Crusading Cowasjee

Published in The Express Tribune

Speaking a while back at the Karachi Literature Festival, Zia Mohyeddin said, ‘The homes of the rich in Pakistan have expensive crockery, rugs, crystal, hideous paintings…and no books.’

Breaking that mould with a bang was the late Ardeshir Cowasjee – a man of means who was also a man of letters, and who gave of himself in both cash and column inches, till the end of his days. A son of Karachi’s kindest Parsi families, Bhutto’s nationalization meant that Cowasjee the shipping baron became Cowasjee the columnist, and for that we are thankful.

So started a career that began with the odd Letter to the Editor in the ‘80s and ended with one last column on the Quaid’s 135th birthday in 2011: ‘Now, old at 85, tired and disillusioned with a country that just cannot pull itself together in any way…I have decided to call it a day.’ Ardeshir Cowasjee passed away less than a year later, but not before agreeing with the LSE’s Bernard Levin, ‘Bakers bake bread every morning, it is consumed, digested and forgotten. So it is with our daily columns.’

For once, he was wrong; Cowasjee looms larger than life even today. He swore like a sailor (albeit a sailor that owned his ships) in the faces of the rich and famous. He kept Jack Russell Terriers and cats and cockatoos. He wore cotton shorts to other people’s offices, but was seen in suits and hats when driving his convertible.

And in a sea of dull newsprint, Cowasjee’s Sunday columns were colour-bursts of profane, high-octane anger. As one profiler remarked, he told stories ‘like Scheherazade would. There’s no beginning; no end…but everything in his space and everyone he knows – and he knows almost everyone – has a story.’ Each story had its own cast of characters, from slumlords to senators, set in a Pakistan just crazy enough to see better days.

His writing ached with three themes: condemning the corrupt, saving Karachi, and rescuing Jinnah from the country he created. But that was the tip of the iceberg – what made Ardeshir a great among the good was pure range. He could rescue the Murree Hills in one column, chase the Chaudhrys of Gujrat in the next, draw lessons from the Persian Empire in the third, name and shame qabza mobs in a fourth, and quote the Quaid in all.

An old world liberal – far removed from today’s society magazine Gollums – Cowasjee was an activist aware of explosions in the distance. Knowing ‘what they pay me wouldn’t even buy this tie,’ Cowasjee helped along young journalists, besides giving to hospitals, giving to charities, and giving to college students. Good works done in silence by the Cowasjee Foundation warmed his columns with a humanity he tried hard to conceal. He’d tell any starry-eyed kid he found to zinda bhaag, never acting on his own advice.

And he fought like a jealous husband for Karachi’s trees, parks and playgrounds, a civic passion from times past. Developers planning to build ‘12-storey monstrosities’ would ask after ‘his health’, knowing Cowasjee would come thundering after them with court stays. It was a recipe for making enemies, but Cowasjee shrugged, ‘People here don’t believe in finesse. If they want you killed, they’ll cut you up and stuff you in a gunny sack.’

‘Still,’ he offered, ‘I could be shot on my way out today.’ That never happened, and opinion’s Grand Old Man passed away aged 86, celebrated by the same state he gave a 22-year-long kicking. In testament to the lives he moved, the President himself paid tribute to Cowasjee’s ‘services to journalism’. While signing his name to those words, Asif Zardari, no stranger to the departed’s pen (‘the worst of them all’ and ‘chor, chor, chor!’ among other titles), must have smiled.

Cowasjee’s run-ins with authority while alive ranged from the hilarious – dissuading Shehbaz Sharif from taking up Dr. Israr on banking laws – to the heart-twisting: his 75-year-old father writing letter after letter to ‘Most Respected Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto Mehrban’ begging his son be released from jail. Bhutto relented on Day 71, forgiving Cowasjee for crimes unknown. His home secretary, a gentle being called Junejo, had Prisoner Cowasjee scrawl an apology first.

He wasn’t repenting long. If the press ever gave out a political correctness award, Cowasjee would never be in contention for it: the man just didn’t care. Each government will be worse than the last, the Quaid once told his father, and Cowasjee was contemptuous of each (barring a soft corner for Musharraf’s diet enlightenment).

Today, we have Tyaba Habib to thank for compiling Vintage Cowasjee, a wonderful ‘best of’ – but also one long saga of decline not for the easily heartsick. And to go to the source, we are nothing less than privileged to be reading Amina Jilani in these pages, whom Cowasjee said ‘used to fix my Parsi-school English’.

To close with a column from 1992, Cowasjee remembered his late father Rustom in words more telling now that both are gone:

He did much (philanthropy), always as anonymously as possible. He did not feel it necessary to suffer fools – thus gaining a reputation for being a difficult man who never ever minced a word…so sure of himself and his God that he could afford a healthy contempt for popularity. When his eyes closed for the last time, on his behest they were removed, and his corneas transplanted into the eyes of two blind men of Pakistan.

Not a single sentence feels out of place describing his son, who lent his eyes to generations of blind Pakistanis week after week. It was one year ago next month that Pakistan lost a great man. But as hideous condos tear apart Cowasjee’s own Mary Road, Karachi may have lost its conscience.