Karan Thapar: Benazir was spontaneous and fun
In this excerpt from Karan Thapar’s new book Devil’s Advocate, he throws light on his friendship with Benazir Bhutto
It was because of the Union that I got to know, and became close friends with, Benazir Bhutto. Although we became presidents of the Cambridge and Oxford Unions at the same time (the Lent Term of 1977, which at Oxford is known as the Hilary Term), our first meeting had happened a few months earlier. At the time she was the treasurer of the Oxford Union and I was the vice-president at Cambridge, where she had come to propose the motion ‘This house would have sex before marriage’.
For an aspiring Pakistani politician, this was dangerous territory to tread on, but at the time it just felt like a fun debate. I remember that night’s events as if they had happened yesterday. Benzair was wearing a sea-green chiffon Mukaish saree. Those days, Pakistanis had no inhibitions in wearing sarees. She also had short, dark-brown hair and glasses perched on her hooked nose. Benazir was in full flow at the despatch box when I pressed the president’s bell.
It was a breach of Cambridge Union protocol because the bell is only for the president to use and no one else. Unaware of this, she turned and looked at me expectantly. ‘I see, madam, that you’re proposing sex before marriage. Would you care to practise what you preach?’ It was sophomore humour, but it had everyone in fits of laughter and I was, consequently, rather pleased with my intervention.
Cleverly, Benazir waited for the laughter to subside. Then she ostentatiously whipped off her glasses, screwed up her nose and responded: ‘Certainly, but not with you!’ She got an even bigger round of applause. Strange as it may seem, this introduction led to a firm and lasting friendship. Benazir was staying at the Garden House Hotel, not far from Pembroke, so after the debate we walked back together. I invited her to my room for a cup of coffee before escorting her to the hotel and she agreed.
I remember that night’s events as if they had happened yesterday. Benzair was wearing a sea-green chiffon Mukaish saree. Those days, Pakistanis had no inhibitions in wearing sarees. She also had short, dark-brown hair and glasses perched on her hooked nose. Benazir was in full flow at the despatch box when I pressed the president’s bell.
At the time, Benazir was a spontaneous and fun person, though extremely conscious of whose daughter she was and the fact that her having an Indian friend could be misunderstood or, at least, misrepresented in Pakistan. That meant that there was always a touch of tension in our friendship. Weeks later, when we were both presidents of our Unions, we invited each other to participate in debates. She returned to Cambridge to oppose the motion ‘That art is elitist—or it is nothing’. Yehudi Menuhin, Clive James and Arianna Stassinopoulos were some of the other speakers on that occasion. In turn, Benazir invited me for her presidential debate when she was retiring as president.
These debates are occasions to praise the retiring officer and to laugh and have fun. So I thought of a little joke. I gifted her a book. ‘Given how popular you are,’ I said, ‘the book I’m giving you could well be your biography. It’s called All the President’s Men!’ ‘Hmm…’ she responded. ‘If the rest of your speech is as bad as your start, perhaps I should ask you to stop and sit down!’… Shortly thereafter, both universities shut for the Easter vacation. For undergraduates like Benazir and me, who would face our final exams in just two months, it was time to buckle down and study.
This was our chance to make up for all the work that had been sacrificed whilst we were presiding over our respective Unions. So I was quite surprised when suddenly, over the Easter weekend, Benazir phoned to ask if she and a friend— Alicia, if my memory is correct—could visit Cambridge. There was little chance I would say no and, fortunately, there were a few empty rooms in my digs because their occupants had gone home on holiday. Unfortunately, it was a tense time for Benazir. Her father’s electoral victory a few weeks earlier, amidst widely believed allegations of rigging, had sparked widespread opposition protests which seemed to grow day by day. To control them, her father was forced to progressively declare what amounted to martial law. The British press was critical of him.Benazir spent a lot of her time glued to my little transistor.
The BBC World Service news was the most informed way of following developments in South Asia. It was also a lot easier than visiting the common room to watch TV; she knew that there, most of the others would be watching her instead. On their last night in Cambridge, Benazir and Alicia decided to cook. I can’t remember what they served but later, after coffee, Benazir suddenly decided that we should drive to London in her little MG for Baskin-Robbins ice cream. And that’s precisely what we did. Squeezed into her little car, we set off around 10 p.m. and returned well past midnight. I think this was her way of breaking free from the pall of gloom the dismal news from Pakistan had spread upon all of us.
The next morning, before she left, she handed me a present. It was a 45 rpm record she had brought with her. One of the two songs was ‘You’re more than a number in my little red book’. But what she said was more pointed: ‘I bet you’ll tell the whole world about this and make it seem more than it is!’ And then, laughing, she added: ‘And when you do, I’ll know you’re just a wretched Indian.’ That summer Benazir finished Oxford and returned home to Pakistan, intending to join her country’s Foreign Service, but after her father was deposed in a coup, she entered politics instead and, finally, became prime minister. I chose to move to Oxford. Neither then nor now am I clear about why I did this. The best answer is that with the Emergency imposed in India, I was reluctant to return.
But it’s also true that I hadn’t done much to find a job. So three more years at Oxford, purportedly researching for a DPhil, seemed to be the easy option. When I visited St Antony’s for my admission interview, Benazir, who had arranged for us to have lunch afterwards and had come to pick me up, was the one who first told me that I would get in. This was virtually as soon as I walked out of a pretty forbidding questioning, where I didn’t think I had excelled myself. ‘I think you’re in,’ was the first thing she said when we met. ‘That old white-haired man who walked out of the room before you did, told the lady sitting beside me who I think is his secretary, “Tick his name.” So you’re in.’ Benazir turned out to be right.
The three years at Oxford that followed were completely different to the three before at Cambridge. For a start, I was no longer an irresponsible undergraduate. At the time, St Antony’s was a very modern college without a history of hallowed traditions. All the students were graduates, most were married and several had children. There was no high table but a cafeteria system instead. Meal times were a mad family picnic. Finally, there were more foreign students than English. I enjoyed Oxford, but I have to admit that I wasn’t very serious about my research.
Though I did a fair amount, I’m not sure whether my diligence was rewarded with distinguished results. Instead, I started to write. Alexander Chancellor was the editor of the Spectator and he accepted several of my pieces. He even commissioned a visit to Afghanistan, shortly after the Soviet invasion of December 1979, which gave me my first cover story. This was enough to convince me that I wanted to be a journalist, not an academic. So, shortly before completing three years at Oxford and long before completing my DPhil thesis (which remains unsubmitted to this day), I wrote to six different newspapers, asking if they would take me on. The result was not just my first job but the start of the only career I’ve ever known