Sunday, July 02, 2006

Why isn't Imran Khan afraid of loneliness and death?

'I have no fear of death,' he says. 'When I came into politics I always thought there was a possibility I would be killed.' If anything his lack of fear has grown along with his faith in Islam. 'Spirituality does two things for you. One, you are forced to become more selfless, two, you trust to providence. The opposite of a spiritual man is a materialist. If I was a materialist I would be making lots of money doing endorsements, doing cricket commentary. I have no interest in that.'

All this sounds a very long way from the Imran Khan of the Seventies and Eighties who spent his evenings in Annabel's and Tramp nightclubs in London's West End and his days in Nigel Dempster's gossip columns for bedding a series of debutantes - including the late Sita White (daughter of Lord White), Susannah Constantine (Viscount Linley's ex), Lady Liza Campbell and the artist Emma Sergeant. He had come to England from Aitchison College, a relic of the Raj, to study at Oxford, where he was captain of cricket, before playing for Worcestershire and Sussex. In those days he was very much the playboy prince. I wonder what he makes of that former self.

'I have never claimed to be an angel,' he says, still behind his shades. 'I am a humble sinner. In my cricket career I would keep a log and write down the areas I had failed in so I could make them strengths. I have tried to do that in life, too.'

But, I say, he always seemed to be having such a splendid time.

He very nearly smiles. 'I was a bachelor,' he says. 'I decided I would never marry while I was playing cricket. I watched other cricketers and saw the wives going through a torrid time, and the children, which was even worse. When I had my children I was completely hands on. My marriage was tough, but I still think the highs I got in marriage were much greater than those I got as a bachelor.'
Would he like to marry again?
'One day, but not now.'

He had a reputation, as captain of Sussex, for never being one of the boys. Why was that?
'The thing was, I hated pubs,' he says. 'I could not tell you how much I detested them. I had been playing cricket for six hours body and soul and the last thing I wanted to do was stand in an English pub and talk about it. I hated the smell of a pub. I hated the look of it. And of course I never drank alcohol. So maybe that was part of it.'

The other reason, he says, was an extreme kind of shyness. It is
hard to imagine the great allrounder as a retiring type, but he insists he was.
'My oldest son is very shy now and he reminds me of myself. I would deliberately miss public occasions if there might be a speech. When I became Pakistan captain in 1982 I could not even address the team. I would tell my manager, "Look, this is what I want to convey, can you tell them for me?"'

He began to escape this predicament, he says, in his mid-thirties, when he found something like personal enlightenment. 'I underwent a bit of a quest, as we all do. I asked myself, " What am I doing on this earth?" I was very fortunate in that when I was asking this question I came across very deep spiritual people. That happens in Pakistan. It does not happen so often in the West.'

Along with his growing faith, Imran rethought a lot of his views on social issues, such as the place of women in society. He tries to tread a line in his political life between an appeal to the faithful and an attempt not to undermine his charismatic credibility in the West. He puts his argument for a woman's place being in the home in cultural terms.

'I always think that one of the biggest mistakes made by the feminist movement is that they have devalued motherhood,' he says. 'My father was in business and away a lot when I was a child; my mother was all-powerful. The unconditional love, the security it gives you in life is irreplaceable. In England I saw that the side-effect of this feminism was that children lost out on this incredible education and security, which no one else can provide.'
It was watching his mother die an awful death of cancer, unable to get treatment or even pain relief in Pakistan, that drove him to his proudest achievement, a $25m cancer hospital named in her honour in Lahore. He raised the money through campaigns and donations.

He started with Pakistan's richest men , many of whom had gone to his school, but quickly realised that generosity had nothing to do with wealth. So he went to the public: he enlisted the help of a small army of children - even though to start with he was terrified to stand up in front of a school assembly.

'In the end,' he says , 'I needed $4m in six weeks. I got an open jeep, put a big sack for money on the back and toured from north to south asking for help. I started at seven in the morning and carried on till midnight. In those six weeks I changed. I realised the generosity of tea boys, taxi drivers, the poorest people bringing 10 rupee notes - and also their faith. I was saying, "Don't worry: save your money". And they said, "We are not doing it for you, we are doing it for our God".'

From an interview in The Observer, The Path of Khan