Shahid Afridi: A Star Among Us

422399-Afridi-1345036964-251-640x480The token Arabs in my enclosure at the Dubai cricket stadium gawked at us Pakistanis in amazement. Shahid Afridi, Lala to his fans, had just been called in to bat and all Pakistanis in attendance — and I suspect some Indians and Bangladeshis too — began screaming their lungs out before he had even walked out of the pavilion.

We ended up losing that match — the second Pakistan versus England Twenty20 International in February — but Afridi’s knock of 25 off 23 balls gave me all the entertainment I had needed to make that trip to Dubai worthwhile.

Such is the charisma of Shahid Afridi. Whether or not he performs to expectation — and expect stability from him at your own peril — he can be relied on for one thing: from the moment he steps out onto the pitch, the match, and eventually the day, is all about him.

And that was exactly how it was on July 26, 2012, the day I finally got to meet him.

“Follow the noise,” our driver told us as we got off the car. The noise he was referring to was the cacophony of screaming kids that we could hear from half a kilometre away and it was loud and clear enough to guide us to our hosts’ house.

“I hope Afridi hasn’t arrived already,” I muttered to myself, as we hurried along the road. “It’s barely 530pm yet and stars never make it on time!” I continue my not-so-inner monologue, perplexing my colleague, who is obviously amused at my child-like excitement at the opportunity to see Lala up close. By now, he has grown pretty tired of listening to me go on and on about my unconditional and unwavering dedication to Afridi during our drive from Korangi Road to Quaidabad.

Never before had I been this appreciative of television channels’ compulsive need to compete with each other and to go to often ridiculous lengths for ratings. Express Entertainment, for its Ramazan transmission, had managed to rope in Afridi for a show in which he visited various families in Karachi, joining them for Iftar at their houses.

Bringing a renowned celebrity to an ordinary neighbourhood is tough enough, and doing so while managing a live broadcast is even more challenging. Naturally, stress was in the air.

On the street where the house of the lucky hosts stood, some Express TV guys manned a DSNG van while others were frantically coordinating with the studio staff through their mobile phones. All of them were crowding the street we needed to be in. Of course, 40 other kids from around the neighbourhood had decided they needed to be there too and I was almost bowled over by how many children there were! They came in all shapes and sizes. It was as if the street had transformed into a playground in a matter of a few hours.

Harried Express staff tried to make the kids stand in neat lines, unsuccessfully of course, as we tried to cross the street and walk towards the house. I felt a little like a star myself, albeit only by association, as I walked past the kids who looked at me with sparkling eyes simply because I accompanied the TV crew that had promised them a look at the Shahid Afridi.

Beta, side pe ho jao!” a colleague told one of the kids for the umpteenth time. The boy, barely over 12, was holding a ball and rubbing it against his shorts ala Wasim Akram, preparing to deliver that perfect reverse swing to ‘Mehmaan Ka Ramazan’ host Ayaz.

Main bowling kara raha hoon,” he retorted, impatiently. “Cameray main nahin aao ge,” he was told. He shrugged. Obviously, bowling was way more important to him than the 15 seconds of fame any television channel could offer him.

I, however, obediently moved out of the frame only to jump into another one. One camera was stationed outside the house’s gate while the other was placed on the balcony of the house right opposite. A woman looked out of the window in anticipation, but wiggled out of sight when I waved at her.

After being ordered out of several frames, I decided to just go and sit inside the house and talk to the family until Afridi arrived. On my way to the living room, I walked past a cosy room with pink, purple and light green walls, sporting posters that showed Afridi high-fiving teammates and one in his signature pose: arms and legs stretched out triumphantly. All the furniture had been moved out and clean white daris had been laid out on the floor. There were only two floor cushions.

“I can’t believe he is coming here to our house!” Raeesa, probably in her 60s, squealed almost like a young girl. Amazed, I asked her if she watched cricket. No, she admitted, but of Afridi she said: “Hum to bohot baray fan hain.

Her granddaughter Saba chimed in. “The men [of the house] get to watch the entire match; we are usually too busy helping around the house or studying. But when Afridi is on the pitch, we abandon everything and are in front of the TV in a flash. Even the men make sure we get to watch him play!” she said.

Bisma, the 10-year-old girl whom Afridi had come to visit at their house, was too excited to say a word but couldn’t stop smiling. “She’s both excited and nervous,” Raeesa told me as Bisma, wearing an oversized green Number 10 Afridi jersey, ran outside the house to join the kids playing cricket in the street. “Since the 1st of Ramazan, she’s been badgering her father to prepare for the day that Afridi comes to our house for Iftar,” she said, laughing. “She is insistent that she will hug him.”

Does she love cricket as much as she loves Afridi, I asked. “Yes! She plays all the time, at home and in school. But she gets very, very tired because she’s unwell,” said Raeesa.

Bisma is battling Thalassaemia, a genetic and hereditary blood disorder that results in the excessive destruction of red blood cells, eventually leading to severe anaemia. Her fight is even tougher as she is suffering from Thalassaemia major which occurs when a child inherits a mutated gene from each parent.

According to her uncle, a doctor himself, her chances of survival are so slim that the family had decided to shower all their attention and love on her while they still can. Her parents, Nasir and Humaira, are determined to give her as normal a life as they can, despite repeated reminders of her fragility in the form of the regular trips they have to make to her doctor.

Suddenly, we heard loud cheering. He must be here, I thought as I quickly made my way outside. False alarm. It was just the children, entertaining themselves by deliberately annoying the Express staff.

“Is he here yet?” one Express team member shouted to another, a burly man who was taking care of the unruly children while simultaneously keeping an eye on the road that led into the street. “Yes, he has arrived!” he shouted back.

Instantly, a wave of excitement passed through the crowd and the occasion seemed to metamorphose into a wedding ceremony as girls of the family — at least 20 other people had been invited by the family, despite requests by the TV crew not to do so — brought out plates filled with fresh rose petals. Bisma’s brother held a garland to put around Afridi’s neck. A young boy, Bisma’s cousin, stood at the gate carrying a handmade poster saying ‘Boom Boom Afridi zindabad’ with a photograph of a smiling Afridi wearing a sleeveless red training suit.

I strategically placed myself next to the gate so that as soon as Afridi walked in, I could shake hands with him. I had to try my luck despite being told that, since his religious awakening, he lowers his gaze in the presence of women and does not shake hands with them. I briefly thought back to 2004, when I went to watch a Pakistan-India match at Lahore’s Qaddafi Stadium from the ill-fated bilateral series that came to an abrupt halt after the dastardly 2008 Mumbai attacks. Afridi was fielding at long off and a group of spectators from my stand playfully started cheering “Sab behnon ka ek hi bhai, Shahid bhai, Shahid bhai!” The rare hybrid of superstar and boy-next-door that he is, Afridi turned around and waved at them, causing many of the girls to swoon and boys to shout.

I was jolted back to the present by someone shrieking, “I see him!!!”

There he was, Shahid Afridi wading through the crowd, looking as incredibly handsome in a black shalwar kameez (probably designed by his own brand) as he does in a green national cricket squad kit, even the one with the strange white spots on the sleeves. The two rows that the Express staff had finally managed to divide the children into had broken down as the kids clambered over each other for a chance to shake his hand or even just see his face from up close. As she’d promised, Bisma hobbled over to hug him as the television camera tried to catch the moment, and the girls — Maria, Sana and Saba — started showering him with rose petals. I thrust my hand in his direction, was heartbroken for a second as he ignored it, but then felt a rush of emotion as he bowed his head to let Raeesa welcome him into their home.

Within five minutes of being in their house, Afridi had spread smiles and put everyone at ease, even the TV crew. “He’s fantastic with the crowd,” Shakeel Rana, a member of the Express Entertainment team, told me as we stood outside observing Afridi interacting with the family during a commercial break.

“Even in Lyari, he was very comfortable. Considering his [public] stature, he hasn’t made many demands [of the TV channel].”

The only other celebrity who receives nearly as incredible a response as Afridi is actor Aijaz Aslam, says Rana and the programme also brings actors Ahsan Khan, Adnan Siddiqui, Nauman Ijaz and Shahood Alvi to people’s homes. Interested families are required to send an SMS to 247, stating their name, address and who they would like to invite.

An Express Entertainment team then visits the families who are short-listed to confirm details and carry out a technical appraisal. When they came to visit Bisma’s house and heard of her illness and her interest in cricket, they knew they had to bring Afridi to meet her.

I went back to take my place in the room from where the transmission was about to resume. Bisma’s cousin Sana, who had been waiting impatiently to present a bouquet that she had made herself for Afridi, tried to ask my colleague to take her photograph while she gave him the flowers but he was already trying to handle two cameras.

Her face almost sagged at his refusal, so I immediately volunteered, unleashing a flurry of excited ‘thank yous’ from her. She requested me to take a ‘nice’ photograph as she adjusted her dupatta and checked her make-up. “My friends are waiting to see this photo on Facebook!” she explained.

Sana hurried back to her place and was immediately asked to come forward as Afridi and the family finished praying.

“I am so nervous I don’t know what to say. I’m just such a huge fan,” she blurted out, after she finished an incoherent speech. “But you’ve already said so much!” Afridi said, as the family laughed. “Actually, I am usually a lot more talkative,” Sana replied. “Oh acha. Aap ki shaadi hui hai?” Afridi asked her. When she replied that she was single, he said, “In that case, now let’s all pray for your future husband” leading to another round of laughter. I couldn’t help but notice that despite his newfound religiosity — he didn’t look at Sana even when she was giving him the flowers or when he joked with her — he hadn’t lost the ability to charm women.

“I have been his fan since I was 10,” she told me after Afridi had left, flicking through her camera to select the best picture. “I used to call 17 [phone inquiry] every day until they finally gave me his home number from when he used to live in Gulshan-e-Iqbal.” She still remembers the number, even though Afridi has switched homes and the phone number has probably expired by now.

We thought things would settle down as Iftar ended and Afridi drove off in his black Premio after signing several hundred autographs, posing for about a million family photos and distributing gifts from his shops. We were wrong. As word spread that Afridi had been in the neighbourhood, more and more children gathered outside the house, screaming his name in the hope that they might still be able to catch a glimpse of him.

“These kids refuse to believe that he has left,” Bisma’s father Nasir told me, as I stood at the gate of the house trying to get out. “Go home, it’s past maghrib!” he again told the kids, who only started calling out even louder for their hero.

As I said goodbye to our wonderful hosts, I asked Humaira how she was feeling. She had been smiling from ear to ear before Afridi came, but at the end of the day, there was a twinkle in her eye as if she’d checked off one of the items on her “things to do for her baby girl” list.

Nasir was also beaming as he came back in after having finally convinced the crowd gathered outside that Afridi had in fact left the building. “They assumed he would go in one of the TV crew’s cars!” he said.

How I wished that were true. I had been unable to get an autograph from him, let alone a photograph with him. But in many ways, I got a memory better than those mementos. I saw Shahid Afridi being the star that he truly is and leaving in his wake, a bright spot of light in the lives of a family struck by a tragedy I hope they will have the strength to bear.

Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, August 19th, 2012.

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