“The implication: if you’re truly a legend, you should have had the grace to have died.”
What if Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan had lived past his 48 years? What if this man blessed with a divine command on music had been given enough time to finally falter and fail, like his peers, mere mortals that they were? What if his discography had not ended at Night Song – that brilliant album that defies description – but had continued an eventual fade into mediocrity? What if he had been allowed a few years more to disappoint his ever grateful, constantly amazed fans? Would his legend still be as portent as it is today?
Very likely, yes. Even if the following years had been mediocre, the greatness achieved before had been enough to last a lifetime or two. But what his untimely death did was to stop us from witnessing the inevitable spiral that must come to visit even upon the best of us. There he remains in our memory, a legend forever at his prime; his voice unfaltering, his music evolving. And these are the legends that outlast the rest – the ones where our heroes do not get ravaged by age.
Cultural constructs have grouped the aged into three compartments. There is the depressed and silent gaffer, who is befuddled at the speed at which the world changes and perplexed at how he has been rendered useless. This stereotype is more likely to be the product of western societies. The other compartment is populated by the wise sage, all knowing and erudite, who is always ready to drop a well timed and succinct nugget of philosophy into the lap of the idiotic youth. This stereotype is more likely to be the product of eastern societies. Finally, there is the less known stereotype of the spirited old people – who do not fit into what we have come to expect of old age, so we disregard them entirely. Whichever group the elderly belong to, they themselves would perhaps be the first to acknowledge the universal truth that humans have an aversion to watching their youth flee. The cosmetic surgery industry alone is a monument to our desire for the illusion of everlasting vigour.
If we ordinary folks are ill disposed to becoming senior citizens, then decline is an option we steadfastly refuse to our idols. All those that do become old are granted a begrudging title “living legend”. The living part is added on almost as an accusation. The implication is that if you are truly a legend, you should have had the grace to have died. If you insist on living, then do so in obscurity so that we can admire the perfection of your previous body of work without the ghostly spectre of your diminished real self hanging around. Was not Mehdi Hasan just as divinely blessed as Nusrat? What do we remember of his later years? Narratives of poverty and ill health, mixed with mild indignation at an uncaring government? Where were the tributes to his talent, the accolades to his genius? They were replaced by news packages on his inability to pay for his medical troubles. Few talked about the angelic voice lost to strokes. A singing phenomenon was deconstructed before our eyes into the sum of his failing organs; liver, kidneys, muscles, heart.
The cost of fame is well documented. The intense scrutiny that public figures are subjected to ends only in their deaths. The lesser they live, the less chance they get to expose their human failings. Today, nobody wants to dwell on why Madam Noor Jehan sang all those forgettable songs in the later part of her career. No glowing write ups mention why she chose to dabble in music unworthy of her status. For us she is the queen who gave life to Faiz’s words. The later renditions picturised on a writhing Reema have been exorcised from our memory.
Not all tales have a beginning, middle and an end. Not all histories conclude to a logical end. Not everybody gets the chance to live out a long life. An abrupt end without the chance to live up to its full potential is devastating. When we mourn death at a young age, we mourn the loss of a life not lived yet. But when a luminary dies young, they transcend the tragedy. Their future is imagined to be full of even more achievements. Their life is presumed to have continued on an unsustainable trajectory that incorporates no lows. Thus by ending where it did, their life is chronicled in gold, the tarnish of failure kept forever at bay. We listen to stories to get to the end. But if the story stars our real life heroes, then it best conclude at the middle. The ending we will write down ourselves – an eulogy to their everlasting perfection, a visceral commendation of their immortality.