When I first saw that Dr. Ruth Pfau sat under an old banyan tree in Manghopir, I remembered a childhood story told by my great-grandmother, Babi.
Babi in her youth was the prettiest girl in her home town of Banaras, and so was taken away by Djins. She was saved by an old woman who was sitting under a banyan tree on the river Ganges, surrounded by the extinct widows, young and old.
“She was Devi Maa, her world turned around these bald women in white saris, otherwise despised by everyone in the city, her psychiatrist, her spiritual leader, and above all her only hope,” Babi said.
This picture came to mind when I saw Dr. Ruth Pfau under a banyan tree in the hilly area of Manghopir, a poor district of Karachi, sat and knitted.
In full-sleeved shalwar Kameez wrapped with a scarf around her, she was surrounded by women leprosy patients like the widows in Banaras. The clawed hands and feet, the wounds, the deformities have Dr. Peacock not anticipated. 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, although the newspaper I was with was not yet started. That was 26 years ago.
Dr. Peau’s own journey began in the Second World War. “I saw the bombing, experienced the cruelties and inhumanity, I went away.”
When she left her hometown Leipzig in the former East Germany, she crossed the border to France to study medicine and went on to join the church as a nun. “I knew then that my life belonged to humanity and I had to work to end the suffering,” she recalled.
Dr. Peacock came to Karachi on the way to India in 1960 and was appalled at what she saw in the leprosy colony of Macleod Road, now known as II Chundrigar Road. “Extinct, alienated, in miserable conditions without medical facilities and without normal human interactions,” she said. “When I saw this, I changed my life.
She made Karachi to her house and built the Marie Adelaide Leprosy Center or MALC in Saddar and a remaining center and orphanage in Manghopir.
“At first it was difficult It was like traveling alone in a wide desert, but later, when the people had joined and supported, it became a caravan and this place was an oasis,” she told me.
Patients who wanted to discuss problems with her were talking to us. She could tell that her severe deformities and the physical closeness to me made me unpleasant, but she wanted me to look beyond her physical condition.
“We do not focus on the disease, we focus on the people (patients),” she said. “This is how you change social behavior.”
She began to hang around the sunset and plan our next meeting at the MALC. There should be a wedding. An Afghan Pashtunian patient with leprosy had fallen in love with a Mohajir girl who also had leprosy.
Dr. Peau approached the girl’s family and arranged the wedding. Their distortions were irrelevant, as all danced and sang; There was huge happiness in the middle. I wrote about this love story for my newspaper.
She expanded her medical work from the port town of Karachi to the deserts of Thar in the Gilgit Baltistan and Azad Jammu and Kashmir mountain regions.
I asked them what hurdles they saw. “No hurdles for Amma, I’d cover my head and travel everywhere, you first thought I was Pashtuner,” she said, laughing. “They knew I was there to help, they all looked at me as Pakistani and not as Germans, my birthplace is Germany, but my heart beats for Pakistan.”
I wondered if she was sorry. “No,” she smiled. “If I were reincarnated, I’d like to be back in Pakistan.”
Dr. Peacock traveled extensively in Afghanistan, even during the Cold War and later during the fighting between the Mujahideen groups.
“I would travel to Bamiyan, Kabul, Jalalabad, Mazar-e-Sharif, Herat.For Hekmatyar or Ahmed Shah Masoud, I would cover my head, sit with them and have qahwa. They have me respected you knew I did not Other agenda than people with medical facilities. ”
The same homage was also extended to her in the vortex of Karachi’s policy. When a volunteer in her center pointed out whether it was MQM’s strikes or the Taliban networks in Manghopir, nobody told him anything. “She had a free pass,” the volunteer told me.
I remember the first interview with her for more than one reason. I’ve transcribed and edited the interview, but somehow mistreated leprosy as “leprisy” and it was so printed in the sample dummy copy, two days before the start of the news.
My city editor and mentor, late Iqbal Jaffery, gave me the hell and reminded me of the rest of his life. Years later he told my wife Nazish Brohi about it.
“Her husband has now worked for the AFP, BBC, Guardian and CS monitors and could be a star, but when he started, he did not know how to spell leprosy,” he joked with her in Peshawar a few months before his death.
On August 9th, when I had my treatment at the Aga Khan Hospital in Karachi, I learned that Dr. Peacock was in a critical condition and the fan was removed.
I sent a bouquet to her room. I did not have the courage to look through the glass to see them one last time.
I wanted instead to remember that she was sitting under the banyan tree surrounded by expelled Leprakranken like Devi Maa of Benaras from my childhood history.