Footloose: Tale of a tragic hero —Salman Rashid
Fourteen years is time enough to forget people one meets. But though I never returned to Ghotki, I never forgot Kafeel Bhai. The thought of how these years would have treated him was never far from my mind
Anyone who had frequently driven around the highways of Pakistan and kept their eyes open back in the 1980s and well into the 90s could just not have missed the eye-catching slogan on the rear bumpers of passing lorries — and there was scarcely a long-distance hauler that did not bear this slogan. ‘Kafeel bhai ko salaam,’ it would say in the Nastaliq script. But the clincher was the ending, also in Urdu: ‘Mashoor-e-zamana right arm, left arm spin bowler of Ghotki.’
How can that be, I, who gives not a fig for cricket, used to think driving behind such a lorry. This man in one-horse Ghotki is surely a lunatic who does not know what spin bowling with the right arm or the other one meant. But the slogan was persistent through the years and I one day resolved to check out Ghotki for myself. For the benefit of those who have not even heard of this place, Ghotki, situated sixty kilometres northeast of Sukkur on National Highway 5, has now been a district headquarters for some years. Back in the eighties, it was a hick little town.
It was in November 1994 that I found myself on a street with furniture workshops asking for Kafeel Bhai. I found him in the back of a badly-lit workshop sanding a chair. Seeing me approach, he got up, dusted his hands and came bounding towards me in a barrage of greeting. It was almost as if he, conscious of his fame, had been waiting for fans to start pouring in.
Kafeel Bhai talked as if he had wanted someone, just anyone, to come around and hear him out. He was born Kafeel Ahmed Siddiqui in 1958. His father Khalil, a native of Jhansi (India) was a veteran Muslim Leaguer and, so I was told, a close associate of Jinnah’s who surnamed him Pakistani. The young country whose name he carried saw this good man settling in Ghotki where Kafeel was born and went to school which ended at matriculation. Even as a child he possessed great ability with the paintbrush, but small town Pakistan was hardly the place to put this artistic talent to good use. Also, the family was sufficiently well-off for the boy never really having to worry about a profession.
While still in school in the early 1970s, Kafeel began to play cricket as a left arm spinner with the ambition of getting into the national team. Jim Laker (of Australia?) who had taken a record of nineteen wickets in 1956 was his idol and for the sake of Pakistan Kafeel wanted to break this apparently unbeatable record. From photos he had, he painted Laker’s portrait, placed it a vantage so that his hero looked upon him and taught himself to bowl with the right arm ‘just like Laker’. Now with this ability of being able to bowl with both arms, he thought he could floor any batsmen with his variety he could offer in a single over.
The station of the true master of his craft is at the top. Kafeel did not want to play small-time cricket anymore. But fortune passed him by; he was, he says briefly, ignored by the selectors. His best playing years were wasted in the long wait and he gave up the game sometime in the 1980s because he could not reach the national team. The man who, as he looked at it, could have turned the world on its head with his remarkable ability and won a great name for himself and country was heartbroken. The dream of taking twenty wickets for Pakistan receded into the distance and with fame evading him thus, Kafeel set his sights elsewhere.
‘I wanted to be well-known so I started painting trucks,’ he said. With a wicker basket for his paint cans and brushes he haunted the truck stops of Ghotki to paint truck art. When the drivers and their assistants were not watching, he slyly added his slogan. By and by there were few lorries that did not bear his tag-line; the legend of the ambidextrous bowler began to be sprinkled across the land. He claimed that his renown had travelled to France and in the summer of ‘93, a team of Frenchmen visited him to invite him to travel to their country and paint their airliners.
But Kafeel would have nothing to do with a ‘two-bit country like France.’ He only wanted to do whatever he could for Pakistan. In any case, they had rejected his pre-condition to add his tag-line on every machine he painted.
In his heyday he would not ‘spare’ any vehicle. Car, lorry, tonga, donkey cart, bicycle — even the lotas in mosque latrines, they all carried the salaam notice. (He took me to a mosque and the bottoms of the lotas in the toilet were indeed inscribed!) Those were days of dakoo raj in Sindh and once Kafeel was kidnapped by a bunch of outlaws. Discovering who he was, they had him paint their names on their respective weapons. Our man obliged, appending each inscription with a ‘Kafeel bhai ko salaam.’ Not long after, the outlaws having been gunned down, the police came looking for the man.
Like Kafeel the cricketer, Kafeel the artist could write and paint with both hands with equal facility without the script showing any sign of awkwardness. He could do it right side up and upside down or he could do mirror writing in Urdu and Sindhi scripts. But he never asked for money for his work. ‘Because an artist’s work is priceless and it is bad form to seek recompense for art.’ If people wished to pay him, Kafeel held his pocket open for them to drop in the cash which he dutifully took home to his mother.
Unmarried at that time, he told me marriage was his last priority because he first wished to achieve the height of fame. He was sure that he was well on his way ‘or why would an educated person like you come to sit at my feet?’ As we were parting that day, I asked him if I could do something for him. ‘The time to do things for me is past,’ he said without a twinge of sadness and thanked me for taking the trouble to see him. In the bazaar where we said our farewells, everyone seemed to know him. I commented on it and he said, ‘Like rivers that fall into the great ocean, they all come to me.’
I saw men young and old, Hindu and Muslim, Sindhi, Punjabi and Mohajir came up to him and he greeted them one and all by kissing their hands. Then my tonga pulled away and the last I saw of left arm, right arm spin bowler Kafeel Bhai of Ghotki was him surrounded by a sea of bobbing heads.
In between this interview, on my request Kafeel changed into his old and fraying flannels that accentuated his spindly legs and slight frame. He led me to a garden and there showed me his amazing ambidextrous bowling. They might have called them ‘flighted deliveries’, but since I cannot tell a googly from silly point or anything else I was not the best judge of Kafeel’s craft.
Fourteen years is time enough to forget people one meets. But though I never returned to Ghotki, I never forgot Kafeel Bhai. The thought of how these years would have treated him was never far from my mind. Could he have kept his cheerfulness despite the heart that he said was broken? Or would he be swamped with despondency? It was last June that I was in Sukkur again and took time off to travel to Ghotki. The furniture shops were all there and I eventually fetched up at the one where I had met Kafeel a decade and a half ago. He was no longer there.
The owner told me that Khalil Ahmed Pakistani had disposed of the property in Ghotki and moved his family to Karachi some years earlier. Kafeel was still a bachelor at that time. No one had a forwarding address, nor too were any relatives living in Ghotki who could tell me where to look for my man. Is it possible that Karachi with its opportunities has seen the flowering of the artist hiding in the slim frame of Kafeel Ahmed Siddiqui? Is it possible that someone who knows of him will read this piece and puts me in touch with him again?
Salman Rashid is a travel writer and knows Pakistan like the back of his hand. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org (Daily Times)