Between Oxbridge and partridge, Imran Khan could have lived happily ever after, milking the first and shooting the second, a Lord of Swing wafting on privileges due to a legitimate national hero who brought home the World Cup in 1992. He could have taken the soft route to power. Gen. Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq invited him to join his Cabinet. Khan refused, a singularly sensible decision, not least because the controversial general was dead within a few weeks of his offer.
Instead, Khan chose to test his commitment and fortitude in the deadly chaos of Pakistan’s electoral politics.
This book is the story of how a big boy who also played at night grew up to become Man of Destiny. The odds are good that he could lead his country’s government in 2013.
You cannot be a serious candidate for the White House without an autobiography on the store shelves. No such intellectual strain is demanded of Pakistan’s aspirants. Long-term despots like Ayub Khan and Pervez Musharraf preferred to publish after being booed out of office, when they were finally able to sort out the difference between friends and masters. The third general who ruled for a decade, and could possibly thereby deserve the adjective decadent, Zia-ul-Huq, was prevented from literary endeavor due to a sudden recall by the Almighty. Benazir Bhutto patched together something in exile, but it was only an abject plea to Washington for help on grounds of gender affirmation in an “Islamic” world overburdened with burqas. So Khan’s effort is as rare as it is welcome.
It is also sensationally sincere. Any Pakistani politician would count the votes before expressing such public disdain for the religious extremism permeating Pakistani society.
It is easier, in the political calculus, to rage at American drones: Khan is livid at Bush’s “insane” war on terror, which has “decimated two countries, Iraq and Afghanistan, and brought a third, Pakistan, almost to the verge of collapse”. But it needs confidence, in oneself and one’s faith, to take on hard-line clergy.
Khan has never disguised his strong commitment to Islam. He prays in the congregation of his local mosque, along with his son. At one point his close friend, the irreverent Yousaf Salahuddin, grandson of the poet Muhammad Iqbal and inheritor of a splendid haveli in Lahore, began to wonder if Khan would go the way of Fazal Mahmood, the pin-up Pak cricket captain who grew a long beard and turned to God.
But Khan has never confused religion with religiosity. He has become the face and voice of an emerging Pakistan that is as tired of humbug clerics as it is of an American war that seems to have lost all purpose except the propagation of time lines for domestic reasons.
I hope Khan’s sincerity survives his upward mobility; candor is considered bad manners in politics. Many of his peers, particularly in the media, with a familiar and caustic cynicism, have labeled Khan stupid because he is transparent. He is caricatured as “Im the Dim” by those who are not always sure about the difference between wit and twit.
Khan does open himself up to intellectual disdain when he describes his faith in clairvoyants, particularly those who foresaw him as savior of his country. He was once as skeptical about them as any of the party crowd. But in 1987, after he had retired from cricket and was on a shooting trip north of Lahore, he met a village pir called Baba Chala, with piercing eyes and happy face, who told him he would return to cricket, and informed Khan’s hunting companion Mohammed Siddique exactly how and to what extent he was being defrauded in a business deal.
The next year Khan met Mian Bashir, “the single most powerful spiritual influence on me” and the man who would “completely change my direction in life”. Bashir died in 2005, still a poor man, so there is no chance that he will influence policy if Khan is sworn in. Another celebrity might have kept such matters private for fear of ridicule. It would be uncharacteristic of Khan to do so.
Liberals who laughed last year are shaking their heads at the prospect of Imran Khan as Prime Minister next year (there is no danger of Khan being co-opted by the establishment before that because he believes the Zardari government to be the worst in Pakistan’s history). Fundamentalists who once wanted to ban cricket coverage on TV because the sight of Khan rubbing a red cherry on his trouser-front was titillating many a feminine libido, are scratching their beards in wonder.
Khan remains unfazed. He does not give his critics the pleasure of revenge; he ignores them with an aristocratic hauteur that doubtless doubles their rage. It isn’t that he is icy cool by temperament. He once came close to hitting me when I asked an awkward question during a TV interview in which Gavaskar was the other guest. Fortunately, he preferred restraint and our friendship survived. This is probably the moment for full disclosure. He has praised my book, “Tinderbox: The Past and Future of Pakistan,” handsomely in this autobiography. I cannot say that this review is immune from affection.
But it is no exaggeration to note that Khan is a man with significant achievements and splendid ambitions. Irrespective of what he does in the future, his finest work will be, in the opinion of many, the Shaukat Khanum Memorial Hospital, which specializes in cancer care for the poor, and is a tribute to his mother, who died after a long and painful struggle with cancer in 1985. Khan raised the funds personally, rupee by difficult rupee.
Khan’s track record in politics would have destroyed anyone with less confidence. He has lost more elections than he is ever going to win, some so comprehensively as to be humiliating. He once contested from seven different constituencies and lost all. When, in an Army-controlled general election, he did get through, Musharraf rather spoilt the limited pleasure by disclosing that he had rigged the results.
Khan says that he led his team to victory in the 1992 World Cup when all seemed lost and he was playing with a cartilage in his shoulder, because he had lost the fear of failure. Such courage has helped him survive till this moment, when his popularity has suddenly acquired critical mass. His former wife Jemima once asked him how long he would pursue politics despite such abject failure. “But I couldn’t answer,” writes Khan, “simply because a dream has no time frame.”
It is time for that dream to come true.