Cowasjee: The Cantankerous Conscience

When a country mourns for a critic saying, “Pakistan has lost its conscience”, it is truly a tribute. How many of us Indians can say the same about our columnists? It is not that we lack in people who take on the system. Ardeshir Cowasjee who died yesterday was working in a confined space, so his razor-like comments about the government, the people – “an uncultured people” he had told me – stood out more sharply against this backdrop.

Cowasjee may have been an outsider because of his wealth, his religion, his special position, but he was also a Pakistani in spirit. He felt its pain probably more than its so-called proponents. He also benefited a bit from the very system he critiqued. There were awards and a fine place at the high table of many a ruler.

That did not stop him from taking those same rulers on. His columns trace contemporary happenings with a sure-fire knowledge of what happened in the past.

In the summer of 2007, after my manuscript for the book was complete, I decided to make what turned out to be the last trip and the only one with the book in mind.

We were sitting at my friend Rafi’s house – a sprinkling of artists and people from the entertainment industry. I had met most of them before. In the covered area of the terrace, a television was on. Somebody was interviewing Cowasjee, a shawl draped over his shoulder. He used harmless cuss words liberally; I was quite shocked. The rest, accustomed to it, reacted in two distinct ways – “wow, what a man” and “too much noise”.

The truth lay somewhere in-between. Courage does sound like noise if it is over-done or if it is unpalatable.

I called him up as soon as I returned from Islamabad, where I had gone. His personal assistant was a lady with a clipped British accent. I spelled out my reasons, which were not conveyed simply because he had entered the room and taken the phone. “Yes?” he asked in a raspy voice. Tired of repeating my honourable motives, I just said, “I want to meet you. My name is FV. From India. And I don’t have too much time. Is tomorrow okay?”

“Lunch,” he said.

“No. I need to talk.”

“My dear, I can do many things together.”

I started laughing. He interjected, “You think I am joking?”

“I believe you.”

I took the car from the hotel. Bath Island was the destination. There were security guards. Once inside, I realised the gentility of the home and the man with warm crinkly eyes and deadpan humour. He was wearing shorts but a kerchief was folded carefully and tucked into his shirt pocket. He was a man of leisure. The valet brought in a tray. He poured the Campari in a glass. For some reason, he did not offer it to me. I had orange juice.

This man was taking his time and I was worried he’d want lunch and then a nap and I’d end up with food and little else. “Can we begin?”


“I’ve got questions to ask…”

“It is all meaningless.” Then, realising that I had a higher purpose, he said, “What do you want to know?”

It had been a few minutes and all I could gauge was that he was certainly not what people might imagine him to be. We spoke as though it were a conversation – little things interspersed with big issues.  There was a peace rally that day, and he thought it would be just a lot of chatter.

There was a view that he himself was elitist. The same can be said about other liberals, who cater to a limited audience. Their arrogance about changing the world stood out in stark contrast with his genuine cynicism coupled with self-deprecation. He also said that if anyone asked him, he would say he is Indian. "Because when I was born there was no Pakistan."

Later, he took me on a tour of his house. It was no less than walking through history. Faiz on one wall; his mother’s portrait, his wife’s portrait on another. A model of a ship, his family business. Statues of ancestors. Sculptures.

I had taken a book of poems for him. Most people who are deeply analytical don’t care about poetry. I had written about this exchange before and it bears repetition.

“I know you don’t like poetry,” I said.

“Who told you?”

“I think so.”

“How can you think?”

“By reading you.”

“Why do you read me?”

“Many people do.”

“Yes. Don’t know why.”

“Why are you so rude?”

“You think so?”

“Well, yes…”

“Then you are rude also for telling me I am rude.”

He surprised me by asking me why I had not signed the book.  Since he asked, I wrote one long inscription…very poetic…

He presented me with two books: Military Inc. and a book of paintings.

Post-lunch, we walked towards the French windows. The light was late-afternoon beautiful, casting long shadows. I asked if I could take some photographs. He was more than happy and beckoning one of his guards, he put his arm over my shoulder and told him to take a picture. “Just don’t show my legs,” he instructed.

As he was escorting me to the door, he asked my driver, “Namaaz ke liye kidhar gaya tha?”

Ahmed mentioned a mosque a distance away.

Idharse tumhara Khuda ko awaaz nahin jaata kya?

Later Ahmed told me, “Achcha aadmi hai lekin iss um’r mein Khuda ko bhool gaya.

But, for all his religious fervour, he understood the spirit of Cowasjee. A man who showed the light, but also the lengthening shadows, both of which he too was a part of.



  1. My tribute to him on FB:

    RIP Mr. Cowasjee. I am glad you will no longer be able to feel disappointment and pain over the relentless, avoidable decay that permeates our society despite your best efforts. I will simply remember you as that rare breed of man that put his money where his mouth was. Thank you for everything you actually accomplished. Your indefatigable campaigning for the betterment of Pakistan will be sorely missed.

    There are far too few men like him around. He was much more (better) than a mere critic. It's a major loss indeed.

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  3. Meriam:

    Well expressed. Thanks for sharing.

    PS: There is nothing like a "mere critic". A person who critiques a system, a way of functioning, or even a piece of art is a critic. I do not mean a professional reviewer/critic.



    To understand him you have to read his works. Although I am quite happy to have shared time and conversation with him.

    Of course I'd be happy if you read the book too.

  4. Farzana: I meant "mere critic" in a pakistani context only. "Journos"/ columnists (gossips) in my country all appear to be rejected novelists. Their command of english is good so they're employed but there is no content...just endless, useless critiquing. It's the most frustrating/disheartening thing to stomach.

    It bothers me, nay it PAINS ME, that people are living comfortable lives, doing nothing but DESCRIBING what goes on in pakistan on a weekly, daily, hourly basis, in INCREASINGLY shallower ways.

    Cowasjee actually made a difference and that's why I mourned for him even though I feel like he WAS coddled by the literati and he WAS overly combative in his interviews.

  5. Meriam:

    Sad as I am about the state of journalism, not all in the field are rejected novelists. Just as novelists are particularly great. In fact, many recent novels coming out of Pakistan fictionalise what journalists write about.

    Critiquing is valuable, and of course not everyone is good or ethical about it.

    I dislike it when some readers ask, "But what's the solution? It's a rant." The job of the critic is not to find solutions. If s/he could, people would think it's not their business.

    Anyway, just some thoughts that came to mind.

  6. Farzana,

    Criticism has a use but in small doses I feel. ALL critique and nothing else is pointless.

    Forgive me but I am one of those people that expect some solutions from career critics/analysts. And if solutions were presented, at least I would not say it's not their business.


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