Many interesting stories are told about Ardeshir Cowasjee, some true and some apocryphal. There is the story, true, about how he and other former students of Karachi’s BVS Parsi High School were asked to rescue a bust of Gandhi during the Hindu-Muslim riots in the city in January 1948. The bust remained in his father’s house for some years, later moved to the Indian consulate in Karachi, and now occupies pride of place in the foyer of the Indian High Commission in Islamabad.
My personal favourite is the one about how he had a place set for each of his three dogs at the table during meal times, and they would all eat with him. I imagined dogs with napkins hanging from the collars, their paws holding forks and knives.
Sadly, that story is not true, at least not in the way it is told. “They don’t get a place at the table,” Cowasjee told me on a recent weekday at his home in Karachi’s exclusive Bath Island. “But if they happen to be sitting like this when I’m at the table,” he said, pointing to his lap where two of them were resting contentedly, “they stay there”.
Clearly, Cowasjee is not as eccentric as people make him out to be. But that is possibly the price Karachi’s most famous resident pays for what he really is: a dogged believer in Jinnah’s Pakistan and strident, often bitter critic of the country that it has turned out to be; unafraid to take on the powerful, whether they be politicians or generals; a rare Pakistani philanthropist who funds education for the needy irrespective of their religion; a fierce guardian of the old trees and remaining parks and other green areas of his home city, and a campaigner for animal rights.
His platform is his Sunday column in Dawn newspaper, which he has written for nearly three decades. This dose of 900 words is a weekly wake-up call to Pakistan: part commentary on the present, part lesson in history, part expression of hopelessness, bitterness and anger, and on a rare occasion, an expression of some optimism. But it mirrors the inner-most feelings of many Pakistanis, which is why this 81-year-old Parsi, one of the 2000 still left in Pakistan, is among the most widely followed columnists in the country.
In the self-deprecatory manner of the confident, Cowasjee, a small-built man with a small pointy beard dressed impeccably in a brown checked suit, describes himself as an “ordinary man”. But others disagree. “Cowasjee is an institution,” says Cyril Almeida, assistant editor at Dawnand a fellow columnist. Describing him as one of the foremost newspaper columnists in the country, Almeida says Cowasjee’s influence lies in his role as a watchdog-in-chief. “Cowasjee is the conscience of the nation, a moral figurehead, someone who is not afraid to expose the venal, someone who can speak to power directly and tell it like it is,” Almeida says. And while politicians may not take him seriously, there are those in the corridors of state who do, such as the judiciary.
In 2009, the chief Justice of Pakistan, Iftikhar Chaudhary, took suo motu notice of a land-grab issue by the Army Welfare Trust in Karachi that Cowasjee wrote about, and in November, ordered the powerful trust off the land.
Cowasjee’s own solution for all ills that plague Pakistan is that it must return to first principles. As we talked over mid-morning tea at his place in the company of his dogs, a cat and a shrieking, French-toast eating white sulphur-crested Australian cockatoo called Ben, he produced a yellowed, well-worn bound copy of a book of Jinnah’s speeches. “If we had only followed Jinnah’s words, there would have been no problem,” he says.
Jinnah was a family friend. Cowasjee’s father, Rustamjee Fakirjee Cowasjee, owned what was then Karachi’s biggest shipping company and was enlisted by Jinnah in Pakistan’s service. The company was later nationalised by the Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto government in the mid-1970s.
Cowasjee briefly headed Pakistan’s state tourism corporation in Bhutto’s government but for reasons that remain unclear, Bhutto had him jailed for 72 days in 1976. Critics say he carries an animus against the Bhutto family for this reason. He has also been criticised for his ambivalence towards military rulers. He held an official position in General Zia’s regime for a short time, and welcomed the Musharraf coup as a life-saver for the country, but was also an unstinted critic of all that he did wrong.
Regular readers of his column know that he is fond of repeating what Jinnah is said to have told Cowasjee senior: ˜Mark my words, each successive government of Pakistan will be worse than its predecessor”.
Some three years ago, he advised youngsters to pack their bags and leave Pakistan while they could. But he comes across as someone who is fiercely protective of both his country and the city that has been home for most of his life. Like so many other wealthy Parsis, Cowasjee has a zeal for public service, and has done as much as is possible for one person to improve Karachi, a teeming city of 17 to 18 million people, most of them living iualor.
On the morning that we met, he took me out for a drive to Clifton. On the way, he pointed to old banyan trees lining both sides of the road. “I’m their guardian – self-appointed,” he says. No one dare try and cut them down, he says, while he is around.
We drove up to the sea-front at Clifton, and stop at a wide sandstone terrace overlooking the sea, the Jehangir Kothari Parade, built by the British in the early 20th century. As we strolled on the terrace with its sea view, Cowasjee told me the story of how Kothari, a rich Parsi who owned the land, readily agreed to part with it and the palatial house that stood there, so that the people of the city could benefit by the public space that would come up in its place.
“This is how nations are built,” he said, before we hopped back into his car to the next stop, Bagh-e-Rustom, a small patch of government land which he is developing into a public park on his own. “I am doing this because I want to leave something behind for this city,” he said.
Back at his place, he gives me some keepsakes: a poster-size copy of his favourite Kipling poem “If”, and a few poster-size copies of a rare photograph of Jinnah playing with his dog, which he says has been buried in the National archive, “never to be shown” because of the religious Muslim’s aversion to the animal. He seems to have taken it upon himself to publicise it. “Keep one and distribute the rest,” he says.