Hard as it is for a columnist to accept, there are no words to describe the great Abdul Sattar Edhi. Better yet, there is no real way to pay homage to his selfless efforts, in service of the poor and the destitute. In a nation of corrupt politicians, saviour Generals, and machismo Judges, our vernacular is unaccustomed to the likes of Edhi Sb. – not that we can find his ‘likes’ in this day and age!

Notwithstanding the recent obituary faux pas of our Foreign Ministry, as this great human being struggles between this life and the next, ailing from kidney failure, it is only necessary that we attempt to recount and reflect upon some fraction of his tireless work for this country, and her people.

Born in 1928 in Bantva, in the Gujarat, British India, Edhi Sb. and his family migrated to Pakistan in 1947. He was only 19 when his mother became paralysed, and later grew mentally ill and died. In his autobiography, “A mirror to the blind”, Edhi Sb. recounts how this personal experience and loss caused him to develop a fierce belief that life must be spent in “the services for the old, the mentally ill, and the disadvantaged people”.

In pursuit of this ideal, Edhi Sb., and his wife Bilquis, collected whatever little saving he had from working as a commission agent in the wholesale cloth market of Karachi, added to it a few donations that they had gathered, and started the “Edhi Trust”. This institution (for Edhi Trust is nothing less than an institution in Pakistan) started from establishing a free dispensary in Karachi, and eventually grew to the largest ambulance service in the world! The Edhi Trust, today, operates free old people’s homes, orphanages, clinics, maternity homes, mental-health institutions, homes for the physically handicapped, blood banks, orphanages, adoption centers, mortuaries, drug rehabilitation centers, shelters for runaway children and battered women, schools, nursing courses, soup kitchens, a 25-bed cancer hospital, free legal aid and medical support to prisoners, free bathing/shrouding services to unclaimed dead bodies, as well as relief work in natural disaster situations, refugees, sufferers of drought, fire, and flood. With offices across the globe, Edhi Trust has run relief operations in Africa, Middle East, the Caucasus region, Eastern Europe and even the United States, where it provided aid following the New Orleans hurricane of 2005.

Importantly, hailed as one of the best social welfare service providers across the world, Edhi Trust operates entirely on non-commercial, non-political, and non-communal funding sources, and does not discriminate in providing services to individuals of different religion, color, class, creed or sect. In this regard, even away from emergency services, Edhi Trust now indulges in socio-economic relief work, including providing of free technical education to the poor, free technical knowledge and skills workshops, religious education to children, consultancy on family planning and maternity services, free blood and plasma to the disadvantaged people, tracing of missing people, and organising free marriages for underprivileged girls and boys.

And all these services have been provided, without formal government help and donor funding, solely through public donations and the tireless efforts of Edhi Sb. and his wife – a couple that lives a life of marginal comfort itself.

How do you pay accolades to such a man? How do you put into words his compassion and selflessness? How do you describe the countless ‘slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’ that he (and his wife) must have had to suffer along the way? How do you articulate the sort of shame that it puts the rest of us to?

As Edhi Sb. lays, bed-ridden, victim to the inescapable mortality of human life, it is important to ask ourselves what makes him so special as to have been able to achieve all this (and more)? What part of his DNA – better yet, what part of his soul – distinguishes him from the rest of us? What makes him better? What lessons can we learn from his life and his work? And while we may not be able to put into words the collective debt that the people of Pakistan owe to this angelic human being, what can we do to better serve his (living) legacy?

Perhaps the answer to these questions rests in recognising a simple truth about Edhi Sb.: that the story of Abdul Sattar Edhi is not one of social welfare or humanitarian support; it is not simply a successful case study in the NGO sector. Instead, his story is about the indomitable human spirit, ascending to greatness, against all odds. It is an odyssey of perseverance and hope. A chronicle of being able to feel the collective suffering of humanity as one’s own pain; of being able to see the joy of another, as a personal victory. It is a tale of an individual’s ability to shed mortal fears and carnal desires, in order to unite with the singular soul of truth – Al-Haq! And in this way, the story of Edhi Sb., while humanistic in nature, is no different than the tales of the great mystic saints, who were able to achieve fanaa (annihilation), and within it, find baqaa (perpetuity).

The love and passion of Edhi Sb. outweighs his success. Unlike typical non-profit sector, he has not been interested in any flashy fund-raisers. He carried out no self-aggrandising PR programs; no bidding for international funding programs; no coveting of national limelight; no political ambition; no populist desires; no saviour delusions.

While the rest of us chased after illusions of a ‘Naya Pakistan’, or were busy celebrating some lord-saviour Chief Justice, or chased khaki shadows and political mega-scandals, Edhi Sb. quietly went about his task of alleviating the plight of the destitute. While we all debated the abhorrent Panama Leaks, Edhi Sb. expanded his ambulance network. While we pointed fingers at each other for who is to blame for the latest terrorist attack, Edhi Sb. pick up the dead-bodies and rescued the injured. While lesser mortal stayed consumed in pursuit of material success, Edhi Sb. actively embraced poverty.

Not once complaining that the road is too thorny, or the sun too scorching.

They say that God lives in small things. Edhi Sb., it seems, found that God, and His grace. And in the wake of this discovery, the rest of us, with one eye on our gaudy life goals, can barely find the words to describe it.