Monday, September 15, 2008

What people want to be forgotten for

Former India President A P J Abdul Kalam had a great idea for the recent special edition of The Times of India brought out under his guidance: Why not ask politicians, social workers, scientists, artists what they wanted to be remembered for? “It’ll make them think,” he said, “and who knows it might make them also change the course of their lives. For instance, if a politician is busy making deals, he might wonder if he wishes to be remembered only as a wheeler-dealer. Put all the responses on a page and let people read. The readers will be able to tell who is sincere and who is not.”

Unfortunately, in answering such a question the truth can get heavily skewed in favour of a personal bias, for who wants to be remembered for negative actions and failings? (Though in all fairness, conservationist Valmik Thapar did say he would like to be remembered for his failing to save the wild tiger even after 30 years of trying.) Of the 29 respondents only two didn’t want to be remembered: politician Pramod Mahajan (“I don’t think I have done anything worthwhile for which people should remember me”) and actor Konkona Sen Sharma (“I don’t want to be remembered for anything. I haven’t done anything yet”). But then they were perhaps being a
little too unassuming. The rest in general wanted to be remembered for some real or perceived integrity.

But would that really be serving President Kalam’s purpose — this focussed showcasing of positive traits or even, in its absence, humility? How would Hitler have responded? Would he have
mentioned his mediocre watercolour attempts? Or, Mussolini? For making trains run on time? May be the President should have told the Times to ask instead: “What do you want to be forgotten for?”

Now there, either the truth will really come out (“For
being a bloody bigot all my life, what else”) and people will know the person was being genuinely honest (and perhaps remember him all the more for it). Or if it doesn’t, or dribbles out in fake confessionals (“For sometimes stealing towels from hotel rooms I was staying in”), they’ll know the person was lying through her teeth (and perhaps forget her all the more for it). So let’s see now, how would Mother Theresa have responded? Would she have said something like, “For even appearing to be discriminating between religions and thus stoking a controversy in the minds of some people”? I don’t know, just a thought.

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