The object of Diana's desire

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 20 January, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 20 January, 2008, 12:00am

The setting - a dusty, backward garrison town in eastern Pakistan - is a world away from the glamour of Kensington Palace. And the man sitting here is about as far removed as you could possibly imagine from anyone's idea of lover to the world's most famous woman.

Yet for two tempestuous years before her death in 1997, cardiologist Hasnat Khan was the centre of Princess Diana's world - a man whom, according to evidence at her London inquest last week, she loved deeply, considered her soulmate and wanted to marry.

It was her love for the surgeon and her desire to win him back after he ended their relationship a month before her death that propelled her into a very public, and self-destructive, fling with Dodi Fayed, the man she died alongside in a Paris underpass, the inquest was told.

Unlike some of the princess' other lovers, Dr Khan has refused steadfastly to speak about his relationship with her after her death, maintaining a dignified and loyal silence despite being bombarded with highly lucrative offers.

As speculation mounts that Dr Khan may testify at the inquest into the princess' death, I visit him at his family home in Jhelum, midway between Pakistan's old and new capitals of Islamabad and Lahore, where he gives his first press interview.

Tubbier and greyer than the man described during his romance with the princess as an Omar Sharif lookalike, 49-year-old Dr Khan is relaxed, friendly, engaging and exceptionally courteous. He remains fiercely loyal to Diana's memory, however, and makes it clear from the outset he will not speak directly about his relationship with her.

There are nevertheless things he wants to say, and, speaking with the intensity of a man unburdening himself after a long silence, it is clear that he remains haunted by a past no one seems prepared to let go. The spectre of Diana returns again and again.

'I have moved on, but it keeps coming back,' Dr Khan says.

Two months ago, he says, he separated from the bride he married only 18 months earlier - 29-year-old Hadia Sher Ali, the daughter of a noble Afghan family. 'It was because of multiple reasons,' he says when asked why the marriage failed. 'I can't say any more about it.'

He admits, however, that the relentless media speculation about the princess, her life, her death and her loves at times put him under severe pressure.

'Sometimes I feel like screaming. There have been very bad times,' he says.

'There have been people who have said to me, 'Why don't you set the record straight and it will be all over for you?' But it's not my way.'

Asked to describe the Diana he knew, Dr Khan, whose relationship with her began when she visited the Royal Brompton Hospital where he worked in 1995, says: 'I found her a very normal person. We all have our drawbacks, but I found her a very normal person with great qualities and some personal drawbacks, bad habits. I think she did great work for the country and for people all over the world - not just in the UK but everywhere.'

He speaks with distaste of the fountain erected in her memory. 'My feelings are that creating a fountain is not at all near how you can remember a great person. You put great people up as high as possible. Look at Nelson. Look at Queen Victoria.

'I know a committee decided it, but that little fountain doesn't do her any justice. I'm not criticising the people who decided it, but historically great humans aren't remembered like that. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert had statues and they are still there. They weren't remembered by a little fountain.

'People in Britain still do remember her with a passion, especially people who were around at the time of the wedding in 1981. You don't realise the passion until you live in Britain.'

Ironically, when he first set eyes on Princess Diana, the man who was to become the central figure in her final years was far from overwhelmed. 'I was in Australia at the time of the bicentennial celebrations in 1988 or 1989,' he says. 'We were sitting overlooking the Sydney harbour at the ceremony, and we had Princess Diana and Prince Charles visiting.

'We were among some friends and we didn't pay much attention to the royals. I never followed the royal family, and in Australia there was no coverage and no interest. Then you go to Britain and you realise how big it is and rightly so.

'She did a lot of work. She got there on what she was. She didn't just shake hands and wave at people. She did things ... Now she has gone, there is a huge vacuum - she has left a gap.'

Returning to Pakistan where Diana is not constantly in the news has been a release, he says.

'In the UK it's always in your face. You walk past a newsstand and it's there. You go into the hospital coffee room and it's there. Wherever you go it is there. Here it is not and that's a great relief.

'I am very lucky here. You don't get any papers. You don't get any journalists. In the UK there's only one door you can go through at home or at work and there's always someone there. Here you can escape from it.

'In the end, I just stopped reading the papers in the UK. There were times when the media hype would interfere with my work. People would ring and ring the hospital, and the switchboard was bombarded with calls.'

As his family's servants serve tea and cakes on the patio of their simple, one-storey family home in Jhelum, Dr Khan, who left Britain in October, says: 'It is very good to be home. I am quite relieved to be home. My blood pressure is stable ... I go fishing. I go for walks. It feels like a sanctuary. It's very peaceful. I can go outside and read a book and enjoy the peace.'

Dr Khan says he has been sent a letter, forwarded to him from London, two months ago suggesting he might need to attend the inquest. He replied with an e-mail saying he had nothing to add to the statement he gave to a 2004 inquiry into her death.

He received a reply saying that the coroner might want him to appear to give evidence before the jurors and had subsequently been advised by his lawyer that, as he was now living outside Britain, he was not obliged to attend.

'If it's within the law for the coroner to ask me, I will attend,' he says. 'However the advice I have been given is that I cannot be called if I am overseas. I will act on my lawyer's advice. I will do exactly what the law requires ... If the lawyers told me I had to go, I would go definitely.

'I don't have anything to add. They say they would prefer it if I testified to the jurors. My lawyers advised me I do not have to attend. If that's their advice, I won't go. But if I find I have to go according to the law, I will go.'

He insists his departure from Britain has nothing to do with the inquest and the heightened interest in him. 'If I was going to leave the UK because of this, I would have left in 1997, not now.'

He adds: 'I hope the inquest clarifies everything. I hope people will move on. I don't know what the outcome will be. It is up to the court and the jurors to decide.

'But I hope it reaches a conclusion.

'The people [at the inquest] have different agendas. But the important thing is that so much taxpayers' money has been spent that hopefully they will come to a conclusion one way or the other, whatever it is. It would be better for everyone, especially the British public and for the princes and [Dodi's father] Mr [Mohammed] al-Fayed and for people like me and you.'

Dr Khan, who introduced the princess to his family in Pakistan, has shielded them from the continuing news reports speculating about her death.

'I have tried to keep them away from everything,' he says. 'They don't know much about it at all. I have deliberately kept them away from it. My mum doesn't know much about it. Even my father doesn't. Because of their age and because they are retired, I want to protect them from it all.'

Late last week, Dr Khan left Pakistan for Malaysia, where he would head a new heart hospital. He is meanwhile working on plans to open a hospital in or near Jhelum where poor children with heart defects can be treated, a project he described as his dream.

'It is a lottery at the moment,' he says. 'In the UK, children born with a heart defect live, but here if they are 10km or 15km from a hospital, they won't.'

Dr Khan may appear an unlikely lover for Diana, but it is easy to see how this honest, loyal heart surgeon infused with old-fashioned values must have been a breath of fresh air in the princess' world of feuding royals, backstabbing courtiers and self-serving sycophants.

Asked if he thinks he has lived up to the nickname of 'Mr Wonderful', famously given to him by the princess, he replies with a smile: 'I don't know. I've just been myself. I don't talk about any of my friends or family in front of anyone. It's not intentional. It's just the way I am.

'I am just a guy who likes his profession, and travelling and good food, and that is it. I'm no different from you or anyone else. We were very good friends, and I am like that to all my friends. I have been loyal to all of my friends.'


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