The enigma inside a paradox wrapped in a conundrum

Catriona Luke takes a look at thirty years of books about Imran Khan

The enigma inside a paradox wrapped in a conundrum
When Imran Khan was a guest on the BBC radio programme called Desert Island Discs in 1991, the record he chose to save from the waves was “Us and Them” from Pink Floyd’s album “The Dark Side of the Moon”. It was a classic anti-war song of the 1970s: “and the general sat, and the lines on the map they moved from side to side”

In the general elections of February 1997 there was a landslide victory that left the international media wrong-footed. PML-N under Nawaz Sharif won 136 of the National Assembly’s 217 seats. Benazir Bhutto’s PPP was left with just 17 seats, after being dismissed for “corruption” the previous November. Imran Khan’s newly-formed Tehreek-e-Insaaf failed to win a single seat, despite the fact that the BBC, anticipating that it would be a two-horse race between Imran and Benazir, had sent a film crew for a programme they entitled “Imran’s Final Test”.

A young Khan projected a very different image from today

It says a great deal for what Imran and Benazir had achieved as Pakistan’s two best-known representatives on the international stage. They were of a generation who were at ease in both the West and the East, who wanted a better world and, above all, who wanted a Pakistan that could flourish and be at ease with itself.

Imran had launched his party the previous April at the Holiday Inn in Lahore. The manifesto included freedom from political, economic and mental slavery; freedom from injustice, poverty, unemployment, homelessness, illiteracy. To this was added freedom from fear, freedom for women and freedom to generate wealth. “National self-esteem suffers when our leaders have to go begging for money. We have to conduct reforms on our country and stand on our own feet.”
Christopher Sandford's 2009 biography describes Khan as a "loner". Whatever goes on in Khan's internal world, it emerges again and again as a kind of dark, moody fractiousness

Khan’s earliest political views appear in his cricketing biography of 1988 entitled All Round View. Aged 35, he writes: “My political views were influenced by my parents, in that I too am patriotic and anti-colonial. However, unlike my parents’ generation I am not anti-Indian. My generation did not witness the struggle to create Pakistan and the bloodshed at the time of Partition in 1947 […] The suspicion and animosity created by border disputes and two full-scale wars have been a great burden on both countries. In Pakistan defence spending accounts for 65 per cent of our budget, leaving hardly any room for much-needed expenditure on health and education, which barely amount to four per cent [...] It may be naive to hope that one day India and Pakistan will have the kind of relationship envisaged by Jinnah [similar to that of the US and Canada], but it is essential for the development of both countries.”

He goes on to say that there are so many real problems in Pakistan that should be addressed: that the country has one of the highest population growth rates in the world and that if it continued there are going to be severe problems in the twenty-first century. Throughout the country healthcare and education were in a bad state. The country did not have the institutional infrastructures to limit corruption which flourished because bodies such as the police were badly paid.

Most interesting of all, given that it was written thirty years ago, are Khan’s views on national and regional government. “Politically the country seems to be drifting towards fragmentation. The minority provinces feel that they are being exploited by Punjab and the centre. The solution to this may well be decentralisation, breaking up the country into several smaller provinces, each of which runs its own health, education, welfare and law and order, rather like individual states in America”.

Next came Khan’s Indus Journey (1990) with photographs by Mike Goldwater, and the book is dedicated to “the dwindling forests and wildlife of Pakistan”. After Aitchison College, Imran was a boarder at the Royal Worcester Grammar School in England, where he took A levels and prepared for the Oxford university entrance exam. He completed the A level courses for economics and geography in nine months – very fast – and was admitted to Keble College, Oxford, to read geography. It didn’t work out and after two terms he switched to PPE – politics, philosophy and economics. At Oxford, instead of using the usual student method of transport which was a bicycle, he had an old Bantam motorbike which he would ride up and down the Banbury Road weaving in and out of imaginary bollards.

Christopher Sandford’s 2009 biography describes Khan as a “loner”. Whatever goes on in Khan’s internal world, it emerges again and again as a kind of dark, moody fractiousness. When in early 1984 he suffers a splintered shin, he recuperates in the home of an artist friend Emma Sergeant. She paints him, the very image of isolation, and the picture is reproduced in All Round View. Existential dark moods continue in Lady Annabel Goldsmith’s autobiography. When the Goldsmith family nearly die as their plane to Nairobi in the new year of 2001 comes within seconds of plunging to the ground, she records that Imran’s greeting to his wife Jemima when he flies in is: “Well, baby, I hear you had a little turbulence. I have always told you it is better to fly PIA”.

Lack of tact, discontent and fractiousness have perhaps gotten worse as the years have gone on. I have rarely seen pictures of Imran Khan smiling. Jemima Goldsmith recently tweeted at the early general election results in Pakistan: “22 years after humiliation, hurdles and sacrifices, my sons’ father is Pakistan’s next prime minister”. Yet Khan has had a privileged life. Political leaders can’t afford to be personally touchy or emotional about what the international or national media say or think.
William Dalrymple writes about the formative influence of pirs and fortune tellers in Khan's life. Yousuf Salahuddin, Imran's old friend, tells him that when he was a young cricketer he went to see a fortuneteller in Spain

It may be that it is a long habit in him because from childhood his experience was that the Niazis, his father’s side of the family, were a hard act to please. Zaman Park, named, says Christopher Sandford, for Imran’s great uncle Zaman Khan, and in the 1980s having so many Khans and Niazis in it that it was known as “Jurassic Park”, viewed cricket as “boring and uncompetitive … hardly anyone was ever physically struck”. On his mother’s side it was the military contacts that were celebrated, although in Indus Journey Khan recalls “an ancestor of mine, Haibat Khan Niazi was one of Sher Shah Suri’s leading generals, as well as being the governor of Punjab”. Imran’s maternal uncle Burki was a leading light in General Ayub’s ministry. And so the 1960s, he remembered from childhood, were a time of economic growth for Pakistan. In William Dalrymple’s long essay about Imran Khan, “Out for a duck” in The Age of Kali, Khan tells Dalrymple: “In the 1960s our exports were neck and neck with Hong Kong. Now our exports are barely a tenth of theirs.”

William Dalrymple writes about the formative influence of pirs and fortune tellers in Khan’s life. Yousuf Salahuddin, Imran’s old friend, tells him that when he was a young cricketer he went to see a fortuneteller in Spain who said that if he went into politics, he would be risking his life. In 1989 Dalrymple goes with Khan to visit the pir outside Lahore whom he has been consulting for three years.

Artist Emma Sergeant's depiction of Imran Khan

Michael Palin visits Khan in Islamabad in May 2003. “Imran is in a meeting but three amiable dogs rise to greet us, tails wagging vigorously until that becomes too much of an effort and they collapse, bellies flat against warm stones or on their backs in the shade of the verandah, legs spread eagle in abandon.” As they talk, Basil Pao, Michael’s photographer takes a picture of Imran’s Labrador, which will later appear in Palin’s Himalaya (2004). “Solving the world’s problems with Imran Khan,” he writes the caption, as they sit on the terrace of Imran’s rented house in Islamabad. “His dog’s heard it all before.”

These last few weeks, the UK newspapers have been busy again with coverage of Imran Khan, four decades on from when they first noticed a stunning and intelligent cricket player. The Times wrote a generous editorial, noting the difficulties in Pakistan and wishing him well.