First it was the largest Indian state of Rajasthan that ejected Jawaharlal Nehru from its school textbook in the first week of last May, and then the Haryana government scrapped a chapter from a Class V textbook, which profiled political personalities of India. In the last week of last month, Tripura allegedly eliminated Mahatma Gandhi from the Class IX history textbook, although it includes chapters on Adolf Hitler, Karl Marx, the Russian Revolution, the French Revolution, the birth of cricket, and many other subjects. A mood change is sweeping some parts of India, where the erstwhile stalwarts of its history are being dropped like hot potatoes.
And that proves the futility of fame. Last March, the Oxford students marched against the statue of Cecil Rhodes, the 19th century businessman and politician in South Africa, because he symbolised racism and colonialism. Right after the US occupation of Iraq, frenzied crowds fiercely pulled down Saddam Hussein's statues like some house of shame. Granite figures of Muammar Gaddafi rolled on the Libyan streets before and after this one-time Big Daddy was captured and killed.
Larger-than-life statues of Vladimir Lenin were knocked down in former Soviet Union and allied countries after the fall of communism. A giant 62-foot tall statue of Lenin that stood over East Berlin was cut up into more than 100 pieces and buried in a sandpit by a city that wanted to forget its communist past. History is rife with examples when today's heroes became tomorrow's zeroes, consigned to oblivion.
Those who are overly enthusiastic to find a place in history often forget that history isn't enthusiastic to keep them there. Nothing lasts forever, and history, if anything, is a register of that fluidity keeping record of the fluctuating fortunes of rulers, revolutionaries, and reformers. The irony of history is that it eventually changes those who change it.
If we remember Socrates, Plato and Aristotle today, or if we still draw inspiration from Leo Tolstoy or William Shakespeare, some of the everlasting names that have survived the wash of time, it's because they, like flood-proof houses, stand above rising tides. Fame has its pecking order in terms of who is remembered how long. Some last for days, others for years. Fewer people last for decades, even fewer for centuries.
But ultimately, everyone is destined to be erased. Those who are forgotten already tell others that they should be ready to be all but forgotten. Prophets are remembered longer than reformers, who are remembered longer than politicians. Inventors have more shelf life than businessmen, who these days share the limelight with movie stars and sports icons.
American artist Andy Warhol was a leading figure in the visual art movement known as pop art. He included the words: "In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes," in the programmme for a 1968 exhibition of his work at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm, Sweden. An older version of the same concept in English is the expression "nine days' wonder", which dates at least as far back as the Elizabethan era.
Thus, the lust for fame goes back in time. But how far back does it go? There was a time when warriors were idolised, the conquest of land being the primal desire of mankind after hunting and gathering. Explorers came next, the heroes who discovered uncharted courses and unknown landmasses. Philosophers, reformers, and litterateurs, who influenced minds and imagination, rose to their glories during the Reformation and the Renaissance.
The stage in the late 19th and much of the 20th century was shared between nationalist leaders and inventors. From the second half of the 20th century until now, the scene has been dominated by businessmen and entertainers. Meanwhile, hunger for titillation of senses and instant gratification has replaced thirst for knowledge and depth of wisdom.
Fame is now as instantaneous as the famous. It seems unlikely that in the future it will last as long as it did in the past. And instead of being abiding, the state of being widely recognised is going to become a seasonal phenomenon. Recognised one year, one will be forgotten in the next.
It's said that the world, except for family members, forget a person within the first twelve hours of his or her death. Fame defies that power of instant erasure because the more accomplished ones live longer in the hearts of their followers and admirers. In that sense, fame is like deodorant: Those who sweat more get to wear it longer.
Sun makes wind and wind makes wave. Ordinary lives are ripples that die as quickly as they form, turning into waves only if the wind blows long enough. All waves break when out of depth, so do famous lives. They eventually go out of context, out of mind, and finally, out of sight.
The writer is the Editor of weekly First News and an opinion writer for The Daily Star. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.