Monday, December 24, 2012

Remembering Ardeshir Cowasjee 1926-2012

Guest Post by Roland deSouza

Ardeshir Cowasjee was on earth to do good for others (what the others are here for is not really known!), and this he did in full measure. The needy from all creeds and castes came to him for advice, financial help and varied assistance. And he tried to aid them whenever he could. He would write notes of appeal to the police, to senior government officials, to municipalities, to multinationals, to businessmen, to school headmistresses --- and most of them worked.

He had a great sense of humour, and often dissolved in uproarious laughter on the foibles and antics of the rich and famous, especially the politicians. One of his favourite stories was about an old, fat Parsi who went to see a doctor one evening and was scheduled a battery of medical tests for the next morning. He was also told that he had to sleep on an ‘empty stomach’. So the man immediately phoned his wife and said “Rashna Bai, no dinner for you tonight!” 

His practical jokes were legion. My son, Zane, remembers a trip with AC, who was togged up in a distinguished cream suit and colourful tie complete with a jaunty cane, to an exhibition at the Karachi Expo Centre. Some kids came up and asked AC if he was Colonel Sanders of KFC. Cowasjee impishly admitted he was --- and started signing chits to the fast-food chain authorizing free Zinger burgers to each of the increasing crowd of eager children gathering around! We wondered what happened when the kids turned up at various KFC outlets.

He took me and my wife to tea at the Marriott Coffee Shop when we were up in Islamabad in 1999 to attend the Supreme Court hearings on the landmark ‘Glass Towers’ and ‘Costa Livina’ cases. “Watch the maza,” he smiled, walking off after consuming a great spread, with us in tow. The waiter (who probably has to pay out of his own pocket if a customer runs away) came tripping down the restaurant, protesting. AC ignored him and kept ambling along. Finally, he turned around, lowered his spectacles to the tip of his nose and glowered for a couple of minutes at the waiter, who mumbled something about the bill while shrinking under the gimlet glare. Finally, Cowasjee sternly told the waiter to talk to his manager about the bill, turned on his heel and strode away. We later learnt that he had an arrangement with the hotel that his bills would be paid by his office.

His keen involvement in the late 1990s in the Karachi Building Control Authority’s Oversee Committee (it held 65 monthly meetings like clockwork over a period of five years!), helped establish a modicum of transparency in that infamous ‘Nest of Corruption’ (as designated by Governor Kamal Azfar in his 1996 Sindh government Dissolution Order.) Along with Shehri, he was instrumental in setting up a KBCA ‘Public Information Counter’ where ordinary citizens could, at low cost, quickly obtain copies of government approved plans (and consequently be saved from purchasing illegal apartments on the 6th floor of a building that had only been approved for G + 4 floors.)

His concerted efforts in the Governing Body of the KDA resulted in the rustication of ten sleazy KBCA officials (wonder of wonders --- corrupt government officials are usually only suspended for some months, and then restored with full benefits for the non-working period). With the subsequent dissolution of the KDA on the promulgation of the Sindh Local Government Ordinance 2002, the ten dismissed officials were reinstated and have today risen even higher in the crumbling and corroded edifice that is government in Karachi.

Everyone in Pakistan will miss Ardeshir Cowasjee --- especially the bad guys!

Note:  Roland deSouza is a council member of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), and is the former chairman of Shehri - Citizens for a Better Environment (CBE), an advocacy group working for the improvement of environmental conditions in Karachi. deSouza is an Executive Member of Shehri.

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Saleem said...

Yes he created educational institues like BVS and NED

Riaz Haq said...

Saleem: "Yes he created educational institues like BVS and NED"

NED Engg University is named after his wife's grandfather Nadirshaw Eduljee Dinshaw who helped raise funds for it. Ardeshir Cowasjee helped set up Cowasjee Earthquake Research Center at NED University.

Anonymous said...

He was always open to questions and criticism. He will respond to all the emails. I once asked him why he always praises and why he sees no faults with 'Raj' (Western colonialism), he replied, 'Bhai Sahab- Jis kee lathi, uski bhains'. I once emailed him with concerns over his safety and well being and he replied back thanking me. He once wrote about meeting Qazi Hussain Ahmed (JI Chief) that how Qazi Sahab inquired if AC will recite the kalema if someone puts a dagger on his throat, to which he responded, "why you go that far ?" and he recited the kalema. The only time I saw him actually changing his stance when he wrote an article praising Mughal emperor Aurangzeb and he received harsh response from his Indian fans. RIP AC, you will be sorely missed.

Hopewins said...

^^Anon: "why he always praises and why he sees no faults with 'Raj' (Western colonialism)"

Interestingly, this view is(privately) held by a very large number of OLD Zarathustris (Parsis) all over South-Asia.

I think it has something to do with the special treatment the Parsis received from the British Government because they were viewed as a co-operative, progressive minority that could be trusted.

For example, the number of awards received by Parsis from the British Government during the Raj is staggeringly disproportional to their numerical strength amongst India's elite during the colonial period.

The British communal trust-hiearchy was like this:
(1) Parsis (Absolutely trusted)
(2) Sikhs (Trusted)
(3) Hindus (Could be trusted)
(4) Muslims (Least trusted)

Regardless of the positive views the Parsis may have, it is a matter of record that the Raj comitted mass-murder in the colonies on a scale that puts Stalin & Mao to shame.

Capitalism, as it turns out, has killed just as many millions as Communism. The objective of mass murder was also the same on both sides: To boost the accumulation of capital. The principal difference was this: The communists killed their own people at home, whereas the capitalists killed people of other races in the far-away colonies.

Anonymous said...

--HopeWins Junior: Agreed! In my exchange with AC, I cited multiple references and inquired if his commitment to truth has limitations and so he responded, 'jis kee lathi, uski bhains - might is right'. Parsis were not the only ones to have received favor from the Raj. There were many hypocrite muslims and other communities who did the same. How do you think so many of those families flourished. The game of exploitation and resource grabbing never ended and knows no boundaries.

Riaz Haq said...

How food inspires names of India's Parsis

It is no exaggeration to say that Parsis, the Zoroastrians of India, take their food seriously - very seriously.
Love of good food and drink plays a central, oftentimes quirky, role in nearly every aspect of our culture.
When our babies sit upright for the first time, we celebrate by making them sit on top of laddoos (Indian sweet). At Parsi weddings, the clarion call of jamva chaloji (let's eat!) has a hypnotic appeal.
Weddings are judged almost entirely on the quality of the pulao dal (rice and lentils) and the freshness of the patrani macchi (fish steamed in chutney).
For any other occasion or milestone, we scrupulously avoid fasting, proscribed in our religion as a sin.
Food is etched into our identity, and in many cases it is quite literally written into our names. Indeed, Parsi surnames provide a veritable smorgasbord of edible associations.
One family, with its roots in the western Indian city of Surat, evidently failed spectacularly in the art of cooking and, therefore, earned the surname Vasikusi, which means stinky food.
Other Parsi last names include Boomla, the Gujarati term for the Bombay duck, a slimy fish which has a dedicated fan following in the community, and Gotla, which is a fruit seed.

One particularly unusual variant of surnames ends with the suffix khao, suggesting a desire to eat or greediness.
A Papadkhao, therefore, could be a devoted consumer or hoarder of crispy fried papadums.
The existence of Bhajikhaos (vegetable-eater) demonstrates that not all Parsis were raging carnivores.
Curiously, a number of surnames revolve around cucumbers (kakdi): aside from Kakdikhaos, we also find Kakdichors (cucumber thief).
Many surnames incorporate the suffix wala or vala, which indicates a vocation or association with a particular food or item.

While Sodawaterbottleopenerwala is perhaps the most famous of Parsi last names, numerous others point towards professional vocations in service of good cuisine.
In colonial Bombay there were Masalawalas hawking spices, Narielwalas balancing coconuts, and Paowallas serving up the city's distinctive Portuguese-influenced bread (and presumably keeping a tab on Paokhaos).
Around the time that Jamsetjee Jejeebhoy, the Parsi philanthropist and opium merchant, introduced ice cream to Bombay (now Mumbai) in the mid-1800s, we begin to hear of Icewalas.
And much later, in the 1930s, a Jeenadaru Cakewala in the city's Fort district promised cakes that were the "highest in quality and purity".
Complementing such individuals were Canteenwalas, Confectioners, Messmans, Bakerywalas, Hotelwalas, and Commissariats.

There is, however, some ambiguity associated with such names: the wala suffix could also indicate a fondness for a particular food.
Messrs Akhrotwala, Badamwala, and Kajuwala could have been cornering the market for walnuts, almonds, and cashews - or they could have just really enjoyed eating them.
Ditto for Peppermintwala, Limbuwala (limes), Papetawala (potatoes), Marghiwala (chicken), Biscuitwala, or Paneerwala (cottage cheese).
Food-related last names have also left a unique imprint upon the geography of Mumbai.
In the neighbourhood of Dhobi Talao, you can walk by one Parsi fire temple named after an Idawala (ida means egg) and another that bears the name Sodawaterwala.
Alcohol names
Pitha Street, a small lane near Flora Fountain, derives its name from an old Parsi tavern (pitha).
Pitha Street leads us to an important point: Parsis have also had a longstanding fondness for drink. Aside from consuming liquor, they dominated the trade in spirits across colonial India.
From Multan to Madras, thirsty Indians knew to seek out Daruwalas and Darukhanawalas who ran liquor stores, or Pithawalas and Tavernwalas who operated sit-down establishments.
Some Parsis crafted surnames that specified the precise type of alcohol they sold or produced, such as Winemerchant, Rumwala, and Toddywala. Refreshmentkeepers must have been more ambiguous about their holdings.