Searching for Imran Khan
As Imran Khan prepares for his new innings, a behind-the-scenes look at the cricket legend's journey from anti-corruption crusader to navigator of realpolitik
Imran Khan always expressed his firm and unshakeable opinion that Inzamam-ul-Haq was a more gifted batsman than Sachin Tendulkar. The “Sultan of Multan", his mentor contended, had won more matches, played pace bowling better and had a superb eye. Tendulkar, Khan maintained, is remembered with greater respect because his talent was burnished by discipline, hard work and ambition. The man poised to be Pakistan’s next prime minister echoes similar views when comparing Pakistan to India—Pakistan is the blessed, naturally gifted, dynamic land that has been left behind by its neighbour only because of better leadership and comparatively less corruption. He now has a chance to right what he perceives as a historical shortcoming.
I first worked with Khan—who played for Pakistan from 1971-1992—in 2003 and have been handling his cricket-related engagements in India ever since. Over the past 15 years, long drives to studios and conference venues through the National Capital Region and Mumbai traffic have given me an insight into the man, the cricketer as well as the politician. There was the long chat about Kiran Rao’s Dhobi Ghat (2011) and how its portrayal of unbridgeable language and class divides rang true of Pakistan, too. He had been amazed that Prateik Babbar was Smita Patil’s son and praised Aamir Khan’s courage in backing the film. When it was pointed out that the director was Aamir’s wife, he considered this and then said, “Even so, it’s brave to back such a film."
Then, there was the search for a Nano on the roads of Delhi. “I have read so much about this car, can I be driven in one?" he demanded, asking the driver to point one out on the road. His host had organized a large sedan, and this request was one that threw the accompanying young executive out of gear. That Khan would forget the request soon enough was not clear to him.
In 2012, Khan came to a literature festival my company organizes in Kolkata. He saw that one of his critics, a Pakistani columnist, was listed in the festival brochure. When assured that she had already left, he asked, “What did she say about me?" I uneasily mumbled that we had not discussed him—we had, in fact, and she had mentioned that Khan still referred to feminism as “women’s lib". “Well, it’s mind over matter, I don’t mind since she doesn’t matter," he quipped. I had a quiet chuckle when he mentioned “women’s lib" within minutes.
There was a power outage when his session at the festival had just concluded. Khan convinced us that he was the man for this crisis; he led the people on stage off it and to the car. “I am used to this, we have power cuts all the time," he cheerfully informed the nervous co-organizer and myself, as he shepherded us through darkness and milling admirers.
Over the years, politics took over our conversations. Corruption is a recurring word and theme when Khan talks politics. The “Imran Khan Version 1996" entered politics with a single and rather simple aim—to rid the country of corruption. Twenty-two years later, his first wife Jemima Goldsmith’s warm congratulatory tweet spoke of Khan’s admirable tenacity while also gently urging him to remember why he had joined politics in the first place.
To know Khan makes it hard to dismiss him as “Im the Dim", the nickname given to him by English tabloids. It also makes it harder to reconcile ones memories of a man quoting Turkish writer Elif Shafak’s Forty Rules Of Love with reports that he has backed regressive blasphemy and rape laws.If one did not know Khan, disgust and contempt would be the easy response to his recent politics. Knowing him leads to a mix of bewilderment and disappointment, and the irrational hope that once he is in power, he will distance himself from dubious political stances.
How did Imran Version 1996 morph into Version 2018? In 1994, Khan built a state-of-the-art cancer hospital in Pakistan because he was anguished that his mother did not have one to heal in. Perhaps the sole reason he joined politics was because he saw no honest leader on the political horizon. Corruption and corruption alone has been the only focus for Khan. Version 2018, it appears, is willing to make political compromises and is widely reported to have accepted the friendly hand extended by the army to win the mandate he needs to erase corruption. In 2018, is the force with Imran Khan because the forces are with Imran Khan? The coming months will tell.
Between 2004 and 2013, Khan was closer to the debonair cricketer loved by Indian women and feared by Indian batsmen. He lost elections with alarming regularity and with a cheerful belief that they were all rigged. During this period, he would arrive in Delhi or Mumbai for his television or conference assignment, battle-weary from the political cauldron back home, crushed and, dare I say, haggard, in his Pathan suit. Within a day, he would turn into the Imran of old, in a shirt, jacket and jeans. Khan seemed to enjoy India because it felt and sounded like home, yet was more relaxed, and distant from the tumult of Pakistan’s daily politics. The jokes would flow freely, and it was fun to be around him. Once, in an elevator, we were with a couple of young gentlemen who were speaking to each other rather self-consciously in a Transatlantic accent. When we got off the elevator, Khan said in his trademark baritone, “In Pakistan this is called desi kutta vilayati cheekh! (Local dog, but with a foreign bark!)"
In 2011, he was in Delhi to work as a studio analyst during the cricket World Cup. He seemed delighted in the company of Vivian Richards and Allan Border. He would occasionally meet Kapil Dev and Arjuna Ranatunga as well, for a World Cup-related campaign featuring winning captains. Watching these greats reliving their sporting prime together, it was hard to believe Khan’s claim that his cricket days “were firmly in the past".
Ranatunga had just cut his political teeth around this time in Sri Lanka, and would wonder how Khan had withstood so many failures and still soldiered on. “Dreams have no expiry date," he said. He would often declare to his old cricket mates, “I will be prime minister, it is my destiny."
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I have seen Khan sit patiently at a formal dinner, listening to the host’s theory that Partition was a bad idea and that India should have been divvied up into five autonomous regions. While the other guests looked embarrassed, Khan just grinned and let it pass. Truth be told, I have never seen Khan ruffled by anything, from right-leaning TV anchors to maverick dinner hosts—he has taken them all on with politeness and grace. The only time he got very grumpy was when India beat Pakistan. I remember a telephone conversation at the coffee shop of The Oberoi hotel in Delhi, following Pakistan’s semi-final loss to India in the 2011 World Cup, when he was speaking to his protégé Wasim Akram in choicest Punjabi. Kapil Dev, who was present, tried to pacify Khan, but to no avail. Finally, Kapil Dev pleaded, “Swear, but do swear softly!"
His last cricket-related visit to India was in 2016. He came in a chartered plane with colleagues from his political party (Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf or PTI), and grumbled endlessly when Pakistan lost to India at Eden Gardens in Kolkata. During breakfast with Steve Waugh, however, he praised Virat Kohli and predicted even greater things for India’s cricket star. The venerable Waugh was always the respectful junior around Khan. The Australian was impressed with Khan’s hospital work and recalled his first season at New South Wales in the mid-1980s when Khan was his roommate and he was passing calls and messages to the senior pro. “I was often a telephone operator," Waugh reminisced.
If one had to pinpoint a moment when the crusader became a politician, it would be around 2013-14. Khan was in Kolkata during the Aam Aadmi Party’s tumultuous fortnight-long reign of Delhi. “AAP’s start reminds me of the early years of PTI when we had honesty and intentions but no plan. Politics needs strategy and patience," he said. This was the time his party emerged as the single largest electoral winner in the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and he had just recovered from several fractures after a fall from a forklift. But, politically, his steely resolve to go it alone had also been broken. Alliances with several leaders of other parties, including Shah Mehmood Qureshi (who had earlier been associated with Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League and the Pakistan Peoples Party), among others, suggest that Khan realized he also needed the help of veteran politicians and their support base.
Khan had to face the fire soon, when, in December 2014, militants gunned down schoolchildren in an army school in Peshwar, capital of the Khyber-Pakthunkhwa province. Which brings us to Reham Khan, his second wife. Imran Khan had been linked with Reham a few days before the school incident. He was widely criticized for his inept handling of the situation after the incident. He refused to name the Taliban, even when a splinter group claimed responsibility. He visited the school a whole month after the massacre—his first public appearance with his new wife. According to reports, anguished parents ensured that he left the premises rather quickly. His second marriage also ended quickly, lasting only from January-October 2015.
During the 2016 visit to India, Khan happened to be in Delhi when Reham was also in the city for a media conclave. “I guess Delhi is big enough for us to not have to see each other," he shrugged. He did not mention her again and flew to Kolkata for the India-Pakistan match. One wondered aloud whether Jemima Goldsmith was his real soulmate: “We are friends, but the only way to live is to look ahead. Besides I am now wedded to politics," he said. However, two years later, he was also wedded to his spiritual guru.
In her recent tell-all book, Reham Khan, that has garnered plenty of attention, Reham talks about a lot of things that have already been written about. That Khan allegedly had children outside marriage, for instance. It is, however, known that the late Sita White’s daughter Tyrian, now in her late 20s, is Khan’s child.
Reham also alleges that Khan is bisexual, to which friends across the world counter that the only time Khan swung both ways was when he bowled. The impact of these allegations on the voters in the recent election seems to have been minimal.
Khan married his third wife, Bushra Maneka, in February. Her long burkha, a far cry from Jemima Goldsmith’s Bruce Oldfield wedding dress, has perhaps added to the image of Khan regressing into orthodoxy. Maneka is his spiritual guide, closer to his age, is a grandmother and has not really been in the public eye. In April, there were murmurs over the reappearance of Khan’s dogs—reportedly not the new bride’s favourite animal—at Bani Gala (his residence on the outskirts of Islamabad), a sign that this marriage, too, was short-lived. However, he quelled such concerns by saying to me: “This time it’s forever." Domestic bliss and electoral success seem to have finally entered Khan’s life in 2018, as he turns 66.
During one of those magical evenings in 2011, when Sir Viv was asked why he had never considered politics, Khan interjected: “Why would you want to be prime minister when you are already king?" Khan must know that he too could have stayed king back in 1996 as a World Cup winner and a hospital-building philanthropist. Instead, he chose to dream a political dream. After 22 years, he has achieved it, give or take some compromises. Who knows, Imran Khan might prove to be a forward-thinking, honest leader. For people on both sides of the border, hope, like dreams, too, has no expiry date.
Malavika R. Banerjee is the founding co-director of Gameplan Sports, a 20-year-old sports marketing company.