Edhi: the man, the legacy

For the last few days I have been struggling for words. So much has been written about Abdul Sattar Edhi, the enormity of his mission, his endless struggle to alleviate the sufferings of the downtrodden, the sick and the neglected segments of our society.

Words simply fail me, what do you write about a legend, an institution? Where do I begin and where should I end? But perhaps I am wrong in my quest for words, because there can be no adjectives fit enough to describe the extent of the work Edhi started and kept on doing until his health failed him.

How can I pay a tribute to the man who unflinchingly bathed and enshrouded burnt and decomposed corpses, neither the acrid smell of burnt flesh nor the sickening stench of rotting bodies stopping him from his dedicated work?

started and kept on doing until his health failed him.

How can I pay a tribute to the man who unflinchingly bathed and enshrouded burnt and decomposed corpses, neither the acrid smell of burnt flesh nor the sickening stench of rotting bodies stopping him from his dedicated work?

I cannot find words fit enough to describe a man of Edhi’s stature. But the writer in me is restless and wants to try, although nothing I can write could be worthy enough for him. I also want my young readers to know more about Edhi and his mission.

Beginning from the scratch, Edhi Sahab created a charitable empire and his foundation is Pakistan’s largest welfare organisation, filling in the gap which the state should have covered. But the remarkable fact about our national hero is that he never gave up his simple lifestyle till his very end. Although he got millions of rupees in donations, he was content with only two sets of clothes of coarse cotton and he was never uncomfortable in meeting dignitaries and high officials in these clothes.

The two room apartment above the office of Edhi Foundation in Kharadar was his humble home for decades. He felt no shame in calling himself poor when he would get millions in donations. His ego was not hurt when he begged on the streets for charity.

We all should pay due respect to Edhi Sahab’s mother who instilled in him the habit of helping the needy since his early childhood. She would give him two paisa daily and make sure that he gave away one paisa in charity. In 1947 when the family moved to Pakistan, Edhi idealised the newly formed country to be a Muslim welfare state. But his dreams were shattered as he helplessly watched his paralysed and mentally disabled mother die, with no support from the state for the struggling family.

The passion of serving the downtrodden ran in Edhi’s blood like a fire which kept him restless and unable to concentrate on anything else. In 1951, full of idealism and hope, he stood on the streets of Karachi and asked for donations to buy an ambulance and a small space to set up a dispensary to aid the poor. He managed to collect enough funds to buy an old Hillman van and an eight feet dispensary. He spent hours washing and polishing the battered vehicle before proudly painting ‘Poor Man’s Van’ on both sides. The van became his prized possession as he drove round the city helping people to get quick medical assistance.

Edhi’s efforts were only the beginning of a new era of social services in Pakistan. What started off as a small dispensary in Mithadar, transformed into the country’s largest charitable organisation, comprising mobile dispensaries, ambulances, orphanages, shelter homes, animal hostel, maternity homes, old homes, morgues and graveyards.

Edhi began with a single van, and died with a fleet of ambulances, helicopters, orphanages and an army of volunteers dedicated to saving life. Today, there are 335 centres with 1,800 ambulances in the country, and thousands dependent on him for their free food, water, medicines and shelter. His centres are abroad too, in the US, Canada, Afghanistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and the Middle East.

Edhi Foundation owns the largest fleet of ambulances in the world. With the network spread out in every part of Pakistan, whether there is a bomb blast, a terrorist attack, a fire or an earthquake, these white coloured ambulances reach out to the needy in just minutes.

Edhi devoted sixty years of his life helping the poorest of the poor. Bathing the mentally retarded, feeding the children at his orphanages, spending time with the abandoned people in his Old Homes, Edhi never had time for himself or his family.

He had nerves of steel but a heart of gold. Spending sleepless nights reaching out to those in need, he worked tirelessly for the under privileged. His frail figure bent by the workload he carried happily, his aging face never lost its humble smile. When he was exhausted after bathing hundreds of dead bodies after a calamity, natural or man instigated, his attitude never showed a sign of strain. When his health did not allow him to be physically active anymore, he would sit in a wheelchair with a box, asking for donations from people passing by. And even a humble donation was appreciated with a smile from the great man.

Edhi’s wife Bilquis was always at his side in his social work. Together they created Pakistan’s biggest adoption network, where abandoned babies are given up for adoption. But the couple made tireless efforts to ensure that the children were handed over to deserving couples, who could give them a comfortable and respectable life.

For Edhi, humanity was above everything. His philosophy was ‘love human beings, serve the humanity’. He beleived that to be a good Muslim we should pay importance to Huqul Ibaad. His services were beyond any consideration of cast or creed, religion or race. His passion to serve humanity inspired many more likeminded organisations to come forward for charity work, but Edhi Foundation surpasses their work by miles.

Edhi Sahab got nearly 250 awards in his lifetime, both national and international, the Ramon Magsaysay Award for public service (1986) and the Nishan-e-Imtiaz (1989) the most prominent of them. He was twice nominated for the Noble Peace prize, which sadly he has yet to receive. But for Edhi, his greatest award was the happy smile of the children at his orphanages who called him ‘Nana’ and flocked around him lovingly when he made his usual rounds. For a man of his stature and the kind of legacy he has left, there needs to be an award established in Edhi’s name for those who perform outstanding humanitarian acts.

Edhi is around no more, the father of the fatherless, the man who shunned publicity, who lived the simplest of life till his very end, who proved that if there is a will, we do not need huge budgets to help the needy and destitute. Edhi preferred to die in Pakistan than go abroad for treatment. He had willed that his organs be donated after his death. Although poor health rendered most of his organs not suitable for transplant, even in death he made final act of charity. Immediately after he expired, his eyes gave vision to two blind people.

People like Edhi never die, they just move on to a world better than the one we are living in. He continues to live among us, in our hearts, in the old homes he created, in the orphanages where he was a father figure for the thousands of orphans. He is everywhere, all over Pakistan, in the vast network of ambulance service he created singlehandedly, the centres for the disabled and the destitute, the rehabilitant homes for drug addicts.

Pakistan is mourning Edhi Sahab and the sense of loss is beyond words. Friends, the only tribute which is fit enough for him is to try to keep his legacy alive and put in our best efforts to continue the great work he began. Even a simple act of charity or kindness everyday will help us to keep his memories and mission alive.

Published in Dawn, Young World, July 16th, 2016

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