“So what do I do? Cry?”
It was the first time I was sitting in a fancy convertible Mercedes – that too with a man. So what if he was in his 80s and taking me to a park in Clifton? He was like no other and now he’s gone.
Ardeshir Cowasjee, the boldest man I have ever met, passed away today after trying over and over again – for decades – to talk sense into his fellow Pakistanis. Although everyone will clearly remember his colourful language, distinctive dressing and resilient personality, I wonder how many will realise how important his words were?
“Do you know where Tonga is?” He asked me one day while visiting our newsroom.
Embarrassed, I tried to sneakily check on Google what or where this Tonga place was. After failing to give him an affirmative answer, I shrugged and said no.
“Well find out where Tonga is and then look for a boy there and get married and live far, far away from Pakistan,” he replied with a sad laughter.
For someone who was quick to tell others to leave Pakistan behind and find a better life elsewhere, he was never one to take his own advice.
“Why should I leave it?” He would ask defensively, almost angrily, when one would question him why he stayed back.
“This is my home!” He would snap.
But what about the fact that his beloved city was turning into a fearful lawless state in front of his eyes?
“So what do I do? Cry?” He would respond, once again, the sad laughter accompanying his words.
From 1988 until 2011, Cowasjee wrote weekly for Dawn. Readers hungrily took in his words and marvelled at how brave and sensible this old man was. Whether it was providing financial support to students in the country or waging a verbal war on the enemies of Karachi’s mangroves, Cowasjee was not shy to speak or act.
Born on April 13, 1926, Cowasjee completed his education from the Bai Virbaiji Soparivala Parsi High School and DJ Sindh Govt Science College in Karachi and joined the family business. In 1953, he married Nancy Dinshaw and had two children. His daughter lived with him in an adjoining house while his son is an architect in the US. His wife passed away about 20 years ago.
Despite the small family, Cowasjee didn’t really seem lonely. Outside, he had a city to fight for and at home, he had an assortment of pets keeping him company.
When his dog ran over to me while I was sitting with him in his home during an interview, I leapt up in fear and asked if it could be taken away.
Cowasjee became angry and exclaimed, “Mullah hai kya?”
I sank back into my seat. The dog stayed.
Hearing his stories about Karachi was like listening to someone speak about a city existing in some parallel universe. He spoke about the early days of Karachi with such joy and happiness that it was only natural for the listener to realise the pain he must be going through looking outside his window. However, when Cowasjee spoke of Bhutto, that’s when things got a bit feisty.
In 1976, Bhutto had sent him to prison for 72 days. Each time Cowasjee narrated that story, there was a gleam in his eyes and a mischievous grin on his face. He swore until the end that he had no idea why Bhutto sent him to prison. However, knowing his blunt nature and forward thinking, I am sure it was probably something he said. After all, he had annoyed many people with his outspoken thoughts and he had been threatened in response too but did that scare him? Not a chance.
He blamed the country’s ills on over-population and education. If these could be sorted, everything could be sorted. He made it sound simple. Almost easy.
We walked through the Bagh-i-Rustom in Karachi’s Clifton area. A park he had built, naming it on his father. He walked through the shrubs and bushes pulling his gown up until his knees while I chased after trying to scribble his words on my notebook. Eventually I gave up trying to note down what he was saying and tried listening instead. The man always made sense.
“This is not for me, this is for everyone,” he mused while proudly gazing into the gardens ahead.
Be it funds, be it land or be it wisdom – Cowasjee never hesitated to provide to the masses. Where politicians and officials never took him seriously, Cowasjee in return never lost an opportunity to publically discredit Pakistan’s leadership. His vocal thoughts are perhaps what his readers prized most about him. And when in 2011 Cowasjee stopped writing his weekly columns, his readers from all around the world sent in requests for him to change his mind. They said no one said it like he did. He, however, stayed firm on his decision and said he’s bored of writing the same thing over and over again – he didn’t believe anything would change.
Now that he’s gone, the hope for change becomes even bleaker. His dreams for Pakistan may never be fulfilled but his hope and efforts will probably never be forgotten.
Walking down Dawn’s corridor in an olive three-piece suit with a shiny handkerchief in his pocket and a cane by side, Cowasjee was chuckling to himself.
Too nervous to approach him, I wondered what he must have been thinking: About Jinnah? About journalism? Or perhaps he must be trying to figure out why women in Pakistan are so reluctant to show their ankles – a musing he had once shared with me. To him, this remained a great mystery.
To me, how he acquired the strength to fight against the system day after day, will always remain a great mystery.
Rest in peace, sir. You made me terribly nervous and easily overwhelmed but if you were still here today and I had a chance to meet you again, I’d dash for it so I could hear you speak once more.
The author is the Deputy Editor at Dawn.com.