The scorebook should read ‘bowled paparazzi zero’. Sad when you thought you would score a hundred. I was looking for a major scoop by trying to get an exclusive interview with the late Princess Diana in Lahore in 1996. She had flown in as Imran Khan’s guest and was having a quite dinner with Imran, the then wife Jemima and her mother at a restaurant called the village. It seemed that the press did not know of her being there and I, being the only one there, was feeling rather confident of getting few quotes the moment she walked out. And then it happened. She stepped out and in an instant; the empty place was swamped with British journalists, popping flashbulbs all over the place. They pulled out stools from nowhere and tried their utmost to wrangle a quote from her. I felt completely underprepared, armed as I was with only my notebook and the reorder. And as for the object of attention, she responded to a question with a quick word and vanished. I realized hat I had felt the full import of a tribe of paparazzi for the first time. I count this experience as a failure, but one which I learnt a lot from. That under no circumstances should you count your chickens before they are hatched.
Getting an interview, though, was not a major problem with Nelson Mandela, even if it was at 5 in the morning. The great man was graciousness personified, discussing Gandhi, apartheid and India in great detail during my exclusive interview with him in Johannesburg. But then I touched a raw nerve when I asked him a delicate question about Winnie Mandela (who was still married to him at the time). She was rumored to be involved with someone else and asking him for a comment on the state of affairs led to him flareing up all of a sudden. It struck me as strange that a man, who has spent 27 though, long years in prison and is known worldwide as the most sensitive, patient man, could not take this personal matter in his stride. I felt I had got an insight into Mandela, he man as never before.
One of the most chilling experiences I have ever had was inside Dawood Ibrahim’s cabin at Sharjah in 1994, just after the 1993 Bombay blasts. The Indian team had been sent to play in the ODI tournament also featuring Pakistan only after the Sharjah Cricket authorities had assured Indian authorities that Dawood or his cohorts would not be involve or even present during the event. Yet I received a tip that Dawood had a box in his name, with his guests sitting in it on the third floor; in spite of the press box being two floors below. Marveling at their audacity, I wanted to get a shot of the box juxtaposed against the Indian players on the field. Moinuddin Hamid, a Pakistani photographer, finally took one with a telephoto lens from a distance. Others were not willing to go on a suicide mission despite a lot of persuasion.
I then decided to casually walk into the box. Upon entering the antechamber, I saw Anees Ibrahim, Dawood’s Brothers, with his associates, waving Pakistani flags. Amazing! These wanted and dangerous men were sitting around in board daylight, with reporters milling around! Mustering up enough courage, I asked to speak with Dawood. All conversation fell around me and I was led into the inner cabin where I faced a barrage of Anees, asking me what I wanted. Noting the remarkable facial similarity between the two brothers, I asked for a Dawood interview. He replied gruffly that they were not interested in interviews and were just glad hat Bal Thackeray could watch them on live TV. Further prodding about their views on Indian cricketers led nowhere, but I received my first threat when Anees said, Agar ek bhi baat nikal jaaye, to aapke liya achcha nahi hoga (it won’t be good for you if even a word of this gets out). One of his henchmen came forward to speed up my exit but he called me in again and added for good measure, shaayad aaplo pata nahi, Calcutta mein bhi hamare dost hai (you may not know this, but we have friends in Calcutta as well). Even though I was scared the story came out the next day. Once word got round that a reporter had waltzed into the room, there was hell to pay, with circulars forbidding entry to level 2.
After my story got published in Sportsworld they told me that I had crossed my limits and blocked my accreditation for a couple of years. Gulf pressmen warned me of the risks telling me that he had men in Mumbai. And as for the story’s impact, the government felt they had been taken for a ride, while the Indian players were upset. Despite assurances to the contrary, the photo was proof they were there. Even after 14 years, I haven’t come to terms with the fact that lot could merrily sit around, watching cricket a mere couple of months after the 1993 blasts, with a Tendulkar only a few hundred years away.
And speaking of cricket, a humorous anecdote about Sourav Ganguly comes to mind. This was just after the World Cup 2003 final, probably the most disappointing day ever. Indian had lost miserably and after sending my reports in a fairly dejected frame of mind, I walked into Sourav’s room two hours after the final. It was full of people – journalists, friend’s et al. the TV set kept on showing Ponting lifting the cup, saddening the already-morose atmosphere further.
Some journalists were trying to make the most of even this and trying to please him by desperately conveying the distress they were feeling; in fact, I remember, one of them even started weeping. Another piped up saying it was the saddest day of his life. They were playing to the galleries so earnestly that I almost found it funny. It was then that Sourav, who also seemed understandably distressed, pointed out that just received an sms.
I looked at my cell-phone and found that the sender was none other that Sourav himself, who had written, dutoi natok korchhe! (Both of them are Play-acting!). I couldn’t help chuckling at the situation and remember thinking that this was one of Sourav’s strengths – the ability to recover and move on so quickly even after the defeat of his life!