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Profile: The living saint

April 21, 2013

People call him the living saint, angel and saviour; children at his shelter homes run after him calling Maulana Abbu, Maulana Abbu. He doesn’t need an introduction. He is familiar to one and all and his workers and ambulances reach anywhere they are needed.

Seeing him sitting in the front room of his office in Mithadar, Karachi, where Maulana Abdul Sattar Edhi or Edhi Sahib (as he is more commonly known) now spends most of his time, one was tempted to ask if he ever felt the need to hire security guards or feared that he might be a victim of targeted killing — the tragic assassination of Parveen Rehman was fresh in mind. Very confidently he said he never felt the need for security, nor has he ever received any threats and if someone wants to kill him they will find a way to do so anyway. Though he sadly remarked that he could not understand why anybody would kill a person like Parveen.

Born in a small town of Bantva in the Indian state of Gujarat, Edhi spent his childhood as a carefree person, playing and having fun with his friends. Not interested in studies, despite being enrolled in school, he spent his time loitering around the neighbourhood; though he would not hesitate if some neighbour asked him to run an errand and would gladly help an old lady cross the road, or carry her load, etc. His mother had a great influence on him, especially in his inclination to help others; she had imbibed in him the virtues of charity and selfless help.

With Gujarati as his mother tongue, Edhi can read and write only this language and does all his office work in Gujarati, which his workers translate and later use. He never tried to learn English — wasn’t interested and never felt the need for it. And how does he manage when travelling abroad? He asks the embassy to provide someone who can speak his language and they help him in his work.

Edhi came to Pakistan as an 18-year-old, just a few days after its creation, along with his parents and other family members. Having arrived in Karachi by sea, the family stayed in a camp for a few days and then got a small one-room house from the Auqaf. At that time the rent was five or six rupees which has now increased to Rs300-400.

Though not rich, the family had enough to live comfortably in India. But they came here almost penniless. Here, too, his mother advised him never to ask businessmen for money, as they exploit the poor, evade tax and zakat and are spendthrifts. If there is a need, ask for alms on the road; make this nation a paying state.

Perhaps this is behind his belief that the country’s problems are due to unequal division of wealth, corruption and nepotism. “Unless there is equal division of wealth and corruption and malpractices are brought to an end, poverty and injustice will not end, things won’t improve,” he says.

Keeping his mother’s advice in mind he never hesitated in collecting donations from common people and proudly says that his people have given him a lot. Whenever he stands by the roadside to collect donations for his centres, “common people like rickshaw and taxi drivers stop and give me whatever they have in their pockets. Thankfully today the whole nation pays me, but I appreciate Punjab a lot. If I stand at Mall Road in Lahore, the government has to divert the traffic because of the jam. I stay there for four to five hours and get Rs40-50 million,” he states.

Coming from a humble background, Edhi started as a street trader when his father gave him some money to start his business and later became a commission agent selling cloth in the wholesale market. After a few years he established a small dispensary with the help from his community, where he offered treatment to all and sundry.

From this tiny dispensary evolved a huge network called Edhi Foundation which now comprises 450 centre, 22 shelter homes for abandoned women and children, and rehabilitation centres for drug addicts and mentally ill across the country; a fleet of 2,000 ambulances, and three aircraft. The first centre was set up at Sohrab Goth, on one of the plots allotted to him by the KDA director general Z.A. Nizami, he fondly remembers.

Due to his reputation, he began receiving donations which helped him expand his work. “Though most of this has been possible from donations from common people, sometimes rich people also comes in to donate, they may have someone’s amanat which they can’t return as the person has died and has no known heir, or they themselves are heirless and so they give it to me.” But it wasn’t a smooth sailing; he had to face severe criticism from the community and even the people of the area, but he was determined. He kept going and all opposition died out.

He has had problems while travelling abroad and many a time has been detained at the airport and faced detailed inquiry, have been made to wait for hours. Eventually, someone from Pakistan comes in and explains he is allowed to go. “This happens probably due to my attire and beard; they think I am from the Taliban,” he says.

Having led a simple life from childhood, even today Edhi has just a few clothes. He had never been interested in movies and music and says that he just watched Pukar before the partition in his village, which had a few scenes that turned him against films and since then he has never again watched a film.

How did he meet Bilqees Edhi? Bilqees was a nurse who used to take care of the children that were left at the centre. Many girls had come but none stayed for long, whereas she hung on. Realising that no girl would marry him due to his work and lifestyle he had decided to marry someone from the centre. He asked Bilqees to marry him who agreed after obtaining permission from her mother. And did he marry a second time? He did, “but she ran away with someone else after robbing me of a lot of money. I didn’t even divorce her.”

Simple in his attire and speech, Edhi is a recipient of about 200 national and international awards, including the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay Award for Public Service, the Lenin Peace Award, the Balzan Prize, the largest Voluntary Ambulance Organisation of the World Award by the Guinness Book of World Records and Nishan-i-Imtiaz by the government of Pakistan. He was even nominated for the Nobel Prize, but doesn’t regret not been awarded. He is satisfied with what his people have given him and consider it as having no competition with the Nobel Prize.

Even at this age his day starts at four in the morning; listen to the tilawat on his tape recorder. Though sometimes he listens to old songs — “just a few songs that I have on a cassette, two songs by Noorjehan, that’s all,” he clarifies. At seven he comes to the office, where he is joined by his wife and starts to work; the whole day is spent working for the people.

Due to age-related problems he does not go out much except an occasional visit to Civil Hospital’s children ward. His son Faisal Edhi is now managing the organisation, of course in consultation with Edhi. His other children and grandchildren are also associated with the foundation. Whoever is managing, the people trust in Edhi Sahib and know that there is someone out there to help them in time of need.