Imran Khan is now globally famous as the top politician of Pakistan but once his fame was limited to sports. But even then his appeal was huge and in 1987 he visited Bangladesh as a Sports ambassador on behalf of Unicef. I was then working for the UN agency and my role was to nanny him of sorts while on his visit. Of course there were others but I was the local guy who had the contacts.
So I went making all the sports contacts and in this Bangladesh national team cricket player and organizer Ashraful Haque bhai helped us out a lot. Through him we met then Foreign Minister Anisul Islam Mahmud, now batting for another team as a Minister. Thus the doors were opened and grand receptions were readied by many. Though he had retired from cricket he was still a hero.
Initially, I found him to be tense and guarded, not like the kind of celebrities we have had before. For example, Audrey Hepburn was immediately comfortable with everyone and made her company pleasant to all. Imran was aloof.
At the first official reception, where many came and truly hero worshipped him, he was more by himself holding a glass of coke. I stood next to him and sort of introduced the biggies that came forward to shake his hand. Many brought their children and he dutifully signed whatever was presented to him. He had a back pain, he said. I asked if I should order a doctor. He replied he was Ok.
At the series of public receptions that followed he did much better and was more relaxed. At Chittagong he held a bowling session and seemed to enjoy himself. There was no hassle, no crisis but the atmosphere around him was a trifle stressed. There was a reception at the Unicef office premises in Dhanmandi where staff members and their family came to meet him. He was polite and proper and of course was used to all that naturally comes with stardom.
While on the car to the Dhaka stadium to attend a reception he however did express his resentment at several things. I was the junior guy in the front seat and said nothing but he did express his opinion about how Unicef was managing his tour. Let’s just say he wasn’t impressed.
We had a common friend in Naseemur Rahman of Unicef Pakistan who now heads his charity organization. He wished that Naseem was around. Clearly, he wanted a few known faces around him and missed that familiarity I suppose. Anybody would. There were so many strangers around him all wanting to get close. It can jar the nerves.
We shot a public interest advertisement with Imran having to say in Bangla “Immunize your child”. It was a truly uncomfortable moment for him and I fully appreciate that. He should have been coached, and forewarned at least. Anyway, he did go through it and the commercial became immensely popular. So thanks are owed to him.
The girl at the hotel
What I remember most was an incident that occurred on the day before his final morning. He was coming from outside Dhaka and I was at the Hotel Intercon to receive and take him to his next destination. The hotel authorities informed that a young lady had been waiting for him since the night before to meet him. She stood in the lobby with a helpless looking brother standing next to her. I told the hotel people not to bother the girl unless something happened. She had refused to budge, they said.
As Imran Khan entered the hotel the girl moved forward and greeted him. Imran stopped and asked her what she wanted. She said she had something to say privately. “What”, he asked. “Come here please, it’s private.”
By that time the hotel security had moved in and the girl was quickly ushered away. I accompanied him to his room. “Poor girl,” he said. “Probably wants to marry me or something.” He did seem concerned. He had obviously faced such scenes before.
As he left the hotel later, he asked about the girl. “Please ask the hotel people not to report her or something. Obviously she is mentally disturbed. “I assured him and was also touched by his concern. She was not just a stalking type fan to him but a girl Imran Khan understood was not mentally fine.
That made him far more human than anything he had said or done during the entire visit.
Years later, a Pakistani academic had called him the “joker in the pack “of that country’s politics. But the same is now the “king”. He seemed in the week that I was in contact neither less nor more than any of the thousands of politicians I have met in my life. Hope he does well for Pakistan.