An unusual man

On the basis of this article publsihed in The News on Nov 30, 2012, Ayaz Amir’s nomination appers for contesting election from NA-60 were rejected by the returning officer of Chakwal on April 4, 2013.  By Ayaz Amir Ardeshir Cowasjee was a genuine seth (tycoon) the Cowasjees one of the original 22 families. But unlike most seths there was a streak of the artist in him. And he had a great sense of fun and was a wonderful raconteur. Some stories I must have heard dozens of times but they never palled in the retelling. ayazHis considerable private means enabled him to indulge his elegant tastes, even his foibles. In a country where the exercise of power can be arbitrary, seths in business or industry must perforce dance attendance on figures of authority. Not Ardeshir, whom the divine favour of the gods had put above such mean necessity. Bhutto’s nationalisation of the shipping industry – warp and woof of the Cowasjees – may not have been a favour to other members of the family but it may, in retrospect, have been a blessing for Ardeshir, for by cutting the ties that bindeth it turned him into the liberated and irreverent soul we remember today. Who knows of other Karachi seths? Who doesn’t know of Ardeshir Cowasjee? And to think that the foundation of his national and, indeed, international reputation was neither philanthropy nor the championing of good causes – although in both activities he distinguished himself greatly – but newspaper-writing, not just unusual but unique for a seth with his background. Ardeshir wrote the way he spoke, with wit and a great sense of the ridiculous, no one puncturing pomposity the way he did. Some subjects drove him to anger, such as the vandalisation of Karachi, some to sorrow such as the destruction of what in his mind was Jinnah’s Pakistan. He was lucky in his lady Friday, Amina Jilani, who typed out his columns and helped in many other ways. His generosity of temperament came out in the way he reached out to those who had made any kind of splash in the arts, the media, the law, good causes, etc, across the country. No seth had the circle of friends that he did. At the Cowasjee home meals were an elegant affair – soup, home-baked bread, a main dish and dessert, served at the table in the proper manner, a ringing of the bell to summon the butler after each course. The bar was always well stocked, as befitted a man of taste, but again everything essential – regular Scottish holy water, no false display, the kind we Punjabis are fond of. There is much that native Pakistanis, in whose unsure care is now entrusted the shaky destiny of the republic, could have learned from those we still choose to call minorities – Hindus, Sikhs, Christians and Parsis. But we saw to their loss and diminishing importance and all that remains to deal with now is the challenge of our own mediocrity. In the Zia years when I started writing newspaper columns, I got a call from Ardeshir and an invitation to drop in should I happen to be in Karachi. That was how it began. Minoo Bhandara, the closest thing to a brewery magnate in this officially dry country – unofficially another story – and now departed to the eternal shades, told me of a more tempestuous beginning. At a party on a yacht in the Karachi harbour he found a supercilious-looking man dressed flamboyantly in a white suit, handkerchief flowing out of his pocket and a hat on his head, blocking the gangway. “May I?”, asked Minoo politely. “No”, to Minoo’s utter amazement, said the cocky young man. Thus began a long-lasting friendship. In my far-from-Roman wardrobe I have three or four jacket handkerchiefs, all gifted by Ardeshir. The heavy Oxford dictionary on my side-table was from him…other books too, inscribed in his hand, his beautiful handwriting almost calligraphic. I would borrow books from him and return them, thus establishing my credibility. An edition of Waugh’s Decline and Fall, however, I did not return. I’ll probably ask his daughter Ava to sign it for me. In the summer of 1995 I was to take up a Reuters fellowship at Green College, Oxford, thanks to my friend Dr Humayun Khan who was then head of the Commonwealth Institute in London. From the Cowasjee Foundation I got a cheque for 500 pounds “with which to buy books…”, as I was sternly told. Some of that money, I regret to say, found its way into the pubs of Oxford. But with the remainder I bought some handsome old editions, which I open now and then and think of those bygone times. My first entry into electoral politics I also owe, in some measure, to Ardeshir. This was in Ms B’s second term as prime minister. Illahi Baksh Soomro had invited Nawaz Sharif and other PML-N grandees for lunch at his house in Islamabad. Ardeshir, who happened to be in Islamabad, was invited too and I being with him was asked to come along. Ardeshir made some blunt remarks at the PML-N’s expense and Nawaz Sharif laughingly said, “Cowasjee Saab, I have never met anyone like you.” After lunch, judging the moment to be appropriate, I took the party supremo aside and said that whenever elections came might I show interest in a Chakwal seat, which happened to be my home constituency, the party had lost in the 1993 elections? Trying to be nice about it, Nawaz Sharif said that contesting a lost seat would be a favour to the party. This was two years before the 1997 elections and when those arrived, despite strong opposition I faced from some quarters, the ticket for that particular seat was mine, with my friend Mushahid Hussain, then principal PML-N coach on the advantages of front-foot batting, coming stoutly to my defence. The moving finger writes but often in mysterious ways. Nothing was pre-planned, it all just happened. Matrimony, exciting at the time, sorry in the telling…light lie the dust on the ashes of its memory. One such adventure taking me to Karachi, Ardeshir was at hand to welcome me but, just think of it, accompanied by a drummer in full regalia. As soon as I came out of arrivals, the drummer, to the astonishment of the crowd started a lively beat. It was all I could do to keep my composure. As we went down Drigh Road in Ardeshir’s open Mercedes, a Beethoven march, if I remember correctly, played on the audio. This was a slightly old convertible. There later came another, silver in colour with russet seats, the eyes of Karachiites on the roadside popping out as they gazed at the seeming apparition of a stately-looking, French-bearded gentleman at the wheel, in smart suit and hat, a police escort behind, rifles at the ready. It took a good deal of panache to carry off such a scene. Twice on contempt charges Ardeshir appeared before the Supreme Court, first before Sajjad Ali Shah and then Saiduzzaman Siddiqui. Ardeshir,in trade-mark Savile Row suit (all his suits from there), cane in hand, the initials AC cut in real diamonds on the top of the cane, would bow slightly and take his seat, relishing the spectacle for all it was worth. Khalid Anwar and Hafeez Pirzada were his counsels. Nothing came of the charges and the files must still be lying around in a forgotten corner. We went to a Mongolian restaurant in Karachi once, Ardeshir in a kaftan that he often wore when the mood took him. Sumptuous meal and when it was over and the bill arrived he took the nearest piece of tissue and in his calligraphic hand wrote out an order of payment on his bank. The waiters, to their credit, did not bat an eyelid and we stepped out of the establishment. With like assurance, I am sure, he would already have stepped across the pearly gates, those of good cheer and good humour among the eternally-blessed hastening to welcome him – Sir John Falstaff and Mrs Gamp, Sir Toby and some of the poets. And in the hallowed spaces to keep him company by and by will come Ben, his parrot, and his Russell terriers and, who knows, even the silver Mercedes and the guards and the Savile Row suits.–The News]]>

One Reply to “An unusual man”

  1. What a ridiculous reason to dispose of such a gem of Pakistani literature. Perhaps the ROs are are devoid of any sense of reading columns.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *