When I first saw Dr Ruth Pfau sitting under an old banyan tree in Manghopir, it reminded me of a childhood story told by my great grandmother, Babi.
Babi in her youth was the prettiest girl in her hometown of Banaras, and so was taken away by djins. She was saved by an old woman who sat under a banyan tree along the Ganges, surrounded by the outcast widows, young and old.
“She was Devi Maa, her world revolved around these bald women in white saris, otherwise despised by everyone in town. She was their psychiatrist, their spiritual leader and, above all, their only hope,” Babi would narrate.
That image came to mind when I saw Dr Pfau sitting and knitting under a banyan tree in the hilly area of Manghopir, a poor neighbourhood of Karachi.
In full-sleeved shalwar kameez with a shawl wrapped around her, she was surrounded by women leprosy patients as outcast as the widows in Banaras.
The clawed hands and feet, the wounds, the deformities didn’t faze Dr Pfau. She shared meals with them, shared jokes with them in her broken Urdu, and they called her Amma.
This was my first field assignment as a trainee reporter. I had just entered the world of journalism, though the newspaper I was with, The News, had not yet launched. This was some 26 years ago.
Dr Pfau’s own journey started during World War II. “I saw the bombardment, witnessed the cruelties and inhumanity. I left.”
Leaving behind her hometown Leipzig in former East Germany, she crossed the border into France to study medicine and went on to join the Church as a nun.
“I knew by then that my life belongs to humanity and I had to work to end the sufferings,” she recalled.
Dr Pfau arrived in Karachi on route to India in 1960, and was horrified by what she saw at the Leprosy Colony off Macleod Road, now known as I.I. Chundrigar Road.
“Outcast, alienated, in miserable conditions without any medical facilities, and without normal human interactions. When I saw that, it changed my life.”
She made Karachi her home and built the Marie Adelaide Leprosy Centre (MALC) in Saddar, and a destitute centre and orphanage in Manghopir.
“Initially, it was difficult. It was like traveling in a vast desert all alone but later, as people joined in and supported, it became a caravan and, this place, an oasis,” she told me.
Patients wanting to discuss problems with her kept interrupting our conversation. She could tell that their severe deformities and physical closeness to me was making me uncomfortable, but she wanted me to see beyond their physical condition.
“We are not focusing on the disease, we are focusing on the people (patients),” she said. “That’s how you change societal behaviours.”
She started wrapping up around sunset and scheduled our next meeting at the MALC. There was to be a wedding. An Afghan Pashtun patient with leprosy had fallen in love with a Mohajir girl who also had leprosy.
Dr Pfau approached the girl’s family and arranged the wedding. Their deformities were irrelevant as everybody danced and sang; there was immense happiness all around at the centre. I wrote about this love story for my newspaper.
She expanded her medical work, from the port city of Karachi to the deserts of Thar to the mountainous region of Gilgit Baltistan and Azad Jammu and Kashmir.
I asked her about what hurdles she faced. “No hurdles for Amma. I would cover my head and travel everywhere. They first thought I was Pashtun,” she laughingly said.
“They knew that I was there to help. They all considered me as a Pakistani rather than a German. My birthplace is Germany but my heart beats for Pakistan.”
I inquired if she had any regrets. “No,” she smiled. “If I were to be reincarnated, I would like to be in Pakistan again.”
Dr Pfau travelled extensively in Afghanistan, even during the Cold War and later during the infighting between the Mujahideen groups.
“I would travel to Bamiyan, Kabul, Jalalabad, Mazar-e-Sharif, Herat. Be it Hekmatyar or Ahmed Shah Masoud, I would cover my head, sit with them and have qahwa. They respected me. They knew I had no agenda other than serving people with medical facilities.”
The same deference was extended to her even in the whirlpool of Karachi’s politics. As one volunteer at her centre pointed out, whether it was MQM’s strikes or the Taliban networks in Manghopir, no one said anything to her. “She had a free pass,” the volunteer told me.
I remember that first interview with her for more than one reason. I transcribed and edited the interview but somehow misspelled leprosy as ‘leprisy’ and it got printed that way in the rehearsal dummy copy, two days before the launch of The News.
My city editor and mentor, late Iqbal Jaffery, gave me hell and remembered it for the rest of his life. Years later, he told my wife Nazish Brohi about it.
“Your husband has now worked for AFP, BBC, Guardian and the CS Monitor and might be a star, but when he started, he didn’t know how to spell leprosy,” he joked with her in Peshawar a few months before his death.
On August 9, when I was having my treatment at the Aga Khan Hospital in Karachi, I came to know that Dr Pfau was in critical condition and the ventilator was being removed.
I sent a bouquet of flowers to her room. I didn’t have the courage to peep through the glass to see her one last time.
I instead wanted to remember her sitting under the banyan tree surrounded by outcast leprosy patients like Devi Maa of Benaras from my childhood story.
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