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Saturday, July 09, 2016

The Mahatma of Pakistan

Abdul Sattar Edhi
My father Meghnad Bhatt was a socialist. For him Pakistan was never an enemy. He wrote glowingly about ZA Bhutto and received letters from the Prime Minister of Pakistan.

The first time I saw Karachi was on a map that my father showed me during the 1971 Indo-Pak war. The headlines of the newspaper (Free Press Journal) proclaimed the Indian Navy had bombed Karachi harbour.

“And to imagine,” my father dismayed, “both the cities were once part of the Bombay Presidency that stretched from Sindh to Mysore.”

The second time I saw Karachi was on television, when the India Pakistan cricket series was revived after a long gap in the mid-1970s. Bishen Bedi and his boys were beaten black and blue by the “wild Pakistanis”.

If I recall correctly, the last test was at Karachi, and Pakistan won rather handsomely, turning the last hour into a sort of a one-day match, and flaying the famed Indian spin quartet (Bedi, Chandrasekhar, Prasanna and Venkataraghavan) out of international cricket.

Pakistan won the series. We discovered Kapil Dev.

As a journalist, my most serendipitous experience was to discover Gujarati businessmen from Karachi who on the invitation of the Indian Merchants’ Chamber came to Bombay (Mumbai) in the late 1980s.

A few of them had experienced the trauma of Partition first hand. They were in tears as they happily recalled their lives in Bombay. The younger among the group were dazzled by Bombay’s buzz.

The older members of the group spoke of long standing and deep commercial relations between Karachi and Bombay that needed to be revived..

Then, years later, my student, who became a dear friend, Ehtesham Shahid, got married to Amna Khaishgi, a resident of Karachi. Both met in Dubai.

Amna wrote a scintillating piece for The Quarterly Journal of Opinion (an online magazine I edited for a year in 2002) comparing Bombay and Karachi.

She wrote, “Mumbai and Karachi reflect the diverse meanings of its disparate inhabitants. Both sit at the crossroads of aspirations and desperation, narrating numerous tales of rags to riches. Both have a thriving underworld, fast moving traffic and throbbing nightlife. Perhaps the biggest similarity is the gap between the rich and poor in both the cities. Violence on the streets of both is analogous too. Both touch the same Arabian Sea from their respective coastlines.”

Another friend, Jatin Desai, a journalist-activist, introduced me to Pakistan India Peoples' Forum for Peace and Democracy. In these cynical times, here was an organization that was at least attempting to do something genuinely good and effective.

Kumar Ketkar, both a friend and a mentor, was part of this group. He suggested I be a part of the SAFMA delegation that would be traveling to Karachi in June 2006.

I visited Karachi as part of a delegation promoting Pakistan-India people-to-people contacts. Our delegation comprised journalists. We had a wonderful time.

Two of the many memorable evenings have remained etched in my mind: one where the inimitable Tina Sani sang ghazals, and the other was when we met the Mahatma of Pakistan – Abdul Sattar Edhi.

Edhi was a simple man, who began his work by providing a decent burial to the poor, and then slowly rising to become the philanthropic face of Pakistan. He narrated his story in a straightforward, no-nonsense manner.

One of our delegates asked him, why, if he believed in humanism more than religion, he went to Pakistan during the Partition. He said Pakistan was not a different land at that time, when he went from Gujarat to Karachi. And he emphasized that he did not regret his decision.

He spoke gently for more than an hour, happy to be interacting with Indians. He spoke of the tremendous work his foundation had done during the Kashmir earthquake in 2005 (at that time it was fresh in memory); he spoke of the Indian government not giving him a visa to do disaster relief and philanthropic work in India. He spoke of his tremendous dependence on his wife.

He did not speak from any prepared text, he did not always complete his sentences, his agile and alert mind racing faster than his speech could cope with.

The organizers gave all of us a copy of his biography.

Today, when I saw my social media feed flooded with tributes to Edhi, I remembered the trip to Pakistan, Karachi, Indo-Pak cricket of the 1970s, and, of course, Edhi.

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