The idea of a globe-trotting gambler is one which has a certain amount of glamour, in fiction at least.
It conjures up images of sparkling casinos edged with menace, populated by beautiful and manipulative women, and smartly sinister men. James Bond in a dinner jacket, with a marked deck and a loaded gun. But sometimes life is stranger than fiction, and in fact my inspiration for the character of Maqil, "The Flying Man" from my fifth novel, didn’t come from books or the movies, but simply from my own father, Nasir Farooki.
Like Maqil, my father was a charming and clever man, who spoke several languages; he was a talented journalist and businessman who made friends and money effortlessly all around the world. But the truth was that this charming man, so very clever, and so very talented, was a compulsive gambler, and he used all his considerable skills to feed his addiction, while cheerfully denying that he was doing anything of the sort.
His favourite game was blackjack, and he never gave up believing that he was smart enough to beat the house. He covered his tracks with elegant ease, fooling unwitting investors in his hobby. He’d win vast fortunes among high society at the tables of his exclusive Mayfair club, and then would lose everything, sometimes even the rent on the flat that was our family home. When this happened, he’d disappear for months, possibly too embarrassed to face our mother, and return when he’d restored his funds. He knew famous people, and bought expensive things, he stayed in stunning hotels and ordered lobster, but despite all of this, the life of a gambler didn’t seem that glamorous, after all. As I grew older, and watched my father abandon one home after another, leaving his children and loving marriages, I saw that he seemed driven to lose as much as he gained; not just in games of chance, but in life, which was just another game to him.
There was a line from one of my father's own novels from the sixties, Snakes and Ladders, that he was fond of quoting: "There is such a sweet irrational charm in life, that I don’t really worry about the epitaph on my tombstone. I don’t really care if there is utter darkness on the other side.". It summed up his philosophy, as he lived exactly the way he wanted – without responsibility, and cheerfully careless of consequences to himself and those around him.
Almost 10 years ago, my father and I met in a cafe at a Paris railway station – I was in Paris for work, and he was gambling at a coastal resort nearby. He was in his 70s and his chaotic, nomadic lifestyle, distinguished by hotel-hopping as he lived on his wits, had taken its toll on his diabetes and his thrice-attacked and once-bypassed heart. Despite his ill-health, he had so far refused to go back to Pakistan for medical treatment, where he could be looked after by his younger brothers. It would be too much like going home, and he refused to settle down anywhere. And besides, he couldn't gamble in Pakistan with nearly as much freedom as in France.
In that cafe, my father told me about his plans to write his autobiography – he was going to call it All Gamblers Great and Small. He died two weeks later in his hotel in that same coastal resort, and so he never had the chance to tell his story. And I suppose I always knew that one day I would do it for him – that I would take his story, and make it mine as well.
I wanted to tell the story of a damaged man who flies impatiently through his own life, through countries and decades, as he seeks and finds excitement and drama, but through all of this somehow fails to find himself. A compulsive gambler who travels restlessly, starting again as a new face in a new place, and for whom the game never ends. A man who harms himself and others, but despite all of this, inspires love.
The Flying Man by Roopa Farooki is published on the 19th January by Headline Review.