When I First Knew Benazir

When I first knew Benazir Bhutto, it was not as the larger than life 'Antigone' tragic figure she became but rather as a fellow undergraduate at Harvard College. Benazir, known by family and then friends as 'Pinky' because of her pink complexion, lived in a connecting dorm to mine at the Radcliffe Quad. We also connected through mutual friends and mutual struggles to assert ourselves as women students, outnumbered at that time four to one in a male-centric, collegiate Ivy League world. I remember Benazir as playful, smart, friendly, and even then, fiercely loyal to her father Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Prime Minister and President of Pakistan at the time. During a Government lecture class given by a famous professor, the subject of Pakistan and Bangladesh came up. Benazir stood up in the sea of students and boldly, emotionally challenged the professor, defending her father's role in the Bangladesh post-cyclone chaos.

When we graduated, Benazir was like a high-end version of many of us. She went home, inviting friends to visit her at the 'palace' where her family lived. As I went on to a post-graduate Harvard Traveling Fellowship and began making documentaries for public television, she went on to graduate school and debating at Oxford. As my mother got lung cancer and died within four months, Benazir's father was ousted in a military coup by his General, then brutally executed (of course, what execution isn't brutal?). Benazir was placed under house arrest for years. Both of our lives, families, emotional safety nets, and beginning careers were turned upside down by suddenly losing a beloved parent at a young age; however, Benazir's tragedy played out in a hugely dramatic, life-threatening manner. In the following years, Benazir's brothers were assassinated and Benazir was exiled. That is...until she made her amazing homecoming trip to her homeland, with throngs of people greeting her.

At that point, Benazir and I intersected again. I was moved by her story, by her passionate need to fulfill what she saw as her destiny, to make her father's dream of a democratic Pakistan happen. She had gone from being in the 'lucky club' (you know, born well, someone who seems to have it all and skate through school, life) to feeling the responsibility of fulfilling a very dangerous, difficult mission. She began to remind me of Antigone, a tragic/heroic character in one of my favorite plays. Antigone was drawn into her father's fate; she had no choice, she felt, but to play it out and become a victim herself. As Benazir headed back to Pakistan, I was writing for movies and television. (Benazir and I had both reacted to our parent's death by going into our insane family businesses, in her case Pakistani politics, in mine the Hollywood film industry.) I mentioned how moved I was by Benazir's powerful situation to a wonderful, issue-oriented producer with whom I was working who had lost her own famous father, an award-winning movie director. She had read of Benazir's situation, and was also interested in pursuing the daughter/father story of Benazir and Benazir's assassinated father. I sent a letter to Benazir's address in Lahore, unsure given the security, censorship, and chaos there that she'd ever receive it. A few months later, I got a crumpled letter from overseas back in the mail. It was smart, nice, and to the point. Benazir was at least interested in discussing the possibility of a film, but was very focused on it being about her father. Shortly thereafter, Benazir was elected Prime Minister, I became a new mother, the film executive moved on, and the project moved to the 'back burner' as we said at that time.

But I remained fascinated and amazed by Benazir's journey and resilience. She overcame personal grief and banishment to become the first woman to become democratically elected to lead a modern Muslim country. After her two regimes as Prime Minister of Pakistan ended in controversy, Benazir spoke to a mutual friend about us going to Pakistan to help her write a screenplay about her father. She shared career and family ups and downs while shopping at a K-mart type store for toys for her children, followed by her bodyguards. Benazir was dealing with the same issues that many of her women friends from Harvard were dealing with...except on a way larger scale, balancing on a high-wire without much of a net: multi-tasking; juggling being a mom, a wife, and having a career; following her parents' path vs. carving out her own professional identity; defending vulnerable loved ones against outside critical scrutiny and attack; and trying to contribute to her community and world (in a big way) while simultaneously worrying about where her children would be going to college.

It is so sad, and yes, tragic, that these children are now mourning the death of their courageous, self-sacrificing mother, just as Benazir Bhutto did her beloved father.