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Profile: The whistleblower

October 13, 2012

Ardeshir Cowasjee– photo courtesy The Herald

The man doesn’t know diplomacy or tact, he only speaks the truth. He has made many enemies. But the threats to his life don’t impress him one bit. So there he goes throwing all caution to the wind, moving around in his silver Mercedes convertible with the top removed as the police mobile behind him struggles to keep up with his car, which in turn is trying to lose it in the traffic.

Ardeshir Cowasjee does what he feels like doing and says whatever may be on his mind… whether you like it or not is another matter altogether. Admonished by this scribe for walking into the Dawn office in cotton shorts, he would only ignore the matter promising to be more decently dressed the next time.

And dressed the same way the next time, he would try sneaking in quietly. No one wonder he was banned from the golf club when he failed to follow the rule of wearing shorts that are at least lower than knee-length when sitting down.

Still the naughty but lovable Mr C would rarely refuse a lady any favour. Guys of course are treated differently and kept at bay with his walking stick. He quickly complies when approached by them for autographs but a guy requesting him to write something in his little book is given a nice little story about a broken finger coming in the way of his writing anything. But that is as far as the untruths go.

The weekly columns, which graced the Friday (when it was a weekend holiday) and Sunday pages of Dawn from 1988 to 2011 are evidence of this. While for most it was a treat to open the Op-ed page on weekend mornings for some at the receiving end of his exposés they simply spelled doom with gloom in tow, leaving them hungry for his blood. For the leader page staff the trials began after the second half of every Wednesday when the writer handed in his column. Everything had to be gone over with a fine-toothed comb to avoid the possibility of facing a lawsuit later for Cowasjee, in his quest to take the wrongdoers to task, named names and pointed fingers.

This newspaper was the best choice for the whistleblower’s columns as the paper after all was founded by the Quaid-i-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah for whom Cowasjee carries the utmost respect. On his visits to Dawn he shared many a story about Jinnah, especially his interaction with his father and the Haroons during the newspaper’s early years. The columns, too, carried much about Jinnah and how he really envisioned Pakistan.

Born on April 13, 1926, into a shipping family, Ardeshir, too, after completing his education from the Bai Virbaiji Soparivala Parsi High School and DJ Sindh Govt Science College, joined the family business. In 1953, he married a young doctor Nancy Dinshaw. The couple had two children, a girl Ava and boy Rustom. Cowasjee’s daughter lives with him in the adjoining house at Bath Island and works in the family business and his son is an architect in the US. Nancy passed away in 1992.

Although the family’s shipping company, the East and West Steamship Company, was nationalised by the government of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in 1974, there are other business owned by the family. Besides this the Cowasjees are known for their philanthropy work. The Cowasjee Foundation has been responsible for providing funding for the higher education of many Pakistani students. One of The Citizens Foundation’s biggest campuses is the Cowasjee Campus in Lyari. Many of Karachi’s hospitals such as the Lady Dufferin Hospital, Sindh Institute of Urology and Transplantation and the National Institute of Cardiovascular Diseases are some of the beneficiaries of the foundation.

However, the shipping business was the one closest to Cowasjee’s heart as he enjoyed running his ships. Bhutto’s appointing him as the managing director of the Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation was no consolation and he couldn’t continue with the job for long. The next big post that came his way was chairman of the Port Qasim Authority, which didn’t work out either. Then in 1976, Bhutto sent him to the Karachi Central Prison where he was confined for 72 days. Cowasjee isn’t sure what got him to deserve that but those who know him well think that it was the prime minister’s reaction to some remark he had made about him. Having hit rock bottom and risen back to great heights Cowasjee knows about many things and the workings of many people.

Any wrongdoing including human rights violations, animal rights issues or encroachments in Karachi, was swiftly questioned and challenged by him. The few articles and letters to the editor which he wrote in Dawn earned him a regular column in the paper. His very first regular column, on Nov 11, 1988, was about press freedom and the very last one was, on Dec 25, Jinnah’s birthday and Christmas.

“I am 86 now, too old to pen weekly columns. Besides what’s there to write about with the same old politics and same old politicians. Do you really believe that they will go away? I am bored writing about them again and again,” he says during our meeting at his place last week.

The dogs, Jack Russel Terriers, Billie and her children Captain and Lulu were there to welcome me, Captain bringing me one of his favourite stuffed toys to play with as I waited for Mr C to come. The Australian cockatoo Ben wasn’t keeping very well and chose to stay upstairs and Tobey, the cat, I was saddened to know was no more. Mr C, too, recuperating after a femur fracture, wasn’t his usual self and seemed extra quiet and lost in thought. There were long pauses in conversations.

Only when a young barrister friend came by to share with him his success in court about saving an amenity plot reserved for a children’s playground from the Karachi Building Control Authority which intended constructing an office block on it, did he suddenly snap out of it to inquire about their other pending cases against various government departments and the land mafia. He will be okay… just fine, I thought before taking my leave.