The night Abdul Sattar Edhi came over for dinner is etched in my mind, not in oil colours but as charcoal on canvas. Perhaps it was the grey of his kurta, cap and slippers as he sat on the pristine beige plumped-up sofa, and his down-to-earth manner.
As soon as I addressed him as “Maulana Edhi” he let me have it.
“Don’t you call me a maulana!”
“But everyone refers to you as one, Edhi sahib.”
"Just because I maintain a beard, they insist on calling me a maulvi. I’m not a maulana," he said, waving his finger at me.
Which brings to mind that when people asked Edhi why he allowed non-Muslims in his ambulances, he replied firmly:
"Because the ambulance is more Muslim than you."
Edhi had no qualms about speaking against anyone and anything he deemed wrong. When I praised the dynamic Mayor of Karachi who had improved the city's infrastructure, during a conversation with him, he told me fiercely:
“He’s not dynamic! Do you know that on Eid, we were the first ones to collect hides to sell for charity. But as soon as others realised there was money involved, they took it upon themselves to collect hides forcefully pretending it is for charity. Liars and thieves.”
And then he calmly went back to his dinner.
The humble legend
He single-handedly spearheaded the Edhi Foundation in 1957, and it continues to function as a non-profit social welfare organisation through the length and breadth of Pakistan, providing the needy with medical aid, family planning, emergency assistance and education. It also operates maternity homes, mental asylums, homes for the physically handicapped, blood banks and orphanages.
Explore: Edhi: A life less ordinary
On November 16, 2009, the International Day for Tolerance, Edhi went to Paris to receive the Unesco Madanjit Singh Prize for the Promotion of Tolerance and Non Violence "in recognition of his life long efforts to ameliorate the condition of the most disadvantaged groups in Pakistan and for promoting the ideals of human dignity, human rights, mutual respect and tolerance".
The prize-giving ceremony was held at the sprawling United Nations edifice; I was present there too. Amidst all the designer suits, gleaming coats and fancy shoes, Edhi stood out in his grey shalwar kameez and worn out slippers.
A documentary was also screened, which showed Edhi and his wife Bilquis engaged in their charity work amidst the outcasts of society.
As Edhi shuffled forward to receive the Unesco award, there was prolonged applause. Many Europeans remarked on how privileged they felt to have the opportunity of meeting such a noble man.
An Indian couple postponed their flight home, coming to the UN to pay homage to Edhi, saying that they only wanted his blessings.
As soon as the impressive ceremony was over, Edhi was surrounded by a bevy of delighted Pakistanis. Their stimulating interaction with Edhi and the countless photo opportunities went on until UN officials started glancing at their watches. But then the dinner invitations started rolling in.
At times, Edhi looked a trifle tired, but he never lost his composure. Accustomed to sleeping at 7pm and waking up at 4am, jet lag and the constant socialising was draining, but he said that he did not want to turn down the opportunity of meeting with Pakistanis.
Many Pakistanis came forward to grip his gnarled hands to seek his blessings, and said they were willing to contribute to his organisation.
The lesser-known Edhi
Despite all the hero worship, Edhi remained calm and was even prone to the occasional wisecrack as when he left an older lady dumbfounded.
She came up to him and announced grandly that she would volunteer at Edhi Centre after her retirement.
”There is an age to do this kind of work. Don’t delay for so long. It will be too late.”
Another instance was when he presented his book “A Mirror to the Blind” on which he collaborated with Tehmina Durrani, talk turned to Tehmina’s remarriage. He asked innocently: "Why did she have to marry that Shahbaz?”
“Why not? Who else could she have married?”
“What about me? I was also there, wasn’t I?”
His daughters and grandson had a good laugh.
Going where no one dared to go
Edhi had no qualms about going where others fear to tread. He went to Tank, the gateway to the tribal areas, amidst fears that he might be killed by the Taliban, but instead they welcomed him with open arms.
Edhi told them to renounce their violent way of life, which is against the teachings of Islam. The Taliban called him a khudai faqir, listened to him with great respect and provided him with safe passage.
Charity was unrelated to its original concept. Another major obstacle in the promotion of welfare was the disgust of man towards mankind. There was only one reaction from everyone: cringing. From the grimacing faces of my colleagues, I understood that I was the only one not disgusted. They washed their hands vigorously, smelt their clothes repeatedly and complained incessantly of the stench having seeped under their skins. Then they rushed home to bathe, scrubbed their clothes and disinfected them, sometimes gave them away saying, ‘The very weave was stricken.’ We could not reduce suffering unless we rose above our senses.
—Abdul Sattar Edhi, A Mirror to the Blind
Edhi's personal tragedies
Edhi's biography narrates that the biggest tragedy of his life was the loss of his beloved grandson Bilal, who was burnt to death by scalding water while being given a bath by one of the centre’s inmates. Despite his overwhelming grief, Edhi steeled his heart and did not allow the woman who killed Bilal to be thrown out onto the streets.
Take a look: Edhi — The exception to Pakistan's faults
By all accounts, the incident which broke him in later years was when his centre was robbed in front of his eyes in October 2014.
Being in Abdul Sattar Edhi’s presence gave one hope for the future, because it was his firm belief that there are no people more generous than Pakistanis in giving aid and there is no place in the world as great as Pakistan.
Now that the great humanitarian has gone, the onus is on us, each and every Pakistani, to carry forward his precious baton of humanitarianism.
Edhi would have expected nothing, but the best from the people of Pakistan.