At the very end of Nicholas Sparks’ The Notebook, Ryan Gosling as Noah ‘Duke’ Calhoun says, “There are no monuments dedicated to me and my name will soon be forgotten, but I've loved another with all my heart and soul, and to me, this has always been enough.”
The very opposite of Gosling’s emotions could be felt when one stands outside Harrods department store in London.
A few paces behind you is the Princess Diana memorial fountain. Not far from there is the Princess Diana memorial playground. A little further, you’d find gift shops selling Diana’s signature tartan printed scarves.
But the best-known tribute to the late princess was preserved in the hallows of Harrods, a department store that from 1985 to 2010, was owned by billionaire Mohamed Al Fayed, father of Dodi Al Fayed, Diana’s final fling, who died with the princess in a car crash on 31 August 1997.
The monument? A gilded pyramid-shaped display with side-by-side colour photos of Dodi and Diana framed in golden locked D’s and the wine glass said to be from their final dinner.
But in the middle, the famous and controversial “wedding ring,” still marketed as a ring purchased by Dodi the day prior to the crash in which they both died, before he could ask for Diana’s hand. Flashy, large and expensive - it perfectly described Dodi and Diana’s relationship.
But Diana's closest confidants have long disputed the assertion that the couple planned to wed, or even the fact that Di was pregnant with the couple’s child. Their claims stem from Diana being “madly in love” with Dodi’s antithesis, a simple understated Pakistani heart surgeon named Hasnat Khan.
The Antithesis of Dodi Al Fayed
There was never a monument which remembers their story, until prominent Pakistani star Humayun Saeed portrayed Khan in Season 5 of hit Netflix series “The Crown.”
But that is far from saying that their relationship was casual. Her love affair with Khan was secret, understated, and sombre - unlike the carefree, notorious, and flashy fling with Dodi.
The couple, who began seeing each other in the summer of 1995, first met at London’s Royal Brompton Hospital, where junior surgeon Khan worked 90-hour-weeks for the National Health Service. The princess was visiting Jor Toffolo, a friend’s husband having triple bypass surgery, supervised by Khan.
In a rare interview, he told The Daily Mail in 2021 that one day he came out of the hospital while the princess headed in, when she shouted at Khan, “Oi, where are you going?” He mentioned that he planned to head to his uncle’s house to collect some books and inadvertently blurted, "Do you want to come?"
“She said yes, and that was it, really.” The pair drove up together, Diana broke bread with Aunt Jane and Uncle Omar, and they found a connection.
“After this, our friendship turned into a relationship,” Hasnat said in his interview with the police during the probe into Diana’s untimely death.
What did Diana see in an average doctor? The Daily Mail noted that “Mr Khan’s swarthy good looks have led to comparisons with Omar Sharif and Diana is said to feel inspired by his cool, clinical confidence.”
She called him “the one.”
Born in Pakistan’s Jhelum in 1958, Khan was the eldest of four children. He graduated, moved to Sydney, Australia before setting off for London. He is also a distant cousin of former Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan. But in the end, Khan was a serious and simple man, while Diana was a Royal.
The hospital visit set off a flame in Diana, who returned to the hospital almost every day for three weeks to pursue Khan, eventually leading to the first seed being sown in their romance.
She threw herself into the monotonous normalcy of Khan’s life, waddling through his small one-bedroom flat, doing the dishes and folding his laundry. She stood in lines for cheaper, late-night music shows, falling for Hasnat as he sipped Guinness and scat to jazz.
More Than an Affair
Diana and Hasnat’s two-year-young relationship remained hidden from the public eye, spending their time locked away in Kensington Palace, where Diana took residence after her divorce, off the paparazzi’s scent.
The couple stayed clear of the limelight on most occasions, except on the 26th morning of January 1996, when the Sunday Mirror’s front page screamed in capital letters: “DI, HER DRIVER , AND A DISHY DOC.”
The tabloid revealed that the couple had shared intimate candlelight dinners, one lasting for almost four-and-a-half hours. One could see the affection Diana held for Hasnat.
Why? Because for the 35-year-old princess, Hasnat Khan was more than a secret love affair. He represented a shot at normalcy, away from the spotlight, with a man who could finally give her the happiness that long eluded her.
Diana left messages for Khan at the Brompton using an alias, Dr Armani. They met in unusual places, using unusual means. On one occasion, the princess wore a black wig to slip into a jazz club, while Khan once hid in the trunk of a car to enter Kensington Palace and visit the princess.
Their accomplice was Diana’s butler, Paul Burrell, who Diana apparently asked to find a priest to marry her to Khan, a Muslim. But the princess’ expression of love for the doctor led to the earliest warning signs for Khan.
Early Signs of a Storm
In November 1995, Diana sent a large flower arrangement to Hasnat Khan at the hospital as a joke. Hasnat didn’t need a card to know who sent them, but the flowers triggered suspicion; who in the world would sent a forever-working doctor such an extravagant flower bouquet?
Eventually, someone pretended to enquire on Hasnat’s behalf and called the florist threatening to return the flowers if the sender remained anonymous.
The florist’s admission that the sender resided in Kensington Palace set off a media frenzy. “After this, the press went everywhere trying to get information on me…They visited old girlfriends, my medical school, and retired professors whom I had known,” Hasnat told the police.
But her visits to the hospital stopped temporarily after 30 November 1995, after an altercation with a photographer from the News of the World. She was due to meet Khan as he came off his shift.
Borrowing the photographer’s cell phone, she told the paper’s royal correspondent Clive Goodman and said, “I try to be there for them…I seem to draw strength from them… They all need someone…I hold their hands, talk to them - whatever helps.”
The spat led to Diana telling Goodman that she visited the Royal Brompton several times a week for hours at a stretch.
My secret nights as an angel was the News of the World’s headline three days later. The story birthed a darker image of Diana as an ambulance chaser and someone who is attracted to death.
But for Diana, she would rather be the butt of yet another media controversy than be busted for midnight-rendezvous with a young Muslim doctor - a tactic that worked, at least for a while.
A Sombre Sheep in Royal Clothing?
Through 1996, Diana nurtured her relationship with Khan, a relationship more modest than anyone expected from a Royal.
Khan was an obsessive worker with little time for the princess. Whenever her love for Khan was questioned, she replied, “Oh, I love him…He is so dedicated to his work.” But his work was both an attraction and a hindrance. “When he wasn’t working, he wanted to sleep,” Khan’s friend told Vanity Fair’s Sarah Ellision.
But this schedule never suited Diana, whose multiple calls to the hospital while Khan was in surgery and late-night visits to Khan worried hospital administrators because of the risk of media intrusion.
Hasnat told the police that the hospital “had started getting a bit upset by the disruption caused by Diana’s visits. It was becoming a security issue.” But that never stopped Princess Di.
For her, it was worth it. Her relationship with Khan was the most fulfilling she ever had. Hasnat never asked Diana for anything, refusing offers to buy him a new car. Hasnat never chased personal publicity, rather dreaded it. Fashionability and the high-life never interested him.
He loved Diana for her compassion and her want to embrace humanitarian causes, while she tuned a room in her Kensington Palace apartment into a den for “Natty” to watch soccer and crack open a cold one.
The princess cooked him dinner, or at least tried to, vacuumed, did the dishes and ironed his shirts, happily swapping the Royal stereotype for one that has patriarchally fallen on women.
Wedding Bells… in Pakistan?
The couple had discussed marriage, and Diana told her friends that she wanted a daughter with Khan, and went ahead to introduce Hasnat to her sons - Harry and William.
“I told her that the only way I could see us having a vaguely normal life together would be if we went to Pakistan, as the press don’t bother you there,” butler Burrell said.
In February 1996, while Diana was in the trenches of divorce negotiations with Charles, she flew to Pakistan aboard with Lady Annabel Goldsmith on a private Boeing 757 to visit cricketer Imran Khan’s cancer hospital. Khan had recently married Annabel’s daughter Jemima.
Diana sought Jemima to discuss the details of what it was like to be married to a Pakistani man.
“Diana was madly in love with Hasnat Khan and wanted to marry him, even if that meant living in Pakistan, and that’s one of the reasons why we became friends,” Jemima said.
Early 1997 saw Diana embark on a new philanthropic journey, but that never deterred her from Hasnat. She flew to Lahore in May to raise funds for Imran Khan’s hospital, but also met Hasnat’s family secretly to discuss the possibility of a union between the two.
But by now, Hasnat had decided that he couldn’t marry Diana, horrified by the plan for a secret wedding, and begun to realise the numerous obstacles for him and the princess.
Many of Diana’s trips to see Hasnat’s family, in Pakistan or Stratford-upon-Avon, saw “Nutty” missing, whose work schedule prevented social calls. But the charming princess spent much of the day with his family, taking his cousins to a grocery store and making them ride in a shopping cart.
But as the bond between Diana and Hasnat’s family grew deeper, Khan’s fears begun to materialise.
A night before she left for St Tropez with Mohamed Al Fayed, accompanied by her sons for a much-needed holiday, Hasnat stayed with her at Kensington Palace and later told the police that the couple were fine.
“After a few days, I felt something was wrong. Her mobile kept going on to answerphone,” he told the police.
At St Tropez, while Diana was chased by the paparazzi trying to get a snap of her Jet Skiing near Al Fayed’s villa, the Harrods owner called on his son Dodi to fly down from Paris to help entertain Diana. In an instant, Dodi flew down to St Tropez, while his finance Kelly Fisher stayed in France, and spent time with Diana and her sons.
‘Something Is Not Right’
After Diana attended murdered fashion designer Gianni Versace’s funeral, she got around to speaking to Hasnat, around the end of July. Hasnat aptly described that time to the police and said, “When you know someone very well, you know when something is not right, and that is exactly how I felt when I spoke to her.”
While he enquired about Diana’s absenteeism, she attributed it to the geography and poor network reception.
When Diana met Hasnat soon after, she was not her normal self. “She kept looking at her mobile phone,” Hasnat said. He told her that he thought she was having an affair with someone else, and remarked that it must be someone connected to Al Fayed.
Following a screaming contest filled with Diana’s denials and Hasnat’s assertions, they arranged to see each other again the next day, at Kensington palace. But for Hasnat, that meeting would be the one where Diana told him it was all over.
Diana spent the next month with Dodi, and told a friend that Dodi was going to give her a ring, which would go “firmly on my right hand.” Diana’s friend, Rosa Monckton believed that the Dodi was birthed to make Khan jealous.
Diana’s infamous final trip with Dodi ended with a high-speed crash in Paris’ Alma Tunnel. It was when Hasnat tried to reach the deceased princess that he realised that Diana changed her number.
He was seen at the funeral in dark sunglasses, barely making conversation with other guests. He told the police that if Diana were alive today, “we would have remained very good friends, whatever she did and whomever she was with.”
If Khan, who still lives in London and works as a heart surgeon, were to stand in front of Harrods in London, he would see Diana’s memorial fountain and Diana memorial playground, while gift shops sell Diana’s signature tartan printed scarves.
But for Khan, the last words Diana would say to him would be those that ended their two-year Roman Holiday style romance. Anything else that Hasnat says, Diana would not be able to hear it from her grave in Althorp.
(With inputs from The Daily Mail, Sunday Mirror, News of the World and Vanity Fair)