A New Theatrical Biopic Narrates The Extraordinary Life Of Abdul Sattar Edhi
Khayaal Theatre Company recently captured the journey of Abdul Sattar Edhi’s life in a theatrical biopic entitled “Edhi Means Love” that highlights the motivations and early experiences of Edhi leading to the creation of a citizen-funded welfare system. Narrated in a dramatic fashion by acclaimed actor Ezra Faroque Khan, this is a moving account of perhaps the most cherished Pakistani who will always be a touchstone of citizenship, public service and humanity. The script is based on Tehmina Durrani’s biography of the great man called Edhi: A Mirror To The Blind, a book that lovingly captures Edhi’s extraordinary life and values.
Edhi foundation’s journey is a tale of compassion and selfless love that transcends all man-made boundaries and takes us deeper into the realm of universal brotherhood and humanitarianism. Across self-inflicted, politically motivated and culturally crafted divisions lie endless possibilities of serving and uplifting humanity – that is the lesson the life of Edhi teaches us.
Inspiration from Mother and a ‘Teacher’
From his childhood, Edhi was taught to serve others. There was a woman who gave two coins to her son every day and said, “Take these two paisas, keep one for yourself and give the other to someone in need.” Then the boy would be off, out in the sunshine racing through the dusty streets and alleyways of Bantva, dodging carts and weaving through the market stalls. One day he spent both paisas on himself. When he got home, his mother asked how he had spent the money. He couldn’t lie. “You have a selfish heart, one with nothing to give” – she kept scolding him until he went to bed. The next day he was eager to please her and so he ran with lightning speed through the streets delivering envelopes of money and packages of food – a hundred errands of charity his mother sent him on, so much so that she forgot to send him to school. He was too mischievous for school anway, leading his friends into pranks and games: “Come see our circus tricks. Two paisas to watch.” The people in the town of Bantva loved him. The Nana Jees (grandfathers) would scoop hum up in their arms until he wriggled free. The Uncle Jees would call to him from across the streets: “Eh! Edhi!” Abdul Sattar Edhi was his name. In Gujrati, ‘Edhi’ means lazy, or at least it did. Now that this boy has lived his life, it must mean love.
Edhi hears story of Karbala
One day Edhi was racing through the streets as usual when he saw a man lying in a shop doorway. He was wounded and shivering with fever. Edhi could see the man was not a beggar. He quickly ran home to tell his mother and came back with blanket, food and bandages. He knelt down nursing him, pressing a cup to his lips. The man grew strong again and everyday Edhi would visit him in the mosque finding him seated with his serene face tilted to the sky. The man taught Edhi the Quran and said, “serving others is serving God.” He told Edhi a story about a battle fought on the plains of Karbala where Hussain, the grandson of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) had laid down his life to fight tyranny and oppression, sacrificing even his own family in his service to justice and truth. One day Edhi went to the mosque to find his teacher was gone. He searched for him in the town but no one had seen him. Edhi then realized he would never see that strange and beautiful man again.
Edhi was a Sunni Muslim but every year on the 10th of Muharram he would sit in the mosque, listen to the story of Karbala and weep. He began to read about the life of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and his companions, world leaders, rebels, revolutionaries – the boy asked himself: “What will I do? Who will I become?” Then suddenly his world was changing around him; partition, divisions, nations on the move. All at once Edhi and his family, the Memon community he had grown up in were leaving, headed for a new land. Tin trunks, bundles and suitcases were packed onto crowded trains, and then they sailed across the Arabian sea into Karachi port. Gone were the wide streets and fresh air of Bantva. Now everywhere around him all he saw were dilapidated buildings, wailing children and anxious parents. Every day from across the continent, boats and trains brought new migrants, every week, a thousand, a million, and more.
Edhi grew up fast and so did the streets around him. Shops and market stalls made of plywood quickly put together. Chai…Chai…Chai…who needs Chai!…second hand clothes, homemade pickles, masalas – Edhi became one of the hawkers on the streets. He weaved his way through haggling customers and mobile carts selling newspapers, matchboxes, milk and paan. Now he was becoming a man, earning a wage, learning a trade. But it wasn’t enough; “Who would he become?”
One day, businessmen and respected elders of the community sat under a whirring fan. Plans were being made to open a medicine dispensary for the poor. Excited and inspired, Edhi went with his father, Haji Shakoor. When asked what he would donate, his father pointed towards Edhi: “I have donated more than money is worth. I have donated a whole human being. Watch him.” So the respected leaders watched him: ‘Yes, yes he works very hard, very efficiently, but he complains the dispensary is shut at night. He doesn’t go by the rules and insists on giving the medicine to anyone who needs them without first checking if they are from the Memon community.’ Thereafter, Edhi’s authority to hand over medicine was taken away.
One night at a charity function where community elders and big bosses were patting each other on the back, Edhi slipped in and sat at the back of the hall. He stood up after everyone had spoken and asked to say a few words. There was sound of mocking laughter all around him, Edhi said: “You throw morsels at widows and orphans, indebting them as slaves so you can feel good about yourselves when they have to come every month and crawl at your feet. You hunger to see the look of gratitude in their eyes and broken pride. You advertise your act of charity for your own aggrandisement. It’s not charity, it’s not for God. It’s self-promotion.”
A hail of shoes and sticks rained down on him. Edhi fled for his life. Now friends turned away from him and people hurled abuse at him in the street. Elders he had known all his life ignored him.
The birth of the Ambulance Service
Edhi bought his own shop, a dilapidated room of 8 square ft, from where he dispensed medicine that stayed open all night. He slept on a hard bench outside and went to the streets to beg the next day. The elders of the Memon community accused him of taking money out from the pockets of the needy and using it for himself. Edhi replied: “The people will create their own welfare, I will help them create it. My motivation of love is stronger than your hate.” He worked relentlessly, the seed his mother had planted bourgeoning, sending out shoots in all directions.
One day while busy at work he heard his mother had collapsed. As he raced home, he found her lying among the pots on that kitchen floor she always kept so clean. Quickly, he went to find an ambulance. There was only one ambulance for whole of Karachi at that time and one had to book it if they were going to use it. He hailed a rickshaw and held tight to his mother. In her final years, he nursed her, washing her frail body, and combing her thin hair. “Do you remember when I was little and you did this for me?” Watching her suffering, he thought what happens to the poor who can’t afford to have this care. When his mother died, a passion was ignited in Edhi’s heart. A passion to serve humanity.
The Birth of Edhi Sheltering Services
In the street where Edhi lived in Mithadar there was a crossroad and over the years a mound of garbage had piled up in the middle of it. No one had thought about cleaning it but one morning Edhi began shoveling the filth on to a large sheet of plastic. He hailed the pile on his bent back and carried it to the main dump. All day he worked like this and not a single person lent him a hand. But he kept going in the hope to make people understand that there is dignity in labour. He dug and dug, and found human remains from the gutters, wells and drains. He hailed human bodies from under the bridges and trains and washed them, searching for their names and burying them with dignity. There were thousands of bodies. Edhi, as an ever-practical man thought four wheels were better than two legs, and bought an old van. A battered van that read “Poor Man’s Van” on its side. He answered every call, taking people to the hospitals.
Some people complained, ” Edhi sahib, why do you carry Christians and Hindus in your ambulance?” Edhi replied, “Because my ambulance is more Muslim than you are.”
When he wasn’t driving the ambulance, he would work in his dispensary. When he wasn’t doing that, he was begging on streets for funds. He would give people who donated money the receipts saying that they could use the ambulance service in need as they had paid for it. Then as the number of ambulances rose so did volunteers for driving. Thanks to a large donation from a Memon businessman. “Edhi’s ambulance” – the name was born for the free service, thus Edhi’s dream was fulfilled. The number of sirens rose but so did slums and poverty. Edhi then began adopting abandoned babies, found on heaps in slums of Karachi. Mullahs turned against him but Edhi stood firm.
Love inspires love. From the selfish society, compassionate people came forward – nurses, drivers, cleaners, etc. Edhi was a taskmaster who maintained strict discipline. No one would even dare to smile in his presence. Everybody was too frightened, except a nurse named Bilquis who worked exceptionally well, and whose electric smile pierced Edhi’s heart. As other nurses starting to note Edhi’s smiles in her presence they would say to her “he is smiling” and Bilquis would say, “Does he live?” Edhi heard that. Indeed he had buried a part of himself finding and removing corpses from the filth. One day Edhi mustered up courage and approached Bilquis, “Would you work with me for the rest of your life”. She said yes. On the day of marriage Edhi got too busy racing a child to a hospital. “Where is your husband?” people would ask Bilquis. But she was his soulmate, heaven-sent, who brought joy back to him. With Bilquis by his side, Edhi’s dream of a wholesale system of welfare continued to grow. Their marriage was their work.
Love, Respect and Mislabeling: Legacy of Edhi Foundation
A fleet of Edhi ambulances sped in the country. Rescue planes and helicopters flied in the sky and lifeboats on the sea. When there were earthquakes or floods, Edhi Foundation came to the rescue; Across the country people dialing “115” and Edhi responding to every emergency. One day Edhi was driving to his place when he heard gunshots. He slammed on the brakes. He could see men on one side of the street sheltering behind a car. On the other, there were people on a roof firing. He went out from his ambulance and stood behind the car. One of the men recognized Edhi and told him to move away but he said that he wouldn’t go unless the firing stopped. Men firing at each other would hold for Edhi to move the dead bodies. His influence was growing by the day. Politicians wanted to court him, journalists wanted to write about him, and people would want to kiss his hands. Meanwhile, his opponents grew as well. He was labelled a spy of Israel, India, and branded “kafir” by the mullahs whose zakat funds reduced due to Edhi Foundation. Many NGOs also turned against him. Edhi was slandered to be doing business of vital organs. But in hours of their need, they would all call 115.
On Friday morning without fail he jumped on an ambulance to a place of worship. The Edhi village centre for boys and for the mentally disabled gave a home to two thousand boys. Every Friday, hundreds would gather and wait for him. As soon as the ambulance came into view, the air exploded with whoops of joy – “Maulana Abu has come – boys who were otherwise oblivious to where they are, who they were, or how to use a toilet, they knew this man who truly loved them. When he got out of the ambulance, people would rush to kiss him. Edhi couldn’t say no to those children. As love for him grew, rays of Edhi Foundation spread like sunshine across the globe. Aid was sent across Asia, Africa, Europe and USA. In Pakistan, over three million lost children found, over 80,000 psychotics and drug addicts rehabilitated, over a million abandoned babies saved, and counting and counting.
Every day before dawn Edhi was up to begin his work. A cup of green tea, some stale bread, a visit to the centres, giving orders checking flaws in the ambulance, at the dispensary, begging on the streets, dealing with a father’s grief – his son pulled from a drain and Bilquis weeping for a girl. Then dealing with threatening phone calls from power hungry people afraid of the realization of Edhi’s wholesale dream, or opportunists full of flattery cashing in. Bilquis would say, “they have missed the best one – the world’s greatest miser!” Edhi was trying out spectacles found on corpses. He never spent a penny on himself. Bilquis would have to secretly stitch him a new pair of clothes. When insults were hurled at him, Edhi would put his head down and get on with his work.
Pilgrimage: the story of Karbala comes together
When he went on the pilgrimage to Mecca on ambulance, he removed pots and clothes and replaced them with medicine. He prayed: “Allah! Raise my spirit in humility. My work is beyond my capability. Let me remember that I am but a tool and the force of anything extraordinary is from You.” After the rituals of Hajj, he handed over medicines from the back of his ambulance. Bilquis asked him why he was not using that time to pray. He said, “I am praying. Is this not praying?” Then at night they both slept in the back of the ambulance among the medicines. On his way back, he stopped in Karbala, staring across the land where the battle took place when the grandson of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) sacrificed his own family to fight oppression and to uphold justice and truth. Edhi with tears flowing down his eyes recalled words of his first teacher, the man bleeding on the streets of Bantva. “The story of Karbala is not just about an event. It is an example of how we should live. What we should do when we see injustice done to a human being.”
This is a fine piece of storytelling that will not only introduce the man to global audiences but will inspire all those who interact with him.
The launch of this theatrical biopic on Abdul Sattar Edhi is scheduled for Thursday, 8th July (7:30PM UK | 10:30PM DXB)
For more info and tickets: https://bit.ly/3pgv7bO For preview: https://youtu.be/gl7TKu-ulkA
The writer is founding editor of NayaDaur Media. Formerly, he was editor of Daily Times, The Friday Times and a broadcaster at Capital TV and Express News. He is the author of Delhi By Heart, The Fractious Path and Being Pakistani: Society, Culture and the Arts. www.razarumi.com