Pakistan’s bravest columnist could also very well be the country’s worst diplomat. While most would take that as an insult, Ardeshir Cowasjee was proud of it. Whether it was writing about land theft, environmental abuse, corruption or admonishing Pakistani society for having forgotten Mohammad Ali Jinnah’s secular ideals for a prosperous Pakistan, Cowasjee was ready to point fingers, take names and remain unapologetic about it.
He remained a firm supporter of Jinnah and a strong proponent of his ideology. It is unfortunate that in his lifetime, he had to see his beloved country deteriorate and move farther away from Jinnah’s vision of a secular, progressive Pakistan. In his last column for Dawn, dated December 25, 2011, he wrote: “Now, old at 85, tired, and disillusioned with a country that just cannot pull itself together in any way and get on with life in this day and age, I have decided to call it a day.”
His words are a testament to our collective failure. We need to fight harder and speak louder if we desire a pluralistic and tolerant Pakistan where no girl will be shot for wanting to go to school and no Christian child will be wrongly sentenced to death. If our generation leaves behind a Pakistan as we see it now, then we’ve learnt nothing from history and men like Jinnah and Cowasjee will have died in vain. That should be enough to put us to shame.
I met Cowasjee almost a year ago at an event to honour him and his writings. I stood patiently as men pushed and shoved to get closer to a man, who in his trademark style, refused to shake hands with half of them. As the only girl in the crowd, I must have stood out because he smiled and beckoned me to sit next to him. He asked if I wanted to hear a secret. I said yes. “I was sitting on stage while they were talking about me and I fell asleep! What did they say? These saalas talk so much… I just dozed off!” We laughed and I promised to keep that our little secret. As I briefly narrated what had been said, he mocked himself and shook his head, “I’m so overrated… how did you stay awake?”Amazed by his humility, I smiled and respectfully disagreed.
He must have sensed I was nervous but that didn’t stop him from demanding an explanation as to why I decided to return to Pakistan. Taken aback, I incoherently mumbled something to the extent of it being my country and an ambiguous desire to change it. I had hope that my generation, with an increasingly global mindset, would fix Pakistan from the bottom-up and transform it into a country at peace with its multi-ethnic and multi-religious nature. He reminded me that Jinnah had envisioned a secular, modern Muslim state that had all been but lost. Politicians exploited Jinnah for their own purposes but not a single one could pay his true vision any justice. As I shook Cowasjee’s hand one last time, I received some precious advice, “We are surrounded by chariyas who will never do anything. I have not seen anyone reclaim Jinnah’s Pakistan in my lifetime. But maybe your generation will. Don’t ever give up on this hope, you hold so dear.”
Cowasjee’s words continue to inspire me, and they will keep on inspiring me, and hopefully others like me.
Published in The Express Tribune, November 30th, 2012.