Published in Slogan (May 2010)
Renowned columnist Ardeshir Cowasjee shares his wisdom, experiences and humour, in an exclusive interview with Ayesha Hoda.
Ardeshir Cowasjee at his home in Karachi - Image © Slogan
Surrounded by nature – calm and collected (as always) – Ardeshir Cowasjee welcomed me to his beautiful and artistic home in Karachi. Relaxed but observant, he effortlessly engaged me in a light conversation, with often surprising and frank responses to my questions.
From shipping to writing – how did the evolution come about?
If one works for shipping, one can write as well, can’t they?
How did you start?
Well, in Bhutto’s time nobody would print what I wrote. In Zia’s time, if I remember correctly, the first article I wrote was a reproduction of a letter I had written to an ombudsman, complaining about Zia ul Haq.
I had written that I was very sad of living under a president who is always apparently under shock and grief. If a bus falls down a river, we see the headline “Zia Shocked”. If a child dies, “Zia is grieved”. If there is a riot, Zia is shocked. If Zia’s wife breaks her leg, he is grieved. That is what he used to say to the people: Zia shocked, Zia grieved, Zia shocked, Zia grieved. And then we had a headline which said, “Zia shocked and grieved!”
How long can you tolerate a person when he is sometimes in a state of shock and some times in a state of grief? He better take some action!
And the poor ombudsman, a good friend of mine, said you are not serious. I said I have a number of complaints which I’ve sent to you. So if you like, do something about it. He asked me to tell the press to stop writing, ‘Zia Shocked, Zia Grieved’ or let him live in peace. So that was my first article.
Corruption, nepotism and incompetence of various governments have been the focus of your columns. Any particular reason for this?
If you want to write about the government, what else can you write? How good they are at thumping the table… ours is the only assembly in the world which does this.
The other day while I was flipping through channels, I saw Zardari and company entertaining all the ambassadors. Zardari was making a speech. You should have seen the ambassadors’ faces. They were half asleep.
Why do you write so much on environmental issues?
I don’t want to die! We have the highest mountains in the world. All the glaciers will soon be melting. Do you think anyone is concerned? They write about water disputes. It seems as if all the taps are in the hands of the Indians. They have only two; we have seven taps. Does anybody tell that?
I am going to suggest the military should have environment protection plans as well. Because like it or not, a time will come when we will have military ruling us again, one way or another. It seems to be the only disciplined party. They have good training.
You also write on animal rights. Are you a vegetarian?
No. Thank God no. I don’t eat dogs but I am not a vegetarian.
How do you decide on the subject of your column every week?
There are fifteen things to write about. And around 30 people call me or email me on what I should write. So there are plenty of issues.
Is a week enough to write on a subject and have you ever experienced the writer’s block?
I write once a week. It is an exercise of the brain. I have to churn out about a 1,000 words. That is enough for exercising my brain.
How do you conduct your research?
I read the papers everyday.
A lot of people complain that you quote long passages from other sources in your columns which minimises your own writing. Do you agree?
Sometimes I do. If I have to reproduce something which is 1,000 words long, what can I do? And I want the whole passage to be read. If I were to reproduce what Bhutto wrote in a note, I have to.
You know, if I started listening to what some people say, I wouldn’t be able to write. First of all, how do you gauge the intelligence of the people who say this?
Do you run into problems when you write against people? Do you get threats? Are you afraid?
What do I say? Somebody has to tell them, whether they listen or not. Do they not know what they are?
Plus, this is a nation of bullies. Every second man is a bully. Everyday on the front page you can read news stories of target killings. So everyone is under threat.
Have you ever run into any serious problems with the land mafia?
The land mafia keep on telling the courts that I am a blackmailer. The courts don’t listen to them. Why should I blackmail them? They think they can break all the laws. I took a stay order on the Glass Tower and it worked actually. Sometimes it works.
How do you feel when feedback on your columns is negative or contains a different viewpoint? Does it influence your future pieces?
Some people give constructive feedback. I say thank you. Some people are rude. I say thank you.
Most constructive criticism I get is from Indians abroad, in Canada and America. By name I can tell if someone is from Madras or from North India. And when I am intrigued by a man, I ask him where he is and what he is doing. And most of the time he is abroad and likes to read and write on different issues. Our charyias don’t write.
What is that one element that has made your columns so popular?
Who says they are popular? Well, people find them interesting to read, whether they do anything or not. I write for Dawn but sometimes the Urdu papers translate my work and more often than not, they republish without asking.
Have your ever been offered a ministership, ambassadorship or other high position? How did you respond?
Yes, I have been many things. It was fun. I was Minister of Tourism in Bhutto’s time. Everybody wanted to sack me the day I was appointed. Then Zia appointed me as the Advisor on Ports & Shipping. He wanted to sack me in 48 hours.
I was also Chairman of Port Qasim twice. When Bhutto wanted to sack me from tourism, this was the other job he could offer me.
Who are your favourite authors and columnists?
Amongst who? I read a lot on the internet as one has to keep abreast of international news and views.
Have you ever thought of writing a book?
Who will buy it? Everyone will ask for free copies.
Have you ever thought of compiling your columns?
They are all current and timely. These issues may not be relevant in the future.
Is Pakistani media on the right track?
Pakistani media will never be on the right track.
You have always criticised the people who have ruled Pakistan, whether civilians or military men. What do you think of the present lot?
Nuisance. Zardari is an accidental president or imposed; but he is there.
Have we lost Jinnah’s Pakistan forever?
Oh yes, yes. A long time back. They censored his speech of 11th August, 1947. They don’t want people to read what he said.
Please tell us about The Cowasjee Foundation and its activities.
We do charity work mostly for hospitals and schools that need it. It’s a small family foundation. We never accept money from other people.
How would you rate the following in terms of governance, on a scale of 1 to 10 (1 being the best, 10 the worst):
Hussain Shaheed Suharwardy
Zulfikar Ali Bhutto
Zia ul Haq
The cleverest amongst this lot was Hussain Shaheed Suharwardy. On 10 would be Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. Amongst our politicians, he has done the maximum harm.
Musharraf did well for the first three years.
Under which government do you think Pakistan progressed a little?
Ayub Khan. They all started well, be it Ayub Khan or Musharraf.
How do you see the future of Pakistan?
Dismal! It’s a dying country. That’s what I feel. In my lifetime, the state won’t disintegrate. But the way we are going, there will be no Pakistan on the map of the earth, in the years to come.