Reviewed by Taimur Sabih
Abdul Sattar Edhi is a legend in Pakistan. Considered among the most dedicated philanthropists in Asia and indefatigably committed to his cause, Edhi’s services to humanity and those of his wife, Bilquis Edhi, are recognised and lauded world over. Many have also documented his work, among them Italian writers Lorenza Raponi and Michele Zanzucchi whose book Half of Two Paisas: The Extraordinary Mission of Abdul Sattar Edhi and Bilquis Edhi focuses not just on the man himself, his services and the mission that he has undertaken, but also on what makes him who he is today: what motivates him, events that planted the seeds of love in his heart, his upbringing, religious, political and ethical views and the resistance that he faces, even today, from certain sections of society.
Right at the outset, the authors discuss the credibility and appreciation that Edhi enjoys internationally and draw a comparison between him and Mother Teresa. In Raponi and Zanzucchi’s estimation, the effort that Edhi has to put in his work is greater because unlike Mother Teresa, he does not enjoy the support of a religious fraternity. In fact, on multiple occasions Edhi has even been criticised by various religious organisations.
The severest criticism has been directed against the jhoolas (cradles) that are placed outside many Edhi centers. Edhi’s perception of this matter is quite simple and the aim is to provide a safe and nurturing shelter for abandoned babies. However, some religious scholars have not seen the matter in this light. The authors tell us that “in 1970, when Edhi started offering this rather unusual service, it was initially met with fierce opposition on several fronts. On the one hand, the hardline mullahs said that the cradles would certainly provide an alibi for girls to give birth to more children outside of wedlock. On the other, there were a whole series of formal issues related to the Quranic laws excluding orphans from inheriting and from bearing their adoptive father’s name. But after a while, the idea was accepted and now even parents themselves occasionally bring a baby they do not want to or cannot keep directly to the Edhi centres.”
Edhi is not the only one to be targeted by criticism. Bilquis Edhi too has to put up with her share of it. But, just like her husband, she too tenaciously stands her ground. Whenever possible, she counsels and guides women on family planning but the response that she gets is usually far from the gratitude that she so thoroughly deserves: “Most of the time, Bilquis says, they answer, ‘Let babies be born: you are an infidel, you are against Islam if you believe in responsible motherhood’.”
The book also covers the couple’s love for animals. The Edhi Home for Animals just outside Karachi is proof of that. Although Edhi likes to credit his wife with the idea for an animal shelter, the authors have managed to discover that this is simply the modesty of the great man. One of his old friends explains that the 16-acre project is Edhi’s brainchild, and he picked up the idea on one of his trips to Europe.
As we read further, we get to the chapter from which the title of the book is derived, ‘The Two Paisas’. This is perhaps the most revealing part of the book as far as understanding Edhi’s personality is concerned. Edhi’s mother played a pivotal role in the development of his character. He says, “My mother started guiding me when I was very small. For example, to teach me and to prepare me for the future, when I went to school, she always gave me two paisas, just a couple of small coins, and would say to me that you can spend one of those on yourself, but you must use the other one for someone who really needs it, be it a child or a grown-up. If […] I kept it for myself, she would reproach me, saying that I had used for myself something that belonged to the poor and needy.” This was the training the great humanitarian received from his mother. In a powerful point in the book, the authors bring together the description of Edhi’s morgue and the last rites provided to many unclaimed bodies with his apparent source of motivation: “Next to the cold store there is a room with two large pools for the ritual bathing. This is where Edhi worked at the start of his mission, and he is often to be found here even now. It is said that over the long years of his work, Edhi has personally recomposed, prepared, and buried over 20 thousand bodies. The Foundation website even mentions that this is probably a world record, and it is easy to believe it, after meeting the man. Is it this intimate, close-up, and continual contact with death that makes him take a stand on behalf of others, and fight for everyone to have the right to a better life?”
Half of Two Paisas: The Extraordinary Mission of Abdul Sattar Edhi and Bilquis Edhi
By Lorenza Raponi and Michele Zanzucchi
Translated from Italian by Lorraine Buckley
OxfordUniversity Press, Karachi