrees. It is a difficult shot with one hand even at such a close range. Add in the crowd and the anxiety factors and it becomes an almost impossible shot. The suicide bomber eliminated the shooter and created enough chaos.

If it is accepted that shooter was successful in taking his shot, than the bullet probably entered from slightly rear lower part on the left side with an exit from the front right side. An experienced doctor confirms that in this case the entry wound would be difficult to locate. Low velocity entry wounds are very small - smaller than the calibre of the gun. To note the characters of these types of entry wounds the area of scalp has to be shaven. The exit wound usually is bigger than the entry wound.

Dr. Mussadiq and his team at the General Hospital Rawalpindi must be under tremendous pressure as Benazir was either already dead or dying on their examination table. It cannot be ruled out that they missed the scalp wound. The doctors were probably unaware that shots had been fired at her. The assumption of death by blast might have narrowed their examination, otherwise they would have tried to find the entry and exit wound and the track of the bullet.

In any case a post-mortem was needed in quiet and calm condition to provide the answers as to how Benazir actually died. The autopsy was not conducted on instructions of the local police chief. A former senior Pakistani police official, Wajahat Latif, who headed the Federal Investigative Agency in the early 1990s, said that in any case of a suspected murder an autopsy was mandatory.

The Government was quick to blame the Taliban and Baitullah Mehsud. The evidence was intercepted audio recorded on tapes. It was the easiest and obvious attribution because only a religious fanatic lured by heavenly rewards would blow himself up! But what were their motives for Benazir’s assassination? Why should they kill her? Afterall what could she have done which Musharaf's Government is not already doing? They might have wanted her dead in general terms but their persistent going after her lacks a specific motive.

On 26 October, Benazir e-mailed Mark Siegel, her friend and Washington spokesman, to be made public only in the event of her death. "I would hold Musharraf responsible," Bhutto said in the message. "I have been made to feel insecure by his minions." She listed obstruction to her "taking private cars or using tinted windows, using jammers against roadside bombs and being surrounded with police cars. "

She was buried in the same mausoleum as her father where days after her return to Pakistan in October, she had visited to offer fatahah and scattered rose petals on the white-marble tomb.

Many questions remain unanswered. Who benefits from her death ? Why and who ordered the doctors not to have a post-mortem done at the hospital? Who ordered the fire brigade to wash away the crime scene and remove possible evidence?

Her assassination has certainly complicated the already fraught political situation of Pakistan.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Remembering Gulgee

December was a very difficult month for me. I lost my father that was personal, but our country lost Gulgee the last icon of our already impoverished cultural landscape. I first met Gulgee in the late eighties when I met him to show few of my amateurish paintings. He was very generous in his encouragement and I still remember he asked me to explore my talent and look into brush and paints seriously. Which I couldn't,
Aur bhi gham hein zamanay mein mohabat kay sewa
Rahatain aur bhi hein rahat-e-vasl kay sewa
 In early nineties when I was posted at PAF Faisal, I visited him several times and we had many long discussions on various topics.Gulgee was a great conversationalist, had tremendous energy and was a vivacious person with great sense of humour. He had beautiful stories to tell. He had immense knowledge of litreture, music, arts and crafts, mathematics, Physics and Dance! He was a competent dancer himself and told me he once considered learning it properly and giving it more time. I remember once we talked a whole evening about Isadora Duncan, Rudolf Nureyev and Mikhail Baryshnikov, JohnTravolta, Vijantymala and Panah.

Gulgee was a Peshawari and spoke fluent hindku. He belonged to the Ismailia community . He was an engineer and was once employed with the government of Pakistan. Gulgee was a public school boy, was a Galian as he went to Lawrence College Ghora Galli.So we had public school bond also.

We talked a good lot about painting. Though in his latter years he himself was doing action painting with lot of gusto and passion still he did not think very high of American abstract expressionists and thought anyone with a bit of imagination and good colour sense could do that. He was of the opinion that the shallowness of American painting scene and a desperate need for the heroes in art and the all powerful American art critics made abstract expressionism such a phenomenon. However he liked the free and easy way of action painters like Jackson Pollock, William DeKooning , Paul Klee and many other great action painters.

We also went once to Meerath kabab located in KDA Market Karachi, offcourse the shopkeepers knew him and we were served with the most succulent and delicious kebabs.

The last time I met him was in 2001 when I was with National Database and Registration Authority and was trying to launch Computerized National Identity Cards. We short listed Gulgee, Jahangir Khan, Muneer Niazi, Hasan Sardar and Imran Khan for our launching advertising campaign. Eventually we settled for Hassan Sardar (some of you might have seen those advertisements. I consider it one of my best work).

I also have the privilege to see him paint. It was a joy to watch him, though I think he allowed very few. In 1997 I also asked him to paint something with a PAF or an Air force theme. He was aware about Gp Capt Hussaini and said that Husaini was already doing that well enough.

I was planning to meet him for quite sometime infact I saw him in Super Market, Islamabad few months back but by the time I could reach him he was already inside his vehicle and I thought it wasn't appropriate to shout. Now I am regretting it, I should have made an effort.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Some Desi Desserts

Some time back I listed a few savory dishes from Pakistani cuisine. I am adding to it and listing five desserts. Personally I don’t have a cultivated sweet tooth but these are all desi desserts I adore.

1. Gajar ka Halwa

Probably the most popular and certainly the most delicious of the sweet dishes of sub-continent origin.Because of its basic ingredients, milk, carrots, butter and sugar/gur, it can be assumed that it originates from Punjab. Although it is available throughout the year, it is considered a winters sweet dish. There is a shop in Gowal Mandi Lahore which gives you great gajar ka halwa. Couple of shops in Gujranwala are also famous for their halwa. In Rawalpindi/Islamabad  ‘Sweet Centre’ on Murree road is a winner. A small shop, Hamid Sweet House in Chah Sultan Rawalpindi has a superb gajar ka halwa. The best I had, however, was in Sargodha from ‘Gali wali Hatti’.The shop was located in a side-street in kacheri bazaar, Sargodha. Their halwa was full of wonderful carroty flavor and khoya with the spicy aroma of cardamom and cinnamon.

2. Dhood Jalebi

Jalebi is made from maida. It probably is one of the most liked sweet in sub-continent. Jalebi also has originated in Punjab. It is made by deep-frying maida batter shaped into a chaotic shape and soaked in sugar syrup.  Jalebi can be bright orange or yellow or white. Another version of it is "Emarti", which is red-orange in colour and sweeter in taste, and made from gram-flour. Emriti is more popular in Eastern Punjab. It tastes divine if taken with boiling milk. This concoction gives you instant energy, that’s why it is well-liked by Pahlwans and athletes in Punjab. Our PAF basketball players always demanded to have it after a tough match. Dhood-jalebi “allegedly” has some kind of aphrodisiac properties as well and is therefore quite often placed on bedsides on wedding nights. Where can you have the best dhood jalebi? Almost everywhere in Pakistan even in London and Manchester. My personal favorite was a small shop in Committee chowk Rawalpindi. The shop has been demolished however, a very sad end to one of my favourite places.

3. Ras Malai

Ras Mali has to be one of my favorite desserts. It is primarily sweetened dumplings of ricotta cheese. These cheesy dumplings are soaked in sweetened and thickened milk delicately flavored with cardamom. It is best served chilled, garnished with chandi ka warq and a dash of crushed dried fruit. This sweet dish is a gift of Orissa Eastern India. It has been adopted by Lahore and is available in every sweet shop there. Rahat bakers in Lahore Cantt are famous for their Rasmali. The best however might not be Lahori. It is from Raheed sweets in old Saddar Bazaar Rawalpindi. Rasmali they offer is fluffy, slightly brownish-colored and sweetened to perfection.They have opened up their branches in Islamabad and other affluent areas of Rawalpindi. But I still find the old shop to be more fulfilling and delicious. Nostalgia I suppose.

4. Bengali Rasgulla

Nothing can be so sinisterly delicious than Bengali Rasgullas, exotic dollops of cheese in syrup. Like Rasmalai, Rasgullas also have a Bengal and Orissa origin. I have heard about an entire village in Orissa specialising in Rasgullas and other sweet delicacies. Before 1971, there used to be many Bengali sweets shops in Pakistan. My father tells me about a Bengali sweet shop in Saddar Rawalpindi, which closed down in 1970 as the owners left for Bangladesh. The shop remained closed for almost 2 to 3 years waiting for the return of the owners. They didnt .....

5. Kulfa-Falooda

Falooda or faludeh was introduced in India by the Iranians/Parsis. It is a traditional serving to celebrate nauroz. Falooda is a concoction made of ice cream, milk, thin noodles known as cellophane noodles, and tukh malanga/basil seeds.

Khulfa or Kulfi is refreshing and rich blend of sugar and cream. Khulfa-falooda is definitely a Punjabi creation with unique flavours and interesting textures. It is a very popular dessert available almost round the year all over Pakistan. My personal favorite is from Hafiz Soda water and Falooda in Sargodha located in old bazaar just beside the entrance of a mosque. During the scorching Sargodha summers this was a treat. They served from a terracotta pot (matka) covered with scarlet cloth. The bowl of kulfa falooda they dished up had generous amount of kulfa, hefty scoop of hand made ice cream and noodles topped with tukh malanga. Each and every spoon was a pleasure and would always leave you craving for more.

Finally another winter sweet dish made in my home during December rains. Aatay ka halwa is a blend of wheat flour, asli ghee and sugar/gur. It is a difficult dish to prepare , requiring lot of time and effort but worth all the effort. It is not available anywhere, if you want to have it you are welcome to my place in Islamabad during winters.