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Heart-warming moments on a Pakeezah night

NO SCOOP THIS: Zafar Iqbal enjoys the hospitality offered by Baluchi, InterContinental The Grand's restaurant. Photo: S. Subramanium.

MEETING HIM is like undertaking a nostalgia trip. All taxes paid, value for time assured. Former India hockey captain Zafar Iqbal speaks straight and from the heart. No flourishes, no guffaws, no concerted whispers. This Bachelor of Business Administration minds his own business. Seldom, if ever, does he talk of things other than the matter on the agenda. Today, he has just decided to take a trip down memory lane, taste the best that InterContinental The Grand's Baluchi restaurant has to offer.

"Is the meat used here halal?" the Aligarh Muslim University alumnus asks. Put at ease with the answer, he starts off with a jaljeera before placing his order for kababs. "There is nothing called vegetarian kababs. I am a pucca non-vegetarian," he declares, never mind if he can cry at the sight of spilling blood on celluloid!

In the background, a ghazal singer renders songs of parting, of love unrequited. "Yeh Hai Reshmi Zulfon Ka Andhera Na Ghabraiye", goes a song. Zafar nods his head, soaking in the joy of the presentation. "Like sad music, such poetry has depth, is meaningful, but it is not everybody's cup of tea." Asha Bhonsle's timeless "Ajeeb Dastan Hai Ye... " follows. And Zafar starts to talk of his dastan, of his journey from Bihar Sharief where he was born to England where he spent a few early years of life, to donning the India cap, captaining the side in the 1982 Asiad and Los Angeles Olympics.

"Many people can't recognise me as a Bihari. They have their own stereotypes. After spending a few years in England, I came to Aligarh where I studied in Lord Minto School, also called Saifuddin Tahir High School. As a youngster I used to play all over. I remember playing in Rampur. Iqbal Ali Baig was there. He was next only to Ajit Pal Singh."

Fast forward to New Delhi Asian Games in 1982 and the day the Indians were pipped to the gold by an inspired Pakistan team. "We were very tensed that day. Rajinder Singh was injured. Pakistan forwards were very fast. Negi alone can't be blamed. But it was the saddest day of my life," Zafar Iqbal recalls, still saddened. He has seen too much of life though, to allow his eyes to turn moist now, though his voice still nears a choke when he talks of the fateful day.

Help is round the corner. He is offered Paneer Tikka and Sambal Ke Kabab. He is quite clearly fond of non-vegetarian food and starts talking at length about different kinds of kababs. Relishing the food on offer, he recalls, "As a youngster I was not allowed to even have tea outside."

Now, of course, things are different. Zafar has an opinion on virtually everything. Ranging from a prominent food chain whose food he pronounces "not good enough" to music and films - "I like an occasional film or two but my wife hates it for I cry while watching films" - and of course, hockey.

"The win in Australia was no fluke. There is need to generate positive energy, persist with the same energy and team for a while," he says, even as he is offered some steaming Biryani complemented with some fine mutton gravy.

Digging into a piece of meat, he talks of the decline of the sport, despite recent successes. "There are no hockey grounds in the country. No hockey clubs anymore. There are only academies. However, to the credit of our guys, no team in the world can take us lightly to this day."

It is not as if the man is just cribbing over life. He actually relishes the treat it has dished out. For the moment though, he quite likes the non-vegetarian kababs. Also, his love for hockey continues undiminished.

"Given a chance I would like to be a hockey player again. Forget cricket, there is nothing to beat the charm of hockey. Dhanraj Pillay is as good as Sachin Tendulkar, but he has not got his due here. If you compare Dhyan Chand and Sachin, you would know who is a greater master of his field. Claudius won us four gold medals yet nobody recognises him in public. Hockey has declined in popularity. Everybody wants to be a cricketer."

Dessert comes prompt on cue. Zafar, whose waistline is touching 36 inches, declines but reveals, "I am open to experimentation in food. I cannot cook but occasionally do help out my wife in the kitchen." That is for moments of greater privacy, great candour. For the moment, soothing Baluchi's warm hospitality on a Pakeezah night will have to do.


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