Half of Two Paisas, first published in Italian in 2007, was later translated into English by Lorraine Buckley and published as a slim paperback this year (2013) by Oxford University Press and launched at the Karachi Literary Festival.
Edhi’s autobiography, A Mirror to the Blind, (narrated to and compiled by Tehmina Durrani) introduced Edhi to the authors of this book. Their account of the extraordinary mission of Abdul Sattar Edhi and Bilquis Edhi necessarily includes an account of those ‘deliberately excluded’ millions ‘deliberately included’ amongst the living by the Edhis. The presence of such huge numbers of marginalised persons in a single couple’s life points to two extraordinary lives, and definitely the Edhis, who live very simply, are an extraordinary couple.
Lorenza Raponi and Michele Zanzucchi have not attempted to replicate Durrani’s work. In any case, points automatically raised by an autobiography are restricted by the narrative and are different to those that can be raised by biographers. This is the authors’ account of the Edhis, their work, and country. The authors mention in their introduction to the book that because they have a different ‘interpretive yardstick’, their descriptions and opinions ‘inevitably mirror the context’ from which they come.
The Edhis can be studied from various angles; social, religious, philosophical, and economic, which has been done here. Each examination poses many questions about Pakistani society. These questions are not treated as incidental to the narrative, but as equally the point, such as:
What kind of society allows such a large segment of its people to be so neglected by itself and the State, and why?
This point is illustrated with a striking analogy of a motorboat and a pod of seals and cubs: the motorboat roars through the peaceful pod, terrifying the seals and scattering them. The sudden upheaval separates the vulnerable cubs from their mothers.
What, in the Pakistani context, ask Raponi and Zanzucchi, is the motorboat that is causing this fear? What leads to such separation and neglect of its most vulnerable members from and by the mainstream?
Could the violent colonial history of Pakistan, and the country’s fragmentation at various levels have replicated at the individual level?
Half of Two Paisas is equally about Bilquis Edhi, a woman as remarkable as her husband. This is only partly because she is a product of a society where women are defined (with notable exceptions) by their silence.
It is mostly because of Bilquis’ irrepressible sense of humour, courage and humanity in the face of conditions that would defeat most women anywhere and her simple faith in the relationship of a husband and wife as equal partners in a common cause.
Bilquis and her husband have inculcated their own values into their four children. Faced with the death of her son Bilal, their daughter Kubra designed and built with her own hands a small brick and mud school dedicated to Bilal. It forms part of a village, a shelter for orphans run by the Edhis.
The book goes through the Edhis’ achievements, their amazing ambulance service and orphanages, homes for the elderly, destitute and mentally and physically disabled, schools, and vocational centres, and animal shelter. Along the way it touches on myriad issues that the people promising to create a ‘naya Pakistan’ (new Pakistan) today would do well to heed. These issues share one thing in common: the endless chain of abuse and neglect in this society. Edhi’s quote to military dictator Zia-ul-Haq above meant that the absence of social justice cannot permit peace...or a ‘naya Pakistan’.
We are taken to places we are otherwise unable to visit such as Edhi’s bedside while he recovers from an illness. We are introduced to the ever resourceful Dr Anwar Kazmi, Edhi’s personal secretary and paan chewing wizard who takes us through the book, and Dr Kazmi’s faithful assistant Abdullah Sahib.
Perhaps, best of all is the insight into Edhi’s views on religion, his on the one hand somewhat perfunctory attention to the rituals that so absorb our countrymen, and on the other absorbing and indiscriminating interest in the welfare of humanity. Edhi’s belief in Allah is defined by his compassion for all His creatures, human and animal.
The English translation is politically incorrect in places. The translator, a professional, ought to be aware for example that the term ‘malformed’ is better replaced by ‘disabled.’
But overall, you come away with a sense of gratitude that by God’s Grace it is the charity of Pakistanis that is mainly (and paradoxically) responsible for these achievements, that and the immense and extraordinary commitment of Edhi and his wife, Bilquis.