By Zubeida Mustafa
IN January 2012, I wrote about Ardeshir Cowasjee after he had announced that he was “winding down”. It was a sort of farewell to him in these pages though ARFC wrote two more ‘ad hoc’ articles in 2012. But it was not the same as reading him every Sunday (or Friday, before 1997). Many readers had written to me asking if he could not be persuaded to continue writing.
On that occasion, Justice (retd) Majida Rizvi had vehemently stated, “My request to him is to roar again and again as in the past to keep all on their toes.”
They liked his writing and turned to the op-ed page of the paper to read him before they started their exercise of going through the grim reports the paper carries in these dreary times that seem to be there to stay in Pakistan.
He refused to be persuaded by his readers and last Saturday, Ardeshir Rustom Fakir Cowasjee (to borrow his style) decided to bid goodbye to them and all in this world that had provoked him into writing in the first place.
He had a big following. His punches, fearless honesty in identifying the wrongdoings and corruption of the politically powerful and the rich as well as his crisp style delighted those who made it a point never to miss out his columns though at times his writing became a headache for us who handled his copy in Dawn.
He objected very strongly to what he called our “self-censcissorship”. But for us there was always the sword of libel hanging over our head — or so we thought. But ultimately I learnt to my great relief that the veracity of what he wrote could not be challenged. He was willing to name names and got away with it because he was careful to tread on authentic ground and armed himself with relevant documents which protected him from legal action by those he attacked.
Loyal to his friends and very unforgiving to his enemies, he wrote mainly in the public interest, taking up causes which affected the common people. He had his weak spots no doubt. His “pathological” hatred of the PPP (as someone described it) was one of them. His family business had been nationalised by Z.A. Bhutto and so one could understand. But that did not stop him from sending me a copy of Salmaan Taseer’s Bhutto: A Political Biography with a warm greeting inscribed in it when I called him up to tell him I had retired from Dawn. “Tum ab kiya karega?” (what will you be doing now?) he had asked with concern and the book was at my door within an hour.
No one generally grudged him for pursuing some subjects relentlessly. He would not let them go. For instance, Karachi, the city of his birth, was one of his pet themes. It pained him to see it being destroyed brick by brick as land was encroached upon by greedy developers and the land mafia. His firm and unquestioning support for the father of the nation and for Jinnah’s Pakistan (a euphemism for a secular state) also won him friends. He minced no words in chastising the leaders of religious parties who were often ridiculed much to their anger. He, however, got away with it. His community — the Parsis — were showered with the praise they deserve because they are respected and their contribution to the civic life of this metropolis is unparalleled and is widely acknowledged and appreciated.
Much has been written and will be written about Cowasjee’s writings. As for himself he dismissed his columns as ones that were “read, may be digested and discarded”.
But he underestimated himself. His writing made an impact — thanks to him the Asghar Khan case in the Supreme Court against the ISI for funding some politicians before the 1990 elections was revived.
Today his columns constitute a valuable record for this country which has little concern for preserving history or documenting it. Hence credit goes to Tyaba Habib, of Sama, for showing the foresight to undertake the job of publishing his columns in a book Vintage Cowasjee. That should be the best tribute he could have received.
What, however, needs to be pointed out is that ARFC was as much a man of action as of (written) words. He was not much of a speaker, which he himself admitted. He not only wrote about many issues but also took action when it was needed. The case against the Glass Tower builder which Cowasjee fought in the Supreme Court and won has become legendary. He managed to have the extra structure built illegally on the encroached land, along the main Clifton Road, demolished under court orders.
What is more, as the chairperson of the Cowasjee Foundation he arranged generous donations for many projects for the benefit of the poor. One could go on recounting his acts of philanthropy for there are so many.
If he trusted you, he would promptly write a cheque for he knew his money would be used for a good cause. There are so many who will remember him for the helping hand he extended — the Sindh Institute of Urology and Transplantation and The Citizens Foundation are two prominent beneficiaries of his generosity.
Sadly the lion will not roar again. Rest in peace Ardeshir, we will miss you.