I last saw Ardeshir Cowasjee a few months ago when I heard that his health was failing. He was, as usual, surrounded by his pack of beloved Jack Russell terriers and throughout my visit, he held my hands: although he wasn’t as cogent as he normally was, he was his old affectionate self.
While we often disagreed with each other’s views, we respected the other’s right to hold them. Ardeshir was a bitter foe of the Bhuttos, a vendetta that dated back to the nationalisation of his family’s shipping company and his arrest by his old friend Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in the mid-70s. But then Ardeshir was caustic about other politicians, too. After stepping on one toe too many, the Sindh government provided him with a permanent police guard.
But the people who were most in his sights were Karachi’s notorious land mafia. Criminals and politicians alike (and the line between them is often blurred in Pakistan) felt the bite of his verbal lash in his weekly columns. For years, he struggled, through the courts and the press, to slow down the steady deterioration of his city’s landscape. Builders and qabza groups were often tied up in class action lawsuits initiated by Ardeshir and his lawyer friends. He was a major supporter of Shehri, the NGO established in the early 90s to stop illegal high-rise construction. When my brother Navaid, one of Shehri’s founding members, was shot in his office in 1997, Ardeshir shared our vigil at the hospital as Navaid fought for his life. The attack showed Ardeshir how dangerous the land mafia could be.
Ardeshir was always a flamboyant, larger than life figure. Impeccably dressed, he enjoyed the good things in life. From his art collection to his sports cars, he spent his wealth with style and taste. There are far richer people than him in Pakistan, but none have his flair. Whenever he came to my place, he would sit and chat with my mother who loved his good humour and Gujrati accent. I doubt he ever began a sentence not prefaced with “Aray, sala!”
I suspect he was able to get so much dirt on the rich and the powerful because he loved to entertain and many of his visitors were more than happy to provide him with information and documents about the many scams he wrote about. Over the years, Ardeshir acquired a loyal following of readers across the world. Like me, he would argue against editorial cuts at DAWN, and would enter into long debates over the use of the blue pencil.
Born into a wealthy Parsi family, he imbibed a strong streak of philanthropy that is the community’s abiding legacy to the Subcontinent. His Cowasjee Foundation funded many students as well as institutions. Quietly and without fanfare, his generosity touched many lives: in this, he acted contrary to his normally extroverted persona.
No article about Ardeshir would be complete without a mention of Amina Jilani, his long-term associate and close friend. Amina brought order to a bachelor home: after his wife Nancy died many years ago, Ardeshir never remarried and Amina organised the practical details of running the household as well as the columnist’s social activities. In addition, Amina has her own weekly column in The Nation.
One of the things Ardeshir and I had in common was a love of dogs. A few years ago, I mentioned our Jack Russell terrier, Puffin, in a column. Amina immediately sent me a photo of Ardeshir sprawling in bed with at least four Jack Russells around him. Whenever I went over, they would swarm around me to investigate before they returned to their beloved master. He also had a loud cockatoo who squawked whenever a visitor appeared.
Refreshingly irreverent, and with nothing to gain from pleasing those in power, he was wonderful at deflating those with an inflated sense of their own importance.
Another thing we shared was a deeply ingrained belief in secularism. He constantly referred to Jinnah’s famous August 11, 1947 speech in his column to strengthen his argument that Pakistan was created as a secular state. Both of us opposed the unending drift towards religious intolerance that has plagued Pakistan for decades. For Ardeshir, the rising extremism was a direct threat to everything he had grown up with and all the values he held dear.
Although we often disagreed over politics, Ardeshir was occasionally intrigued when I wrote about subjects other than the usual punditry. Once, I explored the philosophical foundations of anarchism, and got a call from him: “Aray, sala, yey tum nay aaj kya likha?”
Although supportive of General Musharraf for his veneer of secularism in the dictator’s early stint in power, Ardeshir became disillusioned as time went on and Musharraf did nothing to keep his promise to rein in the extremists. Indeed, with his advancing years, he became increasingly depressed about the idea of Pakistan, losing hope that it would ever recover from its self-inflicted wounds.
Refreshingly irreverent, and with nothing to gain from pleasing those in power, he was wonderful at deflating those with an inflated sense of their own importance. In his columns and in his personal interactions, he would regularly needle bureaucrats and politicians alike. And because he asked for no favours, they feared him for his honesty and his outspoken opinions. When he died, many of them turned out to pay a respect they probably did not feel in his lifetime. But far more importantly, tens of thousands of his regular readers and admirers will miss his acerbic columns.
Irfan Husain is a regular contributor to DAWN’s op-ed pages and the author of Fatal Faultlines – Pakistan, Islam and the West.