In 2006, an obituary appeared on the pages of Dawn of someone called A. Cowasjee.
Many well-meaning fans and friends of famous columnist and social activist Ardeshir Cowasjee, rushed to his home, only to find the man up and about, playing with his dogs and inspecting his garden.
Yes, the obituary was of some other Cowasjee. Ardeshir couldn’t help but exhibit his amusement regarding the episode in one of his columns.
He was first bemused by seeing people appear at his gate, look at him as he walked around in his shorts, and then turn away, some without even uttering a single word.
The bemusement turned into a dark comedy when he finally realised what was going on. An old colleague of his told me how he laughed at a bureaucrat who, like many others, appeared at his gate, stood on his toes and silently peeked at Cowasjee.
In the typical style that he spoke Urdu, Cowasjee shouted out: ‘Tum fikar na karo. Hum abhi tak zinda hai!’ (Don’t you worry, I’m still alive). What a character.
Tomorrow the newspapers will be carrying another obituary for an A. Cowasjee. But this time it will be about the Cowasjee so many Pakistanis have come to love, loath or simply get perplexed by.
For almost three decades, Ardeshir Cowasjee remained one of the most read and influential columnists in Pakistan.
Though he wrote for an English language daily, his words reached and echoed in the most significant corners and corridors of power.
Cowasjee came from a well-off Zoroastrian family. Based in Karachi, he was still managing his family business when, in 1972, Prime Minster Zulfikar Ali Bhutto appointed him as the Managing Director of the Pakistan Tourism Development Board (PTDB) - a body formed to accommodate and further attract Western tourists who had begun to come in droves from the late 1960s onwards.
Despite the fact that Cowasjee turned out to be an asset for the board, three years later in 1976, Bhutto suddenly got him arrested. Cowasjee spent days behind bars, where he continued writing letters to Bhutto asking him why he was put in jail. Bhutto never answered, even though he finally ordered his release after 72 days.
Many believe that Cowasjee faced Bhutto’s wrath because he had begun to criticise the Bhutto regime’s growing authoritarianism, in spite of it coming into power through the democratic process.
After Bhutto was toppled by General Ziaul Haq in a military coup in 1977, Cowasjee began writing letters to Dawn’s ‘Letters to the Editor’ section castigating the fallen Bhutto regime.
His well-written and evocatively worded letters became a frequent fixture in Dawn as he then ventured into other topics; topics that gradually began to attract the anger of the Zia dictatorship as well.
In a time when the press was being openly gagged and harassed, Cowasjee was one of the first Pakistanis to invent and articulate a way that has now become a common device used by liberals and secularists to critique political Islam in Pakistan.
After taking Bhutto to task, his letters turned their attention towards the draconian doings of the Ziaul Haq dictatorship and its so-called ‘Islamisation’ project.
Cowasjee did this by simply stating over and over again that the Jinnah (founder of Pakistan) he had met and followed as a young man did not conceptualise Pakistan the way the country’s politicians and military generals were doing.
This argument of his struck a nerve with a number of Dawn readers and soon Cowasjee was invited by the newspaper’s editor, Ahmed Ali Khan, to write a regular column for what was and still is one of Pakistan’s largest English dailies.
In his columns of the mid and late 1980s he continued to bemoan how both Bhutto and Zia had gone about shattering Jinnah’s dream. After Zia’s demise in 1988, Cowasjee became even more pointed against the civilian governments that followed Zia, accusing them of corruption and nepotism.
Also, by the early 1990s, he had slowly been moving away from his old rhetorical style and towards putting on paper hard facts and figures as he went about like a man on a one-way mission putting parties like the PPP, PML-N and the MQM to sword.
Also being a passionate Karachiite with a desire to see his beloved city return to being what it had been before the 1980s, Cowasjee directly confronted the powerful ‘building and land mafia,’ using both his pen and the courts to halt the construction of a number of illegal and gaudy shopping arcades and parking lots – especially on lands that were originally allotted to support parks.
This was also the period when Cowasjee began receiving serious death threats, but he soldiered on.
Though in his columns of the 1980s and 1990s, Cowasjee had always spoken about his understanding of Jinnah being a progressive man, it was from the late 1990s onwards that he openly began to suggest that Jinnah perceived Pakistan to be a progressive, secular Muslim country.
This was Cowasjee reacting to what the second Nawaz Sharif government was planning to do: To introduce a constitutional bill that would have actually endorsed Sharif’s jump from being a prime minster to becoming an ‘Ameerul Momineen.’
So when General Pervez Musharraf overthrew the Nawaz regime in 1999, Cowasjee cynically mocked Sharif almost exactly the way he had done Bhutto, Zia and Benazir. His overall message remained to be that all these leaders were misfits in a Pakistan that Jinnah had conceived.