HARKING BACK: A simple man wishing another simple man well

By Majid Sheikh

Dawn July 17, 2016

The year was 1985 and as I headed to work on Lahore’s Mall Road, little did I know that on that day I was to have my one and only meeting with a truly great man. Opposite the Punjab Assembly he silently stood, his ‘jhooli’ spread. He was begging for the poor.

There was a huge traffic jam in the making and people were stopping their cars, motorcycles and bicycles, rushing to fill the ‘jhooli’ of Abdul Sattar Edhi with all the money they could find on themselves. It was unprompted and from the heart. A woman stopped her car, took off her jewellery and placed it at his disposal. On this occasion I noticed that the poor gave much more than the rich. It was a lesson about Pakistan and its amazing people I have never forgotten. After watching him for almost half an hour I gingerly approached him and gave him whatever was possible. He thanked me and asked who I was. My reply was simple: “I am a poor journalist trying to make my way in life.”

He smiled and said: “I came to condole the death of Ustad Daman, the greatest Pakistani I have known. It is important to have hundreds of small libraries all over Pakistan, like the one Ustad Daman once worked in. This should be every Pakistani’s desire. Do write about the subject dear to Daman’s heart.” That was our sole conversation and then yet another donor took my place.

Imagine a simple man talking about the inner wishes of another simple man. Their styles were definitely in contrast, though their disarming and humble simplicity was alike. His request brought to mind a few meetings with Ustad Daman. As college students we loved going to meet him in his humble dwelling near the Lahore Fort. He would speak his mind forcefully, never afraid to speak the truth. Speaking about Pakistan’s dictators he would say: “I have much to say, but then our dictator might find a missile under my bed. That is why I love sleeping on the floor.” He would have a naughty smile and that spoke volumes about what he meant.


In one brief meeting, and mind you we students of Government College went to meet him out of sheer awe, to pick up some pearl of wisdom, I remember mention of Edhi came up. His eyes lit up, and he said: “It is a wonder the mullahs have not got him yet. But he is fearless and wise. He shuts up when mention of a mullah is made.” A college friend asked him why he kept quiet about our illiterate mullahs. He remained quiet, and the silence spoke volumes. Then he added after a long silence: “In Islam there is no concept of a mullah, so why bother about them.”

Back at the GC Hostel we engaged in a vigorous debate about the role of mullahs, about Edhi and Ustad Daman, as also about the need to be more vocal about our dictators and their mullah supporters. About Edhi the opinion then was that he did in deeds what Daman forcefully said in words. About mullahs the opinion was that there was a need to campaign to educate people not to give mullahs any money. Amazingly, Pakistan has the most mosques per person, and all privately owned.

Today we see that our various religious sects and leaders have been officially given many a thousand times more money than Edhi ever received from the poor and the caring. The outcome is before us. Words can never do justice to his cause. Edhi died as he lived, a poor man dedicated to the poor and living till his last day a poor simple man. On the contrary our mullahs from abject poverty have shifted to owning four-wheelers with armed guards.

It seems almost as if all of them were under threat from other sects, let alone a man like Edhi. The real tragedy for Edhi must surely be that in death the rich and powerful hijacked him. Nothing else reflects more powerfully the tragedy that Pakistan has become. Not unsurprisingly these very elements have filled social media with an amazing amount of vicious material accusing Edhi of all sorts of things. It is all about ‘money’.

In a way it is a reflection of the manner in which the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb opposed the Sufi seer Sarmad, finally beheading him for ‘blasphemy’. To blunt the people’s wrath Aurangzeb was forced to allow Sarmad’s body to be buried outside Delhi’s Jamia Masjid. The clash of the poor and the pious is an ongoing fight.

But then how will the poor respond to the Edhi organisation this great man has left us? Will the donations dry up? Will his amazing ambulance service slowly disappear just like the rich rulers finished off Lahore’s profit-making LOS double-deckers in the 1970s? The answer to these questions will slowly emerge as the months pass. The next Eid will be the first barometer of an effort that depends on the people, the poor and the caring.

But my interest in this piece is about the man Edhi respected as a truly great Pakistani, the poet called Ustad Daman. Just as Edhi rejected all foreign and government donations, so did Ustad Daman refuse to accept all gestures from military dictators. He also opposed ‘Islamic socialist dictators’. Gen. Ziaul Haq ordered that he be picked up after Lahore police alleged that they had found a pistol in his room which had no licence. He was locked up and released on the condition that next time he wrote against Zia they will find a rocket under his bed.

But like Daman we see that Edhi all his life faced the wrath of our rulers operating through their ‘pious’ mullahs. Even after he died it is appalling to see them claim that donating his eyes was not an ‘Islamic’ act. But like Daman, what really did Edhi stand for?

Probably the best answer to this question can be seen in an interview he gave the ‘Los Angeles Times’ journalist Bob Drogin in 1998. What he said then still makes imminent sense. “Pakistan is in the Dark Ages. In Western countries you have access to basic health, education and social security. That’s all I want for Pakistan. I just want to bring people out from the darkness.”

Every time I pass the crossing opposite the Punjab Assembly, my mind races to Edhi. A simple man in his simple attire, begging for a cause that was his dream, and in the same sweep asking that I write about setting up libraries as wished by Ustad Daman. It surely is a cause worth living for.


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