Hyderabad: Move over, Tiger Woods. India has its own sports-star scandal, and yes, it involves the repeated use of phones. Unlike Tiger, though, the role of the phone has been considerably more chaste in the Shoaib-Sania-Ayesha controversy. In the golfer's case, cellphones and SMSes may have served to initiate - or remind - his Tigresses of their close encounters of a third kind. In Shoaib Malik's case, if the cricketer is to be believed, the phone was the nearest he got to a woman he married.
This time around, he's taking no chances. He's already staying with his fiancé, Indian tennis star Sania Mirza, who he has met often in person, at her home in Hyderabad's Banjara Hills. Their wedding is scheduled for April 15 in the city. Their surprise announcement of their love last month surprised one person more than others - Shoaib's first wife (depending on whose version you believe), Ayesha Siddiqui.
As call centres in Hyderabad and Gurgaon introduced the rest of the world to American accents made-in-India, a young Pakistani was also dialing India often. It was 2001. Shoaib Malik was a 20-year-old playing for his country, and out of the blue, a young woman named Ayesha, based in Hyderabad, contacted him. Her photos were pleasing, apparently. Her conversational skills, however, must have been sublime, to say the least, because after months of long-distance calls, Shoaib married a woman he had never met on June 3, 2002.
It wasn't for lack of trying. The cricketer claims he made 3 visits to Hyderabad between 2002 and 2005 to meet the woman of his calls. In each case, she disappeared over night. The cricketer was reportedly told that Ayesha had put on some unexpected weight and was loath to meet him under the circumstances. Unlike Oprah, she didn't want to share the story of her extra pounds with anyone, least of all with the man who courted her - or vice-versa, depending on who you believe - across the border. A Veer Zara telcom fairytale.
Ayesha then reportedly told Malik, still smitten by her, that she needed him to marry her because their relationship was hurting her reputation in her neighbourhood. Malik says, in retrospect, that this was emotional blackmail, but that his 'innocence' prompted him to go along. So, in the fashion of a war-time love story, the cricketer and his bride were married over the phone. Siddiqui claims a priest presided over the ceremony; Shoaib says simply that he called her from a friend's shop. The marriage certificate or nikaahnama was signed by Malik in Pakistan and then mailed to Hyderabad, claims Siddiqui.
It is this certificate that she has been brandishing all weekend as she flies the flag for the crazy first-wife stereotype.
The Siddquis have filed a police case against Shoaib Malik, accusing him of cheating Ayesha (by marrying again) and of criminal intimidation (by allegedly warning her not to go public with news of their dial-a-marriage). Some reporters claim that on record, Ayesha has said that she did meet Malik and had a miscarriage, but will share more of that "later". Malik's response, in a press conference on Monday, a heavily-kohled Mirza by his side, "prove it."
Malik, in a series of somewhat inconsistent statements, does not deny the marriage, but counters that if anyone was cheated, it was him. The girl whose photos were sent to him turned out to be a stranger, at least to him. Any resemblance to any persons, living or dead, was unintentional, apparently.
The Hyderabad police, already overwhelmed with controlling frequent and violent protests demanding a new state, recent communal riots in the city, and the infiltration of Naxals into Hyderabad, are now trying to get to the bottom of a love triangle.
On Monday morning, they spent hours questioning Malik and Siddiqui, the former at Sania Mirza's home, the latter at her own house, where, on happier occasions, Malik had dined with her family along with other members of the Pakistani cricket team. Some of those players, Malik says, tried to warn him that he had been duped. His "innocence" won again, and he ignored them and the voices in his head for the voice on the other end of a daily call. If only Skype, with its convenient cameras, had been given a shot.
Malik has been told not to leave the country. His passport has been handed over to the police. Because the phone marriage involves a Pakistani and an Indian, a senior police officer has been asked to head the investigation.
Later today, Tiger Woods will face the public and reporters in Augusta as he tries to win redemption on and off the golf course after a sex scandal that involved several mistresses, innumerable text messages, and a car accident that exposed his wife, Elin Woods, as an injured party who may or may not have been aware of her husband's unfaltering infidelity.
In India, however, we have a case that gets curioser and curioser. As it's expected to, the Pakistani government has offered any help needed to Malik. Sania Mirza is tweeting with the regularity of a cuckoo clock, sharing her grief and resolve in equal measures of 140 characters and under.
Tiger positively pales in comparison.