Book tours are not romantic. I had a (very) misguided notion that being on the road for my family memoir Songs of Blood and Sword would be packed with fascinating travel, maddeningly charming encounters and general euphoria. I was wrong. After close to three weeks in the US, I’m in England doing the autumn literary festival rounds. Every city in the world has a festival now, even my hometown of Karachi – though that one was a 24-hour affair in sealed and secure enclaves around the city.
In the past week I’ve been to Bradford, Birmingham and Cheltenham. I’m about to hop on a train for Sheffield where I’m speaking as part of the Off the Shelf Literary Festival – but manage to squeeze in a quick Skype talk with my mother Ghinwa in Karachi. She tells me she’s got a few postcards I sent from the US. The card saying “Don’t mess with Texas”, posted from Houston, was one of my favourites. “You write so illegibly so no one can read them,” my mother complains. “Even me.”
I promise to translate my postcards as soon as I am home and apologise in advance for the cryptic cards she is about to receive from northern England.
I am speaking at the University of Sheffield and, as I enter the student union, I notice an enormous poster advertising the Off the Shelf schedule, and am thrilled to see that my name is next to Tony Benn’s. I’m less thrilled to see it near Alastair Campbell’s. There is a separate poster advertising Campbell’s talk with a suitably lugubrious quote: “I don’t miss the jets or the limos. What do I miss? I miss Tony.”
In my talk I discuss the current situation in Pakistan and the fact that over the course of September (just after the devastating floods that hit us), bombs dropped from unmanned drone aircraft killed more than 150 Pakistanis. The US State Department keeps telling us the dead were militants or would-be terrorists but Pakistanis will tell you that the nameless, faceless, unindicted and unconvicted dead are civilians. According to the New America Foundation, a non-partisan think-tank, between 1,109 and 1,734 Pakistanis have been killed in drone strikes since they began in 2008. The author and activist Arundhati Roy – whom India seems hysterically desperate to silence – says drones are the perfect way to kill the poor. They have no recourse against weaponry that would kill them from above as they sleep.
According to Bob Woodward’s new book Obama’s Wars, when the director-general of the Central Intelligence Agency announced to Pakistan’s president that America would now be expanding drone strikes over Pakistan proper, President Asif Ali Zardari is said to have replied: “Collateral damage worries you Americans. It does not worry me.”
(As I write this, 11 people are killed in a drone attack in Ismail Jhel in northern Pakistan. It is reported that the 11 were “suspected militants” by the BBC, which in the same breath says that the identities of the dead are not yet known.)
One of the festival organisers wraps up my speech with her thoughts on the “charismatic Bhutto family”. You haven’t met all of them, I warn her. Then I return to London by road and my taxi driver Russ, whose accent enthrals me, tells me that he’s been ferrying the cast and crew of a Bollywood film being shot in Sheffield. “Which film is it?” I ask. “Who knows,” he replies, “they’re all the same, aren’t they?” Indeed. To the great chagrin and embarrassment of my family and friends, I am not a Bollywood enthusiast (rather I follow an ingenious account on Twitter called @Bollywdheckler). I’ve tried to get on board with it but it’s just not happening.
I’m a huge supporter of Merlin, the medical relief organisation that has been doing phenomenal work in Pakistan for the past five years and has been on the ground since the country was devastated by floods. At present, the World Health Organisation estimates that 1.5m children in Pakistan are at risk of dying from diarrhoea, water-borne diseases and malaria. Now it has launched an appeal to vaccinate children against polio in Pakistan’s northern provinces. Pakistan is one of the world’s four remaining countries where polio is endemic (the others are India, Nigeria and Afghanistan) and missed its millennium goal to eradicate the disease. This was not because we don’t know how to manage medically but because we could not refrigerate the vaccines. We are a nuclear-armed state that can’t provide electricity to its people. Or even to the most basic kitchen appliances.
At the South Asian Literature Festival in London, I am doing a talk with Indian novelist and journalist Nayantara Sahgal, Jawaharlal Nehru’s niece. She was born in 1927 and as I head to the event I wonder what we can possibly have in common aside from dynasty and our dysfunctional families. I very quickly have to eat my sceptical thoughts. Sahgal is wonderful. I feel utterly superfluous on stage with her as she talks passionately and sensitively about her life and her writing. I resist the urge to mumble “ditto” after every one of her answers. We discuss jail, assassinations, the importance of critical journalism and our two countries’ prospects for peace.
My reading list at the moment is very South Asia Festival-friendly. I’ve just got my copy of Priya Basil’s second novel, The Obscure Logic of the Heart, and also have a haunting book on the Bahawalpur Zoo in Pakistan by the ultra-talented photographer Amean J produced in conjunction with the World Wide Fund for Nature in Pakistan.
The zoo book is going to be posted to my brother Zulfi, who is studying geography and environmental science at university, but not before I go through it first. I make a note to order Sahgal’s books from Amazon – annoyingly, they are not for sale at the festival.
Next morning, Sahgal and I meet again at Al Jazeera’s London studio for an interview by David Frost. He is charming and engaging and I wonder – ever so briefly – if book tours are really that desolate and soul-crushing after all. We head from there to do another interview for an Indian news channel where I’m asked antagonistic questions with a linguistically peculiar twist – do I worry, for example, about China’s “aggressively friendly” relationship with Pakistan? I’ve never heard the term “aggressively friendly” before but make a mental note to use it myself at some point.
Fatima Bhutto’s most recent book is ‘Songs of Blood and Sword’ (Jonathan Cape, £20). Follow her on Twitter @fbhutto