Once I was reading an article in a magazine which had a round up of the year’s major events. There was a collage of achievers. Out of all the varied images, the face of a famous beauty queen was blocked by the magazine’s logo. “Look what they’ve done to her face,” I said to my flat-mate. He looked at the mutilated figure wearily and exclaimed, “God bless them! I’m sick and tired of that face.”
I stopped and thought for a moment. I found that I agreed with him. Though this face was beautiful and gorgeous (declared the most symmetric face in the world by one magazine) even I was weary of it. I guess a lot of other people felt that way too. And to think I was so ecstatic when she won an international beauty pageant. Go India go! So I guess today a celebrity, or a hero or an idol is like a tube of toothpaste. You have to keep changing it every now and then.
I wonder. Did the same thing happen thousands of years ago? Were men who won the ancient Olympics treated like stale cakes a few years after they won their laurel wreaths? Did the Romans get tired of talking about the greatness of Caesar? When Shakespeare was mentioned in the 17th century England, did someone say, “Oh, no! Not him again!” Probably not!
Historians may disagree. But considering the conditions, population and developments of the present century, the achievements of many current greats rank next to, if not greater than, those in the past. Both shared the same strengths and weaknesses. Both fought against the same type of odds. Both changed lives. Yet our present day heroes fall from grace much too easily. In contrast their counterparts in the ancient world carried an aura of invincibility right up to (and much after) their deaths.
Things have been changing for centuries, but perhaps the advent of the daily newspaper drastically altered equations. The media plays the biggest role in snatching away a person’s aura. A man and his achievements are two separate things. In the good old days, the public saw only the cloak of achievements and the actual man, who might be very weak in his personal life.
In contrast, today the media puts a person’s cloak of achievement in front of the public giving a massive overdose, which leads to the overkill. Then paradoxically at the same time it slowly pulls down the cloak showing the world what an ordinary mortal he actually is. This “double action” seems to be a great favourite of the media.
Imagine Emperor Ashok being scrutinized by the world’s press thousands of years ago. He might have read headlines like, Ashok massacres the Kalingans, Thousands killed in Kalinga conflict, Why did Ashok commit Genocide?… Then there would have been the hounding of the reporters, the analyses, investigative reports… I can’t even imagine what our 24-hour news channels would make out of events like that. The pressure would have been far too much for Ashok and he would have renounced warfare (earlier than he did in real life) Now that would have been viewed as the victory of the free press and not his greatness. Such a scenario would have unfolded with every great event and every great person. Think over it. There would be a hundredfold history books and most of them would not have been in favourable light about our greats. You wouldn’t view history the same. In fact you would be viewing history with the same glasses that the media puts in front of your eyes today.
This is the essential difference. While ancients looked at their greats from afar, we look at ours from too close a distance. While Old Greats are read only in academic history books (which are treated with great respect), New Greats are seen in cheap newspapers and even cheaper news channels, which put everything in the light of the mundane.
The further in the past you look, the greater the men appear. But that may not hold true in the future with the way things are going.
© Sunil Rajguru