Monday, August 14, 2006

Edhi's Autobiography: A Mirror to the Blind

In my mind, he's the Pakistani who most deserves to be discussed on the 14th of August. For those of you who don't know, the few internationals who stumble across our little blog, Abdul Sattar Edhi is probably the singularly most committed and visionary philanthropist in Pakistan. He has often been referred to as 'Father Teresa' for lack of a better reference. It's also a name that he understandably dislikes (it is a little fruity). Apparently he was also called 'Roti' when he was a kid because he was fat round, bald, and brown in the way we desis are.

This book is inspirational, and to such a degree that even I (jaded as I am) was left both surprised and immensly moved. Before opening the book, I had expected a sermon about charity. However, the opening chapter focuses entirely on his reaction to the death of his four year old grandson, which occurred while he was on site attending to victims of the
Ghotki train disaster. Immediately the narrative becomes deeply personal, and the reader is drawn in.

The book is both a personal account and the discussion of a personal ideology. He talks about his political experiences, his observations about people in general and different quarters of Pakistani society in particular. He has a natural distaste for self promoters, mullahs, snobs, demagogues, and an apathetic and selfish elite.

I'm a big fan of Edhi’s perspective on religion. He focuses on its spirit and implementation, and not its pedantic particulars. He abhors discrimination in the provision of social services on the basis of religion, class or ethnicity. He laments that Islam has been reduced by the mainstream of its followers to a series of somewhat irrelevant rituals. When he spoke his mind on the matter, he was criticized for preaching, as he was not formally schooled in Islam.
He responded by implying that he was in a better position to say what he wanted compared to most scholars, given the way he had chosen to practice his religion.
Another surprise is that Edhi is perpetually angry. He remains casual about his furious temper, and his frequent outbursts seem to have kept the foundation's staff on their toes. His anger also results in some laugh out loud anecdotes. From his awkward and spontaneous proposals to nine different nurses in his dispensary, to his watermelon smashing, to his apocalyptic 'memon' outbursts about his wife buying a 10 rupee Pepsi, it becomes clear that Edhi is eccentric to the point of being a little mad. But that's why he's loved.

As hard and uncompromising as Edhi is in some parts of the book, he's a complete softie in others. His wife
Bilquis, for whom his adoration is evident, is the most frequently mentioned recipient of his softy-ness. Beyond her, the tender half of his emotions are reserved for his children and grandchildren, and most importantly the destitute and forgotten for whom he has built his organization.

Edhi's autobiography also has a dark undertone, obvious when you consider that Edhi's foundation is the exclusive provider of free burial services in a city of over 15 million. He describes recovering abandoned corpses that had bloated and disintegrated in water, or had been consumed by parasites. He talks about how he would lift them up himself, wash them, wrap them and bury them. Mortality is a recurrent theme in the book. Often, his own life was threatened as he would turn up in the midst of an urban fire fight to rescue the injured, or alternatively when he'd receive death threats. In one slightly hazy situation which Edhi describes as a political conspiracy on a national scale, he even felt compelled to leave Pakistan and fly to London to ensure his own safety. The book benefits from these incidents, as they lend a certain urgency and tempo to the story, and prevent it from losing any of its steam.

This is an important book. Moreover, it is written articulately and is highly readable. But the reasons to get a copy don't end there. I picked up mine for Rs 75 from a hoity toity bookshop at the point in Karachi. Once in London, I then went to the Edhi Centre to find out more information. Turns out the book here is free, and they gifted me four copies. How Memon is that?


Alien Panda said...

nice. sorry about not posting anything, ive hardly got time to breath (im so screwed!).

Anyway check this out, this is perhaps the first time that the Daily Show equates 9/11 to otehr events around the world (Lebanon in this case).

ayla said...

nice review NB!

Hope you're having a nice time with your dad.

M. said...

real nice review, i'll pick up a copy.

NB said...


Im glad to hear it!

Majaz said...

Sigh. At least someone's inspiring someone in this land.