I met Bilquis sahiba in the spring of 2016. During my early months working as a full-time journalist, the publication I worked for was making its Mother’s Day issue. I decided to interview Bilquis Edhi following her role as a mother to hundreds and thousands of children. My colleague and I were to see her at the Edhi Centre in Mithadar, the place where Edhi sahab began his humanitarian work and Mrs Edhi began to oversee the maternity and adoption matters. At the time, Edhi sahab was seriously ill and was admitted in SIUT. She had one foot in the hospital and the other at the centre managing its rigorous operations. Despite her husband’s frail condition, she made time for us.
My colleague – who was to photograph her – and I found her seated on a wooden bench near the reception. Bilquis sahiba’s eyes looked tired, but she gave us a warm welcome. She rested her specs on the bridge of her nose, while a slightly wrinkled linen dupatta was draped on her head. I managed to find a space next to her on the same bench. Amidst her staff reporting to her about matters of the centre, visitors coming in with never-ending queries, and the frenzied noise of Mithadar’s busy streets piercing through my ears, I managed to start the conversation.
Chatting with Bilquis sahiba was a lot like chatting with my own dadi. I found their ways of storytelling were indistinguishable. While Mrs Edhi did not put a time limit to our meeting, I wrapped up the interview roughly within 21 minutes because she was supposed to visit Edhi sahab at the hospital. In that brief window of time, Bilquis sahiba spoke to me like my friend who had been waiting to tell all the stories I’d have missed while we were apart.
Since the interview was focused on Mother’s Day, my questions revolved around Mrs Edhi’s bond with her own mother, her relationship with her own four children and her eternal love for those at Edhi Foundation.
“I miss my mother a lot. She loved me a lot. No entity is greater than a mother in this world,” she said. “My mother brought us up, educated us and got us married. She was a teacher in India and continued to teach here as well.”
Mrs Edhi mourned the loss of her mother during our conversation. “Our mother never let us feel our father’s absence. We belonged to the middle-class, even then my mother would wash my face with Yardely soap,” shared Bilquis sahiba, on how her mother managed to provide them with a comfortable life.
“Later, my mother took care of my children, she would drop them to school and bring them back, she would cook parathas for them and fulfilled their wishes. My children considered my mother as their own instead of me. I would have never been able to work alongside Edhi sahab if it wasn’t for my mother’s support,” she added.
Bilquis’s love for her mother can be gauged by the fact that while Edhi sahab had prepared her grave next to him near their centre in Jamshoro’s town Nooriabad during his lifetime, she chose to be buried next to her mother in the city’s Mewa Shah graveyard.
Meeting Bilquis Edhi remains one of the most cherished, most memorable experiences of my life as a journalist. She was someone we needed for an eternity. It would possibly take another lifetime for the nation to witness greatness similar to what Bilquis sahiba embodied.
Her own bond with her children – two sons and two daughters – remained friendly throughout. She said that her children never kept any secrets from her. “We never had a typical relationship that parents usually have with their children in our part of the world. We lived a simple life,” she added.
Bilquis sahiba shared that she was careless in her younger days, but becoming a mother changed her. “When God makes you a mother, he instils selflessness and compassion into you,” she said. When talking about the children being cared for at Edhi Foundation and their endearing way of calling her ‘ammi’, Bilquis sahiba’s eyes gleamed. “I love when these children call me ammi. Most new-borns are given into adoption. Roughly 15,000 to 16,000 children have been adopted from the Edhi Center so far and many girls have been married.”
Toward the end of our conversation, Mrs Edhi insisted that mothers should always care for their children and keep an eye on them. “Parents should keep a check on their children and mothers are particularly responsible for this because the entire society depends on how its children are brought up.”
But just like all good things come to an end, the chapter of Bilquis Edhi’s life ended too. On April 16, 2022, the 74-year-old philanthropist breathed her last – merely six years after her husband’s death. With her passing, she left the many orphan children of Edhi Foundation orphaned again. When Edhi sahab passed away in 2016, Pakistan mourned his loss. But Bilquis Edhi’s presence was comforting, especially to the children who only knew Edhi Foundation as their home. There was hope that their mother was still around to care for them.
Edhi sahab was ‘abbu’ to them, but Bilquis was their ‘ammi’. When compared to a father, the status of a mother in our culture is considered to be the epitome of compassion and selflessness. What Bilquis did for the children of Edhi Foundation can be very well assessed by outpouring of praise she has been receiving from around the world.
Since Bilquis Edhi’s passing, I’ve come across several words of praise for her life as a philanthropist, her achievements. But one anecdote has particularly stood out among a sea of tributes is of Rabia Bibi Osman, who lives in New York and calls herself a ‘proud Edhi baby’. She wrote an elaborate post on her LinkedIn account to not only honour Bilquis Edhi, but also channel her grief upon her passing. “28 years ago I was abandoned in a baby carriage at the Edhi Orphanage located in Karachi, Pakistan. You found me, you named me after your mother Rabia Bano, you forged my identity, and then you gave me a home. Because of you today… I am a somebody, I have an identity, and I have loving parents to call my own,” she wrote. Rabia hailed Bilquis Edhi as a hero and “a mother to so many orphans (like me) and a powerhouse for humanity. Losing Bare Abbu (Abdul Sattar Edhi) was tough, but your loss has made me feel orphaned again today.”
She was not the only child whose life was touched by Edhi’s compassion and love. Geeta, whose real name is Radha, a speech and hearing-impaired Indian girl, crossed the border at the age of 10 or 11. She was brought to the Edhi Centre as a lost child and was cared for by Bilquis Edhi. It took a good six years to find Geeta’s biological mother in 2015, and Mrs Edhi herself took Geeta to India to reunite her with her family. Geeta’s return to her country was proof that Edhi family’s dedicated and indiscriminate service to humanity surpassed borders.
To me, meeting Bilquis Edhi remains one of the most cherished, most memorable experiences of my life as a journalist. She was someone we needed for an eternity. It would possibly take another lifetime for the nation to witness greatness similar to what Bilquis sahiba embodied. Pakistan has, undoubtedly, lost its face of compassion with her passing.