Profile: The eccentric genius
Act I, scene It is past midnight. When the noise from the party across the road becomes unbearable, he decides to make some noise of his own. One gun shot… two… three… pierce through the night, jolting the entire neighbourhood out of its sleepy sojourn.
The party is spontaneously adjourned. The guests disperse; the cars parked on either side of the road drive off.
Amid the howls and barks of mongrels, one well-bred little white four-legged creature with his hair over his eyes and a very wet black nose stirs to curl up again inside the corner house… no duties to perform with the Master out on the prowl.
Thick volumes line up the walls of the study. Pictures of famous dignitaries, some of them ancestors, have found places of honour on one wall while another has the man’s own portrait, though slightly difficult to recognise as he had hair then, along with several mementoes of happy times, with his beloved life partner and their girls.
The tables, chairs, photo frames and vases, with fresh flowers from his lawn, all remain in the very same spots assigned to them by the lady of the house several years ago. Nothing has been moved, nothing changed, even though she has moved on and changed everything by her absence except her man.
Driving down the road you know you have reached the right corner house when you see bricks lined outside the boundary walls. As territorial as Buttons, his dog, who in his own words “might pee on the person who trespasses on his territory”, he himself only puts put out bricks.
The man sits surrounded by heavy reading material. However, the impression is ruined when you notice what he is reading himself. The latest escapades of some film star are more on his mind than anything else this afternoon. He shares with you the juicy gossip he has just read before tossing the film magazine on the chair beside him.
Asked how someone could enjoy the tacky stuff after having read all those volumes in the bookshelves, he casually announces, “Oh these books are my father’s. I haven’t a clue as to what they are about.”
We are meeting on a Monday afternoon as this is his day off. The eccentric that he is, this is also his way of mocking the world by taking the first day of the week, the busiest of all working days for many, as his off day.
“Fire your questions, Boss,” he addresses me like he does everybody else, man or woman. And so begins the voyage of discovery, of getting to know Arif Ali Khan Abbasi.
Breaking down the fort of attitude and madness that he has built around himself, there is only truth, honesty and goodness of the heart. He keeps referring to himself as “stupid fellow” but is smart enough to realise when being taken advantage of. And still he chooses to ignore it. “Even when I know if someone is cheating me for money, I will not let that person know. I just can’t offend or hurt anyone’s feelings,” he says quietly.
However, that is only for the underdogs. For others he will take such a stand that it’ll send their heads spinning like when he resigned from Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) again and again and again as he did with the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) due to interference. His four stints with the national carrier, which saw him reach the post of the director and later the managing director three times, 12 years with the PCB where he was the chief executive and as the head of other sports bodies, including hockey and squash, spelt the best of times for all these organisations.
“I have held all these big posts, including ministries, during the PPP government, Nawaz Sharif government and Musharraf’s time, which should tell you that I am not in line with any party. I am a professional,” he states matter-of-factly. As a minister during Pervez Musharraf’s time he had labour, transport, commerce, industry and cooperatives under him.
No surprises then when his name still comes up whenever there is a vacancy at any of these places but these days he is too busy heading the beautiful Arabian Sea Country Club as its chief executive officer. The club he heads now has been declared by the Asian Tour as one of the best golf courses in Asia. On top of that it has got a riding facility and the most alluring cricket ground in Pakistan. “And yet the PCB doesn’t hold matches there,” states Abbasi.
He mentions a recent incident where he kept writing to the PCB for permission to hold an international match but only received an NoC when it was too late and his sponsor had left. “I was bringing a team from India like I had done in Gujranwala for an earthquake relief match back in 2005. After several reminders, the PCB this time sent me a long list of facilities that I must have at the ground before holding the match. Now I have been with the PCB and overseen construction at the Lahore and Karachi stadiums while financing the one in Faisalabad to know that the board itself doesn’t have all that they put on the list but I did have each and everything and more at my ground,” he laughs off the matter.
As the chief executive of the PCB he was the one to get the cricket World Cup out of England, which hosted the first three editions. “We made the proposal and won. That was when India, too, begged us to include them for hosting some matches.
For the 1996 edition, we got the highest single sponsor, Wills, for eight million pounds,” he says.
“The professional managers and ICC referees were also our doing as was the neutral umpires and the ball boys,” he adds.
Abbasi and the late Air Marshal Nur Khan were also responsible for starting the Asian Cricket Council and the Asia Cup.
Pakistan never lost a hockey match while Abbasi was the president of the Pakistan Hockey Federation (PHF). Then when the late Air Chief Marshal Mushaf Ali Mir headed Pakistan Squash Federation (PSF), he also made him his executive consultant. “I had been dealing with most sports as the PIA MD anyway,” Abbasi points out.
Born, on May 31, 1942, Abbasi was his mother’s only child. He also had two much older sisters, but from another mother, his father Kazi Haider Abbasi’s first wife. He was very fond of his half sisters. “Although they are no longer in this world, I am still in touch with their children,” he says. “We are very close.”
About his family background he says, “My forefathers came to the subcontinent from Baghdad via Cairo during the time of Sultan Shansuddin Altamash.” Sultan Altamash had given them the right to have 25,000 horses along with the titles of ‘Khan’, ‘Ali’ and ‘Kazi’. The title ‘Kazi’ was used before the name because it meant ‘Kazi-ul-Quzaat’ or ‘judge’. They were given the right to judge.
“Mind you, they didn’t come with the invading forces,” Abbasi clarifies. “They came as refugees after losing to Halaku Khan in Baghdad. From Baghdad they proceeded to Cairo before coming to the subcontinent,” he explains.
About the recent past and his own father, Abbasi says: “Ultimately when my father married a second time it was to the daughter of a judge Salamuddin Khan, a member of the first Indian cricket team which went to England in 1911. He was one of the three Muslims in that team.”
Coming to his own childhood, Abbasi says, “I don’t remember if I was showered with anything but love but had it not been for my mother, I would have been brought up a sissy thanks to my father,” he says. “He had got made for me a gold bangle and earring. As a child I even wore those but my mother made sure I wasn’t spoiled,” he adds while narrating a significant childhood incident.
“I must have been five or six throwing stones at our servants’children when my mother came downstairs to ask me what I was doing,” he recalls. “I told her I was hitting the children with stones,” he says. “And she asked if I was having fun, to which I said ‘yeah!’
“That was when she also picked up a sharp stone and hit me with it straight on my forehead and I began to bleed,” he flinches at the memory. “I asked her, ‘what did you do that for?’ and she reasoned, ‘I wanted to have some fun, too,’ and I realised what a scoundrel I had been,” he admits.
Abbasi got his formal education from Geneva, where his father was stationed, Aitcheson College, Lahore, St. Patrick’s High School in Karachi and Oxford University in the UK of which the latter two got him into cricket. He also played at the university level.
Later, Abbasi married his childhood friend and Nawab Sir Muhammad Ahmad Said Khan Chhatari’s daughter Anjum Said Chhatari. The mention of her name brings a smile to his lips. With her parent’s place just a street behind his parents house, she was always there… but it was much later that the friendship was realised as something more than just that. They have two daughters.
Abbasi was in India when Anjum passed away very suddenly in Sept 2004. “She was fine when I left. I don’t remember her being sick for even a day,” he says shaking his head. The first thing he did was to take on the doctor who attended to her in the end and ask him how he could have let her go. It is evident that he still hasn’t accepted her death. He has become deeply religious after her moving on, praying in the privacy of his room with the door locked. But if you ask him what he was doing, he will only say, “Oh just some abracadabra!”