Death and dynasty


Amongst the Mughals of yore, the story of Aurangzeb and the brutal manner in which he treated his own family stands alone.

As legend has it, Aurangzeb served his brother Dara Shikoh’s head on a platter to his father, Shah Jahan, who he imprisoned in a fort overlooking the glorious Taj Majal which he had built in honor of the love of his life, the Persian princess Mumtaz Mahal.

It wasn’t enough, apparently, for Aurangzeb to hate his immediate family members. He had to torture them to death, as well.

I was reminded of this history recently while reading Fatima Bhutto’s memoir “Songs of Blood and Swords”. The implications of dynastic murder have long soured in Pakistani consciousness. The facts have been interwoven with rumors and the occasional confession by a known figure, but the heart of the matter has endured: some of Pakistan’s high profile deaths were part and parcel of family feuds.

History is rife with such passings but what sets apart dynastic deaths is the audacity of them and the sad truth at the heart of them: family members are killing each other. What kind of hatred is it that we ordinary, powerless people cannot seem to fathom (as if that is a fault), that would lead people to such acts of inhumanity against their own?

Where did the parents go wrong who raised such children who kill their family members? How does so hideous a cavern in a persons soul come to be that excludes compassion, or at least a sense of self-control?

If it were not so tragic, it would be comical: think of an elephant killing its cousin to usurp the herds leadership. Its hard to imagine it and even harder to be true: humans are alone amongst the creatures of the world who kill their kin for power.

What is worse is that not only is a life taken away unjustly, but a public figure’s brazen death is emblazoned on a nation’s consciousness for generations, as if to say that yes! This person lost his life very publicly and very sadly by someone who is supposed to have cared most for him, but in this country thats accepted. These deaths are often public, and often extreme, and the good people of the world are troubled by them and the subsequent failed pursuit of justice.

Pakistan has been marred by the circumstances surrounding Bhutto deaths for years now. The open and shameless reduction of once-revered and influential public figures to helpless, lifeless shadows is damaging to a nation’s pride in its civility and humanity. It is damaging to a government’s credibility to uphold justice. And it is a stain on the sense of right and wrong that a culture presumably aspires to instill in its people.

When many Pakistanis think of Aurangzeb, they think of a military genius, an exceptionally adept leader, and a man known for his piousness. His barbaric treatment of his father and brothers is ignored or chalked up to olden times. We are more civilized now, so the logic goes those were different times. And thus is Aurangzebs very essential character flaw swept under the rug. But considering that dynastic disputes of the brutal kind are not an old thing and that they must have been as damaging to a nation then, as they are now, is it not time to change our attitudes?

We cannot resist the vicious cycle of human history, until we acknowledge it. Especially since these deaths are not unique to Pakistan.

In the “West”, as in the “East”, such rumblings persist about dynastic assassinations, whether from within the family or against the entire dynasty from without. Think of Princess Diana or the Kennedys. These deaths were shocking and public. But they remain unresolved in many ways, despite years of wasted efforts in courts and on Google.

Noam Chomsky repeatedly asks the intelligent people of the world to cease their focus on the deaths of such figures: its a distraction from more important issues that are happening now, he says. He is right, of course, but his advice overlooks one fact: the people want answers, real ones.

They want to be respected enough to not be served with half-truths. And this is legitimate and it is possible.

The vast majority of the people of the world are not plagued by the possession of absolute power and thus do not suffer from the fear of losing that power. Because of this, they are free to express themselves unlike many a statesman.

With Songs of Blood and Swords, Fatima Bhutto gives credence to the emotional impact of dynastic power-grabbing. Her research grounds us in the modern parallels to seemingly ancient power feuds. She proves that even young Pakistanis can make a difference in acknowledging historical wrongs that absolute power need not be absolutely revered.