I will be driving them again to the stadium. Tell them not to worry. The situation in Pakistan has changed a lot. Unko watan ki khushboo aayegi — come and play here, Sri Lanka!
That’s Meher Muhammad Khaleel, the man who was driving the bus to Gaddafi Stadium in Lahore on March 3, 2009 — Day 3 of the second Test Match — when the Sri Lankan team came under a terror attack suspected to have been carried out by the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi. Six members of the Lankan team were injured, six Pakistani policemen and two civilians were killed.
Khaleel says he is ready to drive them all over again. His words, meant as an assurance, are heartfelt.
Until they decided Monday to visit Pakistan, the Sri Lankan players had been concerned about going to Lahore for the October 29 final T20 game of the ongoing series at Abu Dhabi, a neutral venue. The Lanka board’s decision, in consultation with the players and coaches, came this evening but Khaleel understands their fears.
“It’s so easy for people to say play here but only those who went through that experience can understand that: Khauf and dehshat jo beeti hai unpey, (fear and terror that they went through) is not easy to forget,” said Khaleel, speaking to The Indian Express in a telephone interview. “I can understand that. But my request to them is that the situation is better: army is with you, our people are with you, and you will be safe.”
Recalling the day, Khaleel said that when the attackers opened fire, he thought it was celebratory fireworks. But soon he saw, in the mirror, that the Sri Lankan players had dived to either side of the aisle.
He said he then saw a man on the street shoot at the bus. “Kalashinikov tha — one went through the glass, one flew by, and I heard the players say, ‘Go, go, go’. It jolted me and I decided to drive ahead. To rush ahead an eight-cylinder bus on second gear wasn’t easy but I knew I had to escape the scene. They were 10-15 of them, I think, and grouped in twos.”
Then came a hand-grenade that dipped in front of the bus and rolled to the other side — and didn’t explode. “When I saw that grenade, I thought I should jump out and run but mere mulk key mehmaan hain yeh Sri Lankans — How could I leave them? And, good, I didn’t jump out as I guess I would have been killed by a bullet anyway.”
The escort gave him cover, he said, and he rammed ahead.
Later, after a few hours, he heard that the Sri Lankans, who were taken to the airbase, said they wouldn’t leave the country without thanking him. Khaleel was at the police station then, and the Pakistan Cricket Board took him to the players. “Muralitharan, Sangakkara, Mendis, Samaraweera, Mahela were there, and they gave me so much love and respect — they also stuffed whatever money they had in an envelope and gave it to me.”
Khaleel would later go as guest of honour to Sri Lanka and spend 10 days there meeting with families of all cricketers. “When I went to a public function or even to shopping in a mall, I remember people shouting, ‘Hero! Hero! Hero!’ It felt really good. I was also invited for dinner with their president.”
Money too came his way: From governments of both countries, PCB, and from many businessmen in Lahore. He bought three buses — he has sold two of them now as he found it difficult to maintain. And he still drives his own bus.
Invited by a businessman, he went to Morocco and started a furniture business. “I did that for two years there but it didn’t go too well.” Then he went to South Africa and stayed there for two more years. Before he moved to South Africa to live, he was there on a visit when he heard players like Mahela Jayawardene were there for a tournament.
“So I called the hotel — and you know this satte-baazi has spoiled all of it; one can’t reach a player. I told the receptionist who I was, gave my number and asked it to be given to Mahela. He called me soon, and said, ‘Oh, Muhammad bhai, where are you? And when I told him I was right there, he asked me to come over. We had a great time, he gave me tickets to an IPL game also. I also saw MS Dhoni and Suresh Raina that time; Raina spoke very warmly and Dhoni said, ‘you are so brave, you saved them,’ and I told him, ‘mere bhi bhai hain voh Sri Lankans , ek bhai key liye jaan dene taiyaar hai.’”
On his return to Pakistan, Khaleel resumed driving the bus. When Zimbabwe toured the country in 2015, he drove them to the stadium. Earlier this year, he was again on duty when the World XI landed in Pakistan. Now, he waits for Sri Lanka.
Khaleel is intimate with terror and violence. His brother was in the militant outfit Hizbul Mujahedeen and died in Kashmir. That shook him, he says. “Un dinon mujhahideen bolte tey, aaj kal toh terrorist hi bolte hain. One thing I know for sure is all this violence is not going to take one anywhere. What our region needs is peace.”
Throughout the chat, his refrain: “Make sure you publish this: All I want is for India to come and play in Pakistan. Pura Lahore khada ho jayega kyun ki apna bhai aaya hai ghar mey khelne key liye (Entire Lahore would stand up and be with them as our brothers have come home to play”
How has the violent episode in Lahore changed his life? “In 2009, mein sirf ek mamuli aadmi tha. (I was just an ordinary guy) It was difficult supporting my family and four kids — two sons and two daughters. By the end of month it was the same pain, there was no money. Now I work equally hard but I am happier. And I went from zero to hero. The whole world knows Meher Muhammad Khaleel. My neighbourhood is so proud of me. They say we live in Khaleel’s ilaka. People call me to functions, the teachers in my kids’ school tell them bring papa for school events. Now, I have (respect) izzat.”