Thursday, March 22, 2012

IN DEFENCE OF IDOLS

I spent an entire childhood wishing I had been a Muslim and a pathan like my idol was, and wished I could bowl like him, bat like him, and above all, inspire pride, unite and lead like him. From the Australasia Cup in 1986 till about that World Cup game in 1996, India would habitually lose to Pakistan or any other team with teeth, while Imran and his team, bristling with passion and pride, would bring the world to its cricketing knees. As a South Asian who wanted to bowl fast and hit hard, I couldn’t find role models who could inspire me within the Indian team. But right across the border, Imran rose like a colossus. He bowled faster than the West Indians and swatted away their short pitched angst with the grace and power of an immortal Achilles.

In those days while the Indian team was a fractured unit, picking at its own regional seam, under Imran’s flag the Pakistanis played, for their king and country, and immortal glory and so was I wrong to find my hero in the land my country had come to hate.

I had always believed in the articulate intelligence of the man off the field as much as I believed in his abilities on it and when he entered politics, I was convinced that he would make Pakistan a better nation and a better neighbour. My friends would remind me that Imran had allegedly remarked during the 1987 India tour, that let India and Pakistan, instead of going to war over Kashmir, fight it out on the pitch instead. So what, I say? If disputes really could be settled over a game instead of a blood bath, is it really such a bad deal?

Some might say that Imran said so, if he did, because in spite of his Oxford education, Imran is a tribal at heart. And like his brothers from the gun-toting badlands around the Khyber often settle clan disputes by pitting two fighting mountain mastiffs from each clan against each other, instead of shedding human blood, Imran too might have thought it a fair, if impractical idea.

I stood by him, defending my idol when my mother who had hitherto admired him, said she was disappointed to learn of the Sita White episode (Imran and Ms. White had a love child who he was initially reluctant to accept as his own), defending him from my own conscience when I learnt he loved hunting grouse and partridge. I realised he was only a man, and not a god, and yet what a man he was, and is…

So when I first heard that Imran, the bold, Imran, the fearless, Imran, that lion who couldn’t be cowed, had refused to come and speak at the India Today conclave because it also had a certain Salman Rushdie amongst the list of invitees, like many others, I too was disappointed. It isn’t about Mr Rushdie’s book which I haven’t read, but would definitely like to, if only to know why it irked so many so much. It is about a man reneging on an unspoken promise that he made to those who believed in him and believed he was going to take Pakistan beyond religious and cultural bigotry and help it become a modern functional democracy whose people have the right to both express and reject ideas without fearing death and mob hysteria. If he wilted so soon, in the face of so little, would Imran Khan have the courage to finish this battle with his values intact?

“Oh come on! You expect him to stand up and share the lectern with Salman Rushdie and still hope to win elections in Pakistan? The poor man has no choice!” she said. ‘She’, is a colleague of mine and a fan. And I was inclined to agree, but since she is a woman and most of you would fall victim to the usual sexist and chauvinistic assumptions about how little women might understand of either cricket or politics, I went to the library and picked out a few books about the great Khan, one of them in his own hand and titled ‘Pakistan: A personal history’.

As I flipped the pages, I got to know the man beyond the game. The shy playboy, the philandering philanthrophist, the urbane tribal and other such enigmas leaped out of the pages and then faded away behind the tragic sometimes towering-but often ridiculed figure of a king without a kingdom. In the last half decade, Imran Khan, the greatest modern icon, sporting or otherwise, of his country has endured being roughed up by politically radicalised mobs, arrested, jailed and threatened with death and worse. He has seen the women in his family being humiliated by those in power, in a manner which in his ancestral pashtun villages would have led to blood feuds. He has been called ‘a political non-entity’, a politically motivated (or frustrated) born again Muslim.

And then to add insult to injury, he gets called ‘Im, the dim!’ by arguably one of the greatest writers of our times. Salman Rushdie’s upset about being treated like a socio-religious pariah by a man who by virtue of his education and stature should have had the courage to accept, if not celebrate the presence of the man who wrote the ‘Satanic Verses’. Or so we think, for sitting right next to him, moderating the discussion was Aatish Taseer, the man who should have told the world that “it isn’t easy.”

Aatish Taseer’s father, Punjab Governor Salman Taseer was gunned down by his own security officer for opposing Pakistan’s Blasphemy Law, as was Clement Shahzad Butti (a minorities minister with the PPP government in Pakistan). Religious radicals operate with impunity in a country reduced to anarchy. Anybody who stands up to them has to be prepared for death, injury or worse. Families of those who oppose these radicals have to run away or go underground or put up with insults and a mob hysteria that could lead to damaged property, public lynching and even gruesome murders.

To expect a man seeking public office, having already sampled a slice of politically motivated mob justice, to jeopardise his whole future, both political and personal, for a cause he didn’t believe in, is more than merely na├»ve. And I say it’s a cause Imran didn’t believe in because in 1989, when the book first came out, Imran couldn’t give two hoots either way about the controversy surrounding the verses. But when large sections of the Muslim world boiled over, leading to death and destruction affecting countries as far apart as Japan and Norway, Imran Khan and other moderate Muslims living in the West became victims of the reverse fundamentalism of the ‘liberal West’. And Imran Khan resented that. Interviews he gave more than two decades ago, when he was a mere cricketer and as some say, a celebrity play-boy, would say so.

Imran Khan wasn’t being a hypocrite when he said Salman Rushdie had caused “immeasureable hurt” to all Muslims. For right or wrong, Imran Khan believed what he said. He didn’t bay for Rushdie’s head. He just said he chose not to share a platform with him. What’s wrong with that?

In exchange he got called ‘Im, the dim.’ Th at’s not fair. It’s easy to ridicule a man not present. I can think of a dozen ‘Sal-man?’ and ‘Rush-die’ jokes. Th at’s in poor taste, I agree, and my sincerest apologies to a man I salute for his prowess with the pen, as much as for his wit and wisdom. But the point is why pick on the poor guy when there were bigger fish in the pot to fry. Pranab Mukherjee, Akhilesh Yadav and Omar Abdullah stayed away from the conclave and all Rushdie could say was he was disappointed. All his indignation was spent on a ‘political minnow’ from across the border who is too dignified to cuss and too civilised to kill.

You are my hero too, O teller of tales of magic and meaning. I hold you too high to see you stoop even a little low. Your erudition ought to pick on those more deserving of your ire.

As for Imran, remember the 1992 World Cup, when he batted with uncharacteristic restraint to protect an injured shoulder and a fragile batting line up. He bided his time till the pitch was flat and the sun shone bright, and then he let loose all his might. Inspired by his example, young turks like Inzamam-ul-Haque and Waseem Akram put their weight behind him and lo and behold, the Cup came home.

The Imran of today is doing much the same. He gathers strength as he waits, when he knows its time, he will flood the gates and for that day, his country waits...

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