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A living legend

December 22, 2008

He talks about a Karachi I don't know. A Karachi where no one cared who belonged to which religion or sect, where every one knew who the other was and where life was 'normal'.
Ardeshir Cowasjee's definition of normal is very different from that of what a youth of Karachi would describe today. Where violence and theft is considered normal now, Cowasjee remembers a city where none of this existed. He describes life on Victoria Street, where people would pull out chairs and sit on the footpaths to talk to each other. Surprisingly, no one was interested in discussing politics at that time.
He vividly describes his neighbours, among whom were Abdullah Haroon, Haji Abdul Sattar and Haji Abu Bakar. None of the neighbours worried about who was a Muslim and who was a Hindu or Parsi.
Cowasjee remembers Mr. Soparivala from his street who, used to travel in a horse-drawn carriage. Where everyone else sped around on bicycles or got driven in cars, Cowasjee points out how this gentleman from his area moved around the city in a carriage throughout his life.
Katrak store was the corner shop on his street. On top of the shop lived Mr. Pithawalla, a highly educated man, says Cowasjee. With great admiration, he describes Mr. Pithawalla who was also their school principal. His salary was a meager Rs.400 and he was perfectly content riding a bicycle instead of owning a car. Cowasjee's descriptions portray a city where modesty and humbleness was common and superficiality barely existed.
Cowasjee attended Bai Virbaiji Soparivala (BVS) School, as did every other Parsi child in Karachi at that time. BVS was set-up in1859 and operated as a school for the city's Parsi community. By the time Cowasjee started his schooling, the girls' section had already been separated and turned into Mama Parsi Girls School.
Cowasjee's fond memories also include cricket matches from his school days. He recalls the matches played for the 'Rubie Shield', a prize given out by a commissioner called Rubie. Their cricket ground was the piece of land that is now called Jahangir Park.
'Fun days,' Cowasjee reminisces 'nobody minded who scored a zero or who scored a 100. It was all for fun.'
Despite their different preferences and religious affiliations, Cowasjee insists it was a very united community. He blames the deterioration and downfall of Karachi on the Partition. For Cowasjee, that was the time when the 'charyas' came.
Before Partition choosing a mayor for the city was an important and difficult task and it had been decided unanimously that for one year a Muslim mayor would be chosen, followed by a Hindu, a Christian and a Parsi. No one complained about the decision, neither did the populous group impose authority.
'It was a problem choosing the mayor because it was such a responsible job!' Cowasjee exclaims. Coincidently, Karachi had a Muslim mayor in the year of the partition.
A city full of law abiding citizens seems very different from what Karachi is now. However, Cowasjee insists that before this city took to the chaos and violence it is has now, there once was a time when it flourished.
They rode around the city on bicycles, without have any security fears and with great respect for the law. 'We were scared to take our bicycles without a light at night. We would be fined,' he recalls.
Asking him what kept him anchored in Karachi all these years almost seemed like an irrelevant question to ask.
'Why should I leave it?' He asks defensively.
And he is right. Why should he have left the city that has been his home all his life? Even though numerous Parsis moved away after 1947, Cowasjee's family, who were ship-owners, stayed put in Karachi. Hence, Cowasjee spent his childhood here, grew up here and got educated here.
Around him, the city was changing face and from what he describes, one can only picture a frenzied and violent rat-race. Cowasjee describes how the Muslims were rushing in to make Pakistan their homeland while the Hindus were running away, leaving their homes behind for new settlers to take over.
Some of the younger members of the Parsi community went away as well. At one time, 3,000 Parsis lived here and now the number had decreased to 2,000. This was mainly because of immigration and birth control, he says.
Karachi's biggest problem became the growing number of people and almost no law and order - characteristics that are still prominent today.
Although the partition brought about a lot of changes for the worse, Cowasjee praises Muhammad Ali Jinnah for the vision he had for Pakistan.
The first thing Jinnah noticed was the lack of schools and he immediately did a survey on the educational institutions and sent for the Parsis. Cowasjee's father was included in the group that was requested by Jinnah to open their Parsi schools to the other communities as well.
'This is how his thinking was, he requested, not ordered,' says Cowasjee when he spoke of Jinnah.
And so BVS and Mama Parsi Girls School opened their doors to the rest of the communities in Karachi with the condition that no Parsi child would be refused admission while other students would get seats on application basis.
When Zulfikar Ali Bhutto came into power, things changed again, Cowasjee notes with a grim face. Madrassahs were encouraged and existing schools were ignored. People were loosing their lives to the prevailing and increasing violence.
'Before 14th August (1947) no one died like this, it was after it that things became different.'
Most schools were taken away and turned into government schools and with that, their standards went down. Despite a desperate need for education, no attention was paid to the frail standards of these institutions. Cowasjee still blames Karachi's current state on the lack of education and awareness.
'Everything boils down to education,' Cowasjee says as he speaks of hearing the recent tragic stories of mothers selling and abandoning their children due to poverty.
There is no education and no birth control, he says, adding that strife is the biggest reason why communities are not close-knit anymore.
It was because of the growing tension and upheaval that Cowasjee started writing letters to the editor at Dawn during Bhutto's rule. He recounts his encounters with editors too nervous to publish his comments and his struggle to ensure none of his writings were censored.
It is hard to imagine a man as pleasant yet as dismissive and blunt as Cowasjee watch his beloved city turn into a fearful lawless state. Nevertheless, he smiles and says, 'So what do I do? Cry?'
It is equally hard to imagine Cowasjee sit back and watch Karachi's downfall and do nothing about it. And so he modestly mentions the Cowasjee Foundation, a small family organization, which donates to the needy members of the community. Donations also include scholarships and loans to students struggling to pursue higher education.
When asked where money should essentially be spent to make a difference in this city, Cowasjee doesn't give an answer - instead he provides us with a drive around the Clifton area where he is in the process of building two parks Bagh-e-Rustom and Bagh-e-Mucca.
Walking through the shrubs, he points out how the park will have no gates and no railings.
'This is not for me, this is for everyone,' he says squinting in the sun, looking around to see the development of the park. He smiles at the sight of a man lazing underneath a tree.
He points out the Jahangir Kothari Park, another landmark of Karachi and stresses on how important it is to have land for parks and recreation instead of constructing high-rise buildings everywhere.
'My life has been a waste?' he muses strolling. 'What is my achievement?'
If, his charity work, parks donated to the city, decades of blunt and honest writings have not been an achievement enough, his presence surely has. He throws his head back and laughs when he realizes I have only lived a quarter of the life he has. But with people like him around, Karachi's youth still has a chance to know what their city once was and perhaps make an effort to the bring the glory back.
Being a man who doesn't believe in sugar-coating his views, Cowasjee doesn't foresee Karachi flourishing the way it once had. But his vivid offer a reassurance that this city has, once, had seen better days.