The Benazir of Lyari fears no one

July 24, 2018

Write this down, tell the world: Mohtarma Benazir resides in Gali Number 2, Gul Muhammad Bhoja Road. And she fears no one.

In 1988, Lyari was rapturous. Shabana Noshi’s hit song ‘Dila Teer Bija’ resounded from every restaurant, car and poster-covered donkey cart, announcing Benazir Bhutto’s first victory over her opponents in the general elections. A product of Lyari’s ‘disco scene’, the song would forever be associated with the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and Lyari.

Thirty years later, 66-year-old resident, Zainab Bibi, raises her hands and begins swaying at the mere mention of the song. “Mujhe haal aa jataa hai [I go into a trance],” she says, breaking into dance. “It’s the same feeling I get when I watch my children fill their stomachs with food.”

Known as Benazir or ‘Mohtarma’ by all, including her children, for her zeal for the Bhuttos, Zainab Bibi is a lifelong jiyala. Her passion for the Bhuttos started soon after she was married, when she cast her first vote for the PPP in the 1970 elections. “My husband was given a job by Bhutto sahib as a janitor at the air base.”

Lean and wiry, looking far older than her 66 years, Benazir has lived a life of constant struggle: poverty, robberies, permanent health concerns and gang war. Her worries have aged her.

But her enthusiasm for the PPP remains boundless and she retains her youthful idealism for her party. Some of her neighbours deride her for her eccentricities, but she is also known for her courage and willingness to help all in her neighbourhood. She narrates how she once went to the shrine of Abdullah Shah Ghazi and heard ‘Jeay Bhutto, Jeay Bhutto.’ “I looked around me, and there was no one in sight.”

She was given the title of ‘Benazir’ when her neighbourhood stopped getting water. When she saw no one paying any attention to the problem, she gathered some people from the area, picked up a matka and went out on the streets to protest. To pacify them, the authorities offered them biryani. “I refused to eat the biryani,” she recalls. “If I ate that biryani our protest would fail.”

Following her example, others also turned down the biryani. “We won’t eat until Mohtarma Benazir eats first,” they pointed at her.

She recalls the many times she met the real Benazir. She got a glimpse of her the first time when she came back from her exile in 1986. Later, she went to join the celebrations when Bibi was married at Kakri Ground in Lyari. “Benazir’s wedding was beautiful,” she reminisces. Later, as a party worker she would get to meet Benazir Bhutto and get close to her. “Bibi would call me from Islamabad, from London. I used to sit with her in the car. She was a good woman. She cared very deeply, spoke so sweetly.”

She saw Benazir Bhutto for the last time on October 18, when there was the bomb blast on Karsaz Road. “My children told me to not go but I still went. I saw a woman in a white chaadar sitting inside a white car with no driver. I kept staring at her, I thought it unusual. We were only a little further away when the car exploded.”

Though she is saddened by her passing, she is not despondent. “Bibi zinda rehe gi [Bibi will never die],” she says, and commands me to write, pointing to my notepad.

When Bilawal came to Karachi, she went to receive him from the airport at 2am. “Mashallah pyaara bacha hai [By God’s grace he is a sweet boy],” she praises.

“Iss ki ammi bhi aisi thi. Nana bhi. Mamu bhi achay thay [His mother was like this; his grandfather too. His uncle (Murtaza Bhutto) was good too],’ she says, voicing her determination to help him win the elections.

Her task is to galvanise people – particularly women – from her neighbourhood, encouraging them to vote. She has in the past convinced some 200 or so people to cast their votes in favour of the PPP, she says.

“There’s no one like the Bhuttos,” continues Benazir. “When this party comes to power, they help the poor. The other parties don’t, they don’t understand, they lack compassion. They have no heart.”

Benazir now lives with her sons in a narrow four-storied house. Each floor has one room, kitchen and bathroom. But it was not always so. “Before the PPP came we didn’t even have doors; we would use boris in lieu of doors,” she recalls.

Her neighbour, however, disagrees. “Bhutto sahib promised us roti, kapra aur makaan [food, clothing and shelter] but I didn’t get any,” she fusses. Nonetheless, she joins Benazir in her pro-PPP dance. “Wazir-e-azam bun jaye mera Bilawal [my Bilawal will become prime minister],” she sings.

Her youngest son too does not share her enthusiasm. “I don’t vote for any party,” he explains. “None of them have done anything for us. I stay away from politics; I just support Islam,” he says.

“I steal his vote card and keep it,” his mother interjects. “But I cast only one vote,’ she insists. Her other sons are more cooperative.  “If we don’t vote for the PPP, there will be no peace. Not in our home, at least,” they say mildly. “They’re scared of me,” she beams.

Long live Benazir.