on a dark December day

Ah, childhood memories of those dark December days …. With the Xmas tree twinkling in a corner of the room , watching wintry and sentimental films on TV (blessed be those Dickens adaptations). Feasting on indecent amounts of chocolate & waffles (back in the old days European winters were cold and children’s metabolisms fast). Or going to town, well muffled in, enjoying the lights and the Xmas carols in the streets.

Those sheltered days, they “can’t come again, but are for others undiminished somewhere”.… (1) It’s lovely to watch now children engrossed in their Xmassy activities. Or take those teenagers loitering about the streets: their un-Xmassy bravado so very much a reminder of the schools’ Xmas vacation and the cozy Xmas trees at their homes.

But for an adult, these dark December days between Xmas and New Year hold other charms. Like travelling by train from Brussels to Paris. No, a car-ride won’t do, it’s the station-atmosphere you want in these December days. Whole families in thick overcoats and scarves, hauling big suitcases, are thronging in the station’s hall, anxiously watching train announcements on the screens. Yes, it’s another kind of travelling than in the ski-season or during summer – it’s less frivolously exotic, more family related and that’s perhaps why it feels more poignant. All those uprooted people travelling back home to their families for the holidays….. (2)Oh, I love to wander about stations in this period of year.

On the train, people then settle in their seats with their provisions for the journey: fruit, papers, books. I myself plunge into a book and shut out children’s cries & old ladies' chatter by hiding in headphones full of Mozart.

But then, when I look up from my book, staring vaguely into the compartment, my attention is arrested by that tragic portrait filling the entire first page of a fellow traveler’s paper: Benazir Bhutto… Brutally murdered during an election rally the night before.

I had been shocked upon learning the news on Internet. To me she had always seemed the embodiment of intelligence, grace and courage. Here was an educated, determined woman, loyal to her country and her faith but a secular democrat, the first female prime minister ever of a Muslim country. I had considered her return to Pakistan as an act of bravery, one offering some hope for the region. “Praying for the best, preparing for the worst”, as she had said herself.

Of course she was such an icon, and I only knew of her via articles and one or two appearances during debates on TV. So maybe I have always projected too many fine qualities in her. And of course there were the dubious family dealings, there was the whiff of corruption, there were the allegations of being manipulated by the US into returning to Pakistan.

So, granted, there is a shady haze surrounding the Bhutto dynasty and thus Benazir Bhutto herself . But still, this stubborn fact remains: she abandoned a comfortable life in London & Dubai to go back to Pakistan. She went back, knowing the risks. All for the sake of participating in the public debate and in the democratic election process. This is an act of bravery that no blinded kamikaze can suppress, that no slander campaign can ever squelch. Yes, Benazir Bhutto had this foremost of political virtues: courage.

And perhaps we can come to terms with her tragic ending by seeing it as an example of secular courage, of courage without bigotry or violence. Yes, maybe she gave an example that may inspire others … Or am I being too naively hopeful … Reading the papers now, the talk is of revenge, rioting, chaos …

But no, I do want to believe that the legacy of her actions during these last weeks will bring some good, proving as it were that rational proponents of democracy can muster more courage than any blinded zealot or despot. Benazir Bhutto as a symbol of democracy. So, I prefer to conclude with these TS Eliot lines as a tribute: “What [she] had to leave us – a symbol: a symbol perfected in death”

(1) From some poem by Philip Larkin – I’ve forgotten which one
(2) lo and behold, this might well be a bible flash back- the nativity story – didn’t Joseph and Mary have to travel to their ancestor’s home for a census?

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