The saint of our disorders


After Abdul Sattar Edhi, Pakistan may not be the same. Our country has been diminished by his death. And I do not know if anyone of us has the gift of expression to present an appropriate eulogy.

A line comes to mind from Auden’s poem in memory of W B Yeats, inadequate though it is: “Earth, receive an honoured guest”.

I have to admit that my thoughts about Edhi are conditioned by the fact that I am at a distant place at this time. There is no direct interaction with how his death has affected the general mood and what comments or personal anecdotes have emerged in casual conversations.

It so happens that I am in the US for nearly two weeks, with my daughter’s family in southern California. I say this to suggest that my attention has largely been devoted to affairs and issues that have global implications – and our popular media has little time for these matters.

In fact, I was all set to write about the latest upheavals in America, prompted by the killing by the police of two African-Americans and the shocking reprisal in Dallas where 11 police officers were shot at a rally, five of them fatally. Here is a flaming reference to the race issue at a time when an unusually provocative campaign for presidential election is racing to its climax. Donald Trump is exploiting the fear and insecurity of working class whites and ultranationalists.

Coincidentally, the US also celebrated 240 years of its freedom on Monday – July 4. It was an occasion to contemplate the history of this nation of immigrants founded on gruesome injustices meted out to the native population and to slaves herded from Africa. Yet, it has welcomed the world’s “huddled masses yearning to breathe free”.

Immigration is a major issue of the present time, even beyond the strife of the US presidential election. Within this compass, Muslim immigrants are more in the spotlight because of the radicalisation of some segments of the Muslim youth in various climes. Also, one could look at Pakistanis who live in the US and relate their lives with the current state of affairs in the country.

Because I had a somewhat deeper sense of the world and its conflicts, I wanted to juxtapose the American situation with the surge in terrorist activities in the Muslim world, outside of Pakistan, during the last days of Ramazan. The blasts in Baghdad were horrifying because of the number of casualties but what happened in Saudi Arabia has a larger significance. The Saudi government arrested 19 suspects and 12 of them are Pakistani nationals. What kind of a message is this for us?

As for the attack on a café in Dhaka, the revelation that most of the attackers belonged to well-to-do families and were highly educated should incite intense reflection in Pakistan. As an aside, we need to be reminded of our pre-1971 connections with Dhaka and how we have distorted our own history.

If all this is too distracting in a column meant to mourn the death and celebrate the life of Edhi, I should ask for the reader’s forgiveness. But I somehow feel that my immediate emotional reaction to the loss of a person like Edhi is rooted in the sad state of our existence. The depth of our sorrow relates as much to who Edhi was as to who we are and what we have made of our society.

If you look carefully at the tributes that are being paid to Edhi, you would realise that the man, in terms of his faith and his actions, was totally at odds with the collective beliefs and behaviour of our society. In that sense, he was very much an aberration. Looking at it from another point of view, it could be said that the leaders and the rulers who are enthusiastically expressing their grief and extolling the virtues of Edhi are hypocrites.

Edhi, who was given untold millions for his charitable empire, lived in poverty. He had no greed. He harboured no prejudice against any group of people. He was truly a saint. He served humanity and his credo, simply, was that no religion is higher than humanity. Above, in this column, I quoted some words from the message of the Statue of Liberty while talking about America’s acceptance of immigrants.

There is no obvious relevance but let me cite the entire message and you may locate some limited reflection of Edhi’s mission: “Give me your tired, your poor,/Your huddle masses yearning to breathe free,/The wretched refuse of your teeming shore./Send these, the homeless, tempest tossed to me./I lift my lamp beside the golden door”.

This is not an occasion to delve into any biographical details or sum up the initiatives taken by the Edhi Foundation. I can only offer some impressions about the man and his achievements against the backdrop of the available socials conditions marked by deprivation and distress. Even though we are supposed to be unsurpassed in matters of charity and philanthropy, we have to be realistic about the limits of such contributions. Ultimately, of course, the state has to fulfil its obligations and ensure the welfare of its citizens.

Besides, not all charitable enterprises have the same mission. A lot of money is devoted to religious and selective causes. There is also the distinction between charity and development. Edhi’s role in this context deserves to be minutely studied. He began his work in Karachi, in days of considerable chaos. The ambulance service he launched was monumental in its magnitude and it was said that if it were not there, bodies would rot in the killing fields of Karachi.

Eventually, of course, Edhi Foundation had a global presence. But Edhi ran it in his own style, without establishing a corporate structure. He was the most beloved person in the country but he did not have any political ambitions. He did not seek power. He was humble. But he did agonise over the general state of affairs, about the corruption and waywardness of the system.

That brings us to a question I must leave for another time. Why is it that our society has not changed in the positive direction even when he have had great men like Edhi? There is also the example of Dr Adib Rizvi, who looked after Edhi in SIUT, an example for the rest of the world. We had Edhi and we are fortunate to have Adib Rivi and yet, poverty is increasing and ordinary lives are “tempest tossed”.