KARACHI: Known for her compassion and selfless work, mother to thousands of orphans across Pakistan, recipient of Mother Teresa Memorial Award for Social Justice and Hilal-i-Imtiaz, caretaker of hundreds of cradles for babies abandoned mainly due to poverty, the right-hand woman and other half of the late Abdul Sattar Edhi, Bilquis Bano Edhi, breathed her last here at Karachi’s Aga Khan Hospital on Friday evening.
Exactly as old as Pakistan, Bilquis Edhi’s condition took a toll for the worse late on Thursday night after being stable for a bit. She was suffering from multiple ailments such as a heart condition (she had congestive heart failure), a lungs infection along with ongoing conditions such as diabetes and arthritis, according to her grandson Ahmed Edhi.
Just a day ago, First Lady Tehmina Durrani had alerted people by a tweet about Bilquis Sahiba’s condition. She had recognised the First Lady and addressed her as such when she went to see her in hospital. She had also shared how much she was missing Edhi Sahib in her weak state.
Born in Indian Gujarat’s Bantwa area on August 14, 1947, Bilquis found her way to the Edhi Trust (when it had not held the Guinness World Record for being the world’s largest volunteer ambulance organisation) as a teenager after she had decided to do something worthwhile in her life despite not being too fond of going to school. Edhi Sahab was almost 20 years older than her but their relationship was of respect, friendship and understanding. When it came to caring for the poor and needy, they were a team to be reckoned with.
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“I wanted to grow up quickly and start working [for the needy] so I joined a small dispensary where I could help around. The year was 1965 and the Edhi Trust was looking to hire nurses,” she had shared how she had come to know Edhi Sahib. Later, after noticing her love for humanity and her caring nature with sick people during her six-month-long training at the Trust where she learned midwifery, Edhi Sahib proposed to her. She was just 19 at the time and he in his late thirties.
There is a famous true incident about their wedding night when the couple rescued an injured 12-year-old girl. They were taking care of the child and were by her side while arranging blood transfusions for her in their dispensary. Later, Bilquis started managing their Trust’s cradle project, urging people to give to the Trust their unwanted babies. She set up over 300 such cradles outside their various centres where mothers were allowed to quietly leave their babies with no questions asked. This resulted in saving of at least 42,000 lives in Pakistan. Most of these babies were girls and disabled children. She found them homes that adopted them. And those who were not lucky enough to be adopted, Bilquis Edhi brought up and educated herself. She even found good matches for the girls when they grew up. She would arrange very nice and memorable wedding ceremonies for them.
She lived upstairs with her girls and had installed a heavy grill on the landing of the stairs which she used to keep padlocked for safety while her husband Edhi Sahib used his office downstairs as his bedroom. After the passing of Edhi Sahib, she helped her younger son, Faisal, take over the reins and run the Edhi Foundation with the same dedication. She kept the entire family, including her grandchildren, involved in humanitarian work.
The girls and women at the Edhi Home in Mithadar, where they all lived, as well as their other shelter homes, lovingly addressed her as “Mummy” and “Aunty”.
Geeta, the deaf and mute Indian girl who had somehow wandered across the border to find herself in Pakistan, was one of those girls. Bilquis Edhi brought her home with her and brought her up like she brought up all the other homeless girls in her home, like her own daughters Qubra, Zeenat and Almas. Realizing the girl was Hindu, she had herself named her Geeta. She even went and got posters of Hindu deities for her so that she could pray at her own personal temple in the Edhi Home.
While covering Geeta’s story, this reporter also got to know Bilquis Edhi up close. She could be so funny, especially when she teased Edhi Sahib. “He is always wearing that boring grey suit,” she would tease him. “He bathes dead bodies but when it comes to bathing himself, he just forgets the use of soap and water,” she’d say while Edhi Sahib tried not to react.
To Geeta she’d say, “Your father [she meant Edhi Sahib] is a rich man. He will get an air ticket out of him if you want to fly to India.” But then she was too close to the girl to let her go and often asked her if she’d be happy to let her find a nice Hindu boy for her in Pakistan before her family was located in India and they were finally reunited. Ahmed Edhi told Dawn that he could not imagine how devastated Geeta would be to learn of her passing in India.
As more girls came to her, she expanded to another home in Clifton, which made sure to visit almost every day even with her ill health and aching knees in the end. She was also a great mother to the orphaned and lost boys who came to the Edhi Home like she was to her own sons, Qutub and Faisal. She became the mother to thousands of orphans across Pakistan.
An avalanche of condolence messages from politicians, activists, civil society started pouring in as soon as news broke of Bilquis Edhi’s passing. In his message, the President Dr Arif Alvi said he was deeply saddened to hear of her demise. He prayed that she be rewarded by God the greatest of place in Jannah for her fine work and for forwarding the mission of her late husband Edhi Sahib. “Bilquis Edhi’s selfless work for humanity will always be remembered,” he said.
In his message, Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif said that the passing of Bilquis Edhi was a huge loss for the nation. “An incredible woman in her own right, she stood by Edhi Sahib like a rock and together they set up an example of human compassion and ran one of the largest philanthropic organisations of the world. May her soul rest in peace,” he said.
According to son Faisal Edhi, her funeral prayers would be said at the New Memon Masjid after Zuhr on Saturday followed by burial at the Mewashah Graveyard. “My mother wished to be buried alongside her own mother and my grandmother at the Mewashah Qabristan,” he shared with Dawn.
Meanwhile, the government of Sindh expressed sorrow over the death of Bilquis Edhi and announced a day of mourning on Saturday (today).
Published in Dawn, April 16th, 2022