FOR Indian skipper Mohammad Azharuddin, the toughest confrontation is yet to begin. Embarrassed and enraged family members, incensed in-laws and a wife who refuses to be "divorced through an announcement made to the media" await his arrival in Hyderabad after the World Cup. Then, predict friends, there will be fireworks. And it won't quite be cricket.
"Let him just come back. He has a lot to answer for," says father Azizuddin succinctly. The threatening tone is unmistakable. Ask a few more questions, bring out the camera and the tall old man stands up and roars: "What do you want to show the world? Our morose, embarrassed faces?" Then, as if on cue, his youngest son Iftikaruddin springs to his defence. "We managed to keep even the BBC out," he asserts.
Not surprising really. Considering that the Indian captain's sprawling Vajeh Mansion in Hyderabad's posh Banjara Hills area has been turned into an impregnable fort ever since Azhar announced his decision to break his nine-year-old marriage.
Security guards manning the huge gate that remains locked have only one order: keep the newshounds out. But to those who still manage to get in, the sense of overwhelming gloom that engulfs the conservative household is as palpable as it is ironical. A family that should have been on a high as Azhar leads India's World Cup campaign is in despair. Family members dodge questions, even the servants are reticent. And wife Naureen hovers in the background in a pale green salwar suit, completely unreachable.
Requests to speak to her have Iftikar responding with absolute finality: "She is waiting for him to come back and sort things out with her. She's a very, very patient woman. She has nothing to say."
Twenty-five-year-old Naureen has never had anything to say. "At least, that is what her in-laws have ensured," says Naureen's irate mother Ghousia Rashid. "Theirs is an exceedingly conservative family, unlike ours. Azhar's mother keeps visiting pir babas and actually believes this woman (Sangeeta) has cast an evil spell on him."
Fuming at the "shameless treatment" meted out to her daughter by her "nouveau riche son-in-law who is senselessly glamour struck by some small-time model," Ghousia wants her daughter back. "They are making it out to be such a virtue—this family that is posing as the protector of the rights of a tormented daughter-in-law. They have managed to brainwash her into believing that they love her and want her. What good are they if her husband doesn't care?" questions the angry mother, sitting in the drawing room of her modest apartment in Banjara Hills, not far from Azhar's house.
It was an arranged marriage that brought Naureen and Azhar together when she was only 16. Her mother was opposed to the wedding, for she wanted Naureen to complete her education at Rosary Convent. She managed two years of school at Hyderabad's Stanley College after the nikaah. "She was permitted only because we were insistent. Azhar's mother, of course, made her life miserable because she didn't conceive for over two years," recalls Ghousia. Now a mother of two sons, Asad, 7, and Ayaz, 4, Naureen has long given up thoughts of further education.
Relatives of the family say that Naureen hardly has any friends, very few social outings and is always busy with her children. "Even when Azhar takes her abroad, she goes shopping with his friends' wives and he remains occupied with his game. Why, she has never even been allowed to drive a single one of Azhar's fleet of seven cars," points out Ali Yusuf Rashid, Naureen's mild-mannered and visibly shaken father. Unlike his wife, Rashid hesitates before making random accusations. But he ago nises over the fate of his grandsons: "He doesn't seem to care even about them. He told my wife that Naureen could have them and he would pay up for them."
The past year, according to Rashid's more vociferous relatives, saw Azhar spend barely two or three days at home in Hyderabad. Says Ghousia: "When here, he'd shamelessly speak for hours to the other woman over the phone and poor Naureen would leave the room. The last few months were especially bad. He barely spoke to her. And Naureen has been so depressed, losing weight and pining for her husband. Hoping that he'd see sense and come back. After all, my daughter is so much younger and prettier than that other woman and has such an impeccable character."
But Rashid, a former Saudia employee in Dubai, puts an end to all allegations: "In the final analysis, Azhar doesn't want Naureen. And wedo. By God's grace, I have earned enough to be able to support my daughter. Why does he have to make it such a nastily public affair? With people talking, my wife couldn't even attend the iftar parties."
And Hyderabad's chattering classes are truly buzzing. Talk of Azhar's divorce is the main course on the menu of Hyderabad's prestigious Nizam Club these days. The disapproving elite of the city say that "too much money too soon and at too young an age" is the reason for the talaaq. "He is a very good boy. But sudden money and glamour seem to have unbalanced him. He doesn't realise that a person of eminence has to be careful of what he says. But then, a Jaffer Sharief will never be able to handle the hawala allegations with as much dignity as a Madhavrao Scindia," says Syed Nadir Ahmed Khan, one of the Nizam's relatives. "Class problem and complexes at work," elaborates K.B. Tilak, film producer and another member of the club.
But there are others who are less clear about the reasons for the divorce. "One heard of the Azhar-Bijlani rumours but everything seemed okay with the marriage. Though, one must confess we barely saw Naureen accompany Azhar to the many get-togethers in the city," observes P.R. Man Singh, former India manager.
Unwilling to comment on what ailed his friend's marriage, former Test spinner Arshad Ayub hopes that this is the last of the controversies that have dogged the cricket captain for the past few months. "The Reebok controversy, the photographer-bashing incident and now this," he says. "But then I have always known Azhar to emerge stronger after bad times." The few who choose to defend Azhar on the divorce issue, and this on condition of anonymity, say broken marriages are no rarity today. "Bedi, Ghavri and Sandip Patil all went through divorces. But no big deal was made of it. Just that Azhar has always had a foot-in-mouth problem. He could have carried on with Bijlani without making this ruckus," they say.
But then, the damage has already been done. Azhar has played a false stroke. And the bouncers that await him in Hyderabad will be even more difficult to deal with.