Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Heroes : Higher than Mountains

The New York Times published a touching tribute to Sir Edmund Hillary titled” When A Mountaintop Might as Well Have Been the Moon” around the same time as articles began appearing in the Indian press about who should get the coveted Bharat Ratna this year. It started with Advani suggesting that the award be given to former Prime Minister Vajpayee. Other names soon tossed into the ring were those of Jyoti Basu, Kanshi Ram and Karunanidhi. Of course the name of Jyoti Basu soon dropped off because the communists it seems do not accept awards from the state. In the midst of all this Hillary’ legacy leaving foot prints all over the world about what it means to be a hero might have some thing to say.

India has awarded the Bharat Ratna to two non citizens – Badshah Khan, the Frontier Gandhi and Nelson Mandela and a naturalized citizen –Mother Teresa. Perhaps Hillary was not an apt candidate for the award as his life was more closely woven with the people of Nepal than India but his life provides us with indications about who makes a leader and who makes a hero. The words are not necessarily synonymous.

Hillary wasn’t just a mountaineer who got lucky and struck gold when others before him, just as skilled or more had failed. Expeditions to the Everest began in 1921 and obviously with each passing year, the topography was better known, knowledge of human behavior at high attitudes better understood and so if it is a matter of sheer bravery that we are talking about, we should salute the likes of George Mallory who came before. Mallory disappeared during a snow storm during the climb of 1924 and his body was discovered seventy five years later in 1999. Speculation continues to this day as to whether Mallory and his companion Irvine climbed the mountain before they died.

What made Sir Hillary an icon was that he was not just another daring man attempting to do what others had tried to do and failed and possibly died in the process though that itself might have been noteworthy enough. Hillary’s valor is not defined by that one victorious ascent but rather with what he did with his life thereafter. He was no sahib who came, conquered and left having had his adventure in the hills. He established and sustained a lasting bond with the Sherpa people of the Himalayas and through his Himalayan Trust was occupied in shaping the lives of Sherpas throughout Nepal. The trust was involved in the construction of several hospitals, schools, airfields and medical facilities over many decades. That it was not a one sided condescending white man dictated development is evident by the fact even in the midst of a very politically resurgent, nationalistic Nepal, Nepali Sherpas lit lamps and offered special Buddhist prayers in monasteries for his reincarnation. Hillary incidentally was knighted shortly after his climb in 1953 and 43 years later received, Britain’s highest award for chivalry, The Order of the Garter for not just that one climb but his enduring contribution to humanity. Members of the order are restricted to just 22 at any given time with vacancies occurring only by death and if comparisons are appropriate, more exclusive in its scope than the Bharat Ratna.

Coming back to the Bharat Ratna. I recently read about another candidate for the Bharat Ratna- Sachin Tendulkar, because he is a sports icon and is a legendary cricketer like or even better than Don Bradman and also a younger man compared to Vajpayee and Jyoti Basu and the others. Sachin surely is all that. But I think of Sir Edmund Hillary and pause. For it is not how high you climb or how many times you climb that really matters.

What matters is what you do with the rest of your life after you have reached the summit and come back to earth. What you do as you walk up is your achievement. What you do when you come down is your legacy. The same is true with sportsmen, politicians, and everybody.

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