Published in The Express Tribune
There is heartbreak at the start of A Mirror to the Blind, the memoirs of Abdul Sattar Edhi. In 1992, a train bound for Rawalpindi crashed into another at Ghotki Railway Station. Hundreds were reported dead.
Edhi sahib set out for the site, telling us that, in times of tragedy, ‘I was always lost to myself, feeling neither heat nor cold, nor fear nor fatigue.’
But this time was different: even as he oversaw an operation involving nurses and doctors, ambulances and coffins, he felt a pain he couldn’t explain. He saw a ‘realm of death’ at Ghotki: ‘sirens, stretchers, dead bodies […] and the curious crowds that always swarm to stare.’
All the same, he rolled his pajamas knee-high and ‘plodded through puddles of blood’. Amid hysterics, Edhi sahib oversaw a massive relief effort: bodies were bathed, valuables inventoried, possessions attached to coffins. Yet he still felt that unfamiliar pain.
When he saw a nurse crying over a man that couldn’t find his mother, he told her, ‘You are the administration. If you become nervous, work will be compromised. Control yourself.’
Edhi sahib said all this, having learnt hours ago that his grandson Bilal had died. ‘The pain collided with my self-control and broke my heart over and over again.’ Tears welled in his eyes, to the surprise of his workers.
Returning home, Edhi sahib wept, before telling his wife Bilquise, ‘Now back to work. There is no justification for us to mourn one over hundreds.’
Knowing she could not talk of Bilal again, Bilquise Edhi placed his photograph on Edhi sahib’s desk, ‘while he lived on in my heart where he never died.’
Doubtless there are thousands of stories like this, of Edhi sahib healing the country with his hands. But this one captures all his light: self-sacrifice over personal tragedy, sustained good works over sustained state failure, and the love of the poor over the highest pitch of human misery.
He leaves us now, an angel for the unwanted: the Western press called him our Mother Teresa (whereas Mother Teresa reportedly called him a saint).
His state funeral on Saturday was the first since General Zia’s. When the two met in 1982, Edhi sahib was offered a spot on the Majlis-e-Shoora. He replied, ‘How will the grand people of the assembly suffer the presence of a beggar?’
Abdul Sattar Edhi started out as a young man in Mithadar, enraged by bodies bobbing in the Karachi harbour. By the autumn of his life, he had built one of the world’s largest welfare empires – rescuing civilians in some of the world’s worst crises: the civil war in Lebanon, floods in Bangladesh, earthquakes in Iran and Armenia.
As for crises so endemic to Pakistan – flu outbreaks in the ‘50s, war dead in the ‘60s, gangland killings in the ‘90s – Edhi sahib was there every day. His foundation is testament to the man’s administrative genius. Yet it is also testament to the strength of his heart.
Because Edhi sahib saw and felt the disgust of others, how his colleagues ‘washed their hands vigorously, smelt their clothes repeatedly and complained incessantly of the stench having seeped under their skins […] We could not reduce suffering unless we rose above our own senses […] cringing was the first and the greatest hindrance that blocked our way, the most brutal, but also the most understandable.’
But Edhi sahib did not cringe, not when fishing out bloated bodies from the sea, not when bathing the sick with camphor solution, not when taking in those that society had thrown away: the mentally ill, the physically disabled, the babies born out of wedlock.
The seths called him an anarchist, the mullahs called him a heathen. When asked why his ambulances picked up Christian and Hindu bodies, Edhi sahib famously said, ‘Because my ambulance is more Muslim than you.’
Even as a child, he was wary of those that misrepresented the faith. He was born and raised in Bantva, a tiny town in Gujarat, where he was fascinated by Bantva’s dacoits – the dacoits were said to be followers of Sufi saint Pir Dastagir, and to spend some of their loot on the poor. His father warned him otherwise: ‘Watch the way men delude themselves about God,’ he said. ‘To feel at peace with their sins, they make Him a shareholder in their misdeeds.’
His father would also shave his son’s head regularly: ‘It compels you to concentrate on substance. Appearance is a distraction.’
And so it was, until the end of his life: two suits of clothes, rubber slippers, and a windowless 8×8 room. When he was invited to receive Indonesia’s Suharto, state officials tried turning him away from the airport tarmac – his dress defied protocol. ‘Over thirty years without a full night’s rest and I was still unworthy, still too small, still too wretched to stand amongst men who did nothing but sleep, eat, and loot.’ He refused to budge. The men ‘in sparkling shoes’ ended up apologizing, shamefaced.
Indeed, those that paint Edhi sahib as an apolitical holy man do so on purpose: his message isn’t easy to face, let alone follow. He had a worldview, and he had a politics: he read Russians like Gorky, and argued in his youth, ‘Muslim rulers never looked towards grassroot reforms. Mostly, they concentrated on building grand tombs and mausoleums for dead kings, so that their descendants would build theirs.’
Pakistan may continue to live in the shadow of dead kings, but Edhi sahib was out begging in the sun. It was his dream to build a welfare state, ‘but I have not seen it come [true] in my lifetime.’
That now falls to us. Last Friday, all Pakistan realized what it had lost; it may be the miracle of our lives that we bore witness to him. Yet in elevating Abdul Sattar Edhi, let us not stop emulating him. We may call him an angel; that doesn’t mean we absolve ourselves of his inheritance.
Like the great Bilquise Edhi at the Edhi Foundation, and the wonderful Dr. Adeeb Rizvi at SIUT, all of us can make an institutional difference. There is an Edhi in everyone, and Edhi sahib, more than anyone, showed us that the heart of this country is good.
‘Open your heart and see God’s people,’ he said once. ‘In their plight you will find Him.’
Let us hope that, in Edhi sahib’s dream, we find our future.