Saturday, April 17

The impermanence of things

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Roger Federer, the tennis champion, has been ruling the courts with such conviction for over a decade that he appeared to be unbeatable. Indeed, he carried into the courts not just his racket and his silky skills but an aura of invincibility, and his opponents were mentally beaten before they even struck the first ball.

Then it happened, in 2008 he lost in the semi-finals of the Australian Open to a young pretender, Novak Djokovic, then to another young gun, Andy Murray, in the Barclays Dubai Championships. Not long after a player with a curious name of Mardy Fish, one who ranked nearly 100 places below in the world tennis ranking, sent the great champion packing. Yes, the mould has been broken; no longer can Federer add the air of an almost godlike certainty of victory on top of his formidable skill. Suddenly he appears to be very human, and every player in the top tennis circle fancies his chance against the once invincible champion. Now, Federer is merely a player to be wary of rather than one to be feared.

Serena Williams is also a tennis phenom and matches Ferderer in Grand Slam wins. However, while Federer brought on to the court an air of graceful formidability, Serena exuded intimidating aggression.

But whatever is the respective demeanour of these two champions, the end is nigh. No one can challenge the greatest champion of all, Father Time. Indeed as far as the eclipse of these two great sports personalities is concerned, it has been written on the wall, ‘this too shall pass’. The change of a situation demands a change of attitude. And Federer, to his credit, takes this inevitability with graceful equanimity. He has always been (as one sportswriter penned) ‘humble in victory and gracious in defeat’. Serena, on the other hand, epitomised the words of the great Welsh poet Dylan Thomas (1914 –1953), ‘Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light’.

Serena is not alone in this stubbornness. For thousands of years kings, emperors and leaders have tried their humanly best to deny the impact of Father Time. They plan, prepare and even pray for permanence. Though they accept, albeit reluctantly, that they cannot live forever,  they still try to create monuments and dynasties that they believe could challenge the march of time and tide of change.

In the year 221 BCE when the Prince Zheng of the House of Qin in the Kingdom of Zhou, through cunning alliances and outright military excellence, defeated the other six kingdoms during the Warring States Period in China and brought them under his total control, he created a new title, Huang Di. One version of the story says that the word ‘Huang’ meant ‘great’, while the word ‘Di’ referred to the Supreme God in Heaven, creator of the world. By joining these two words for the first time, he created a title befitting his feat of uniting the seemingly endless Chinese realm Thus he took the title, Shi Huang Di, which could be translated as ‘the first or commencing emperor’. Since the Chinese believed their empire encompassed the whole world, literally he was Qin the First Emperor of the Whole World.

Qin Shi Huang Ti went on to strengthen his empire by building an efficient administrative and military system. He unified China economically by standardizing the units of measurements such as weights and measures, the currency, the length of the axles of carts (so every cart could run smoothly in the ruts of the new roads), the legal system, and so on. The emperor also developed an extensive network of roads and canals connecting the provinces to improve trade between them and to accelerate military marches to pacify recalcitrant provinces. Indeed he instituted a phase of development which transformed then the erstwhile shifting alliance of bickering warring states into one unified Kingdom. He declared that he had built a dynasty that would rule for a thousand years. As it turned out the Qin Dynasty barely survived a dozen years after his death in 210 BCE. It crumbled to palace intrigues, treacheries and civil strife which led the way to the establishment of a new dynasty, the Han. So what appeared to be intransmutable too succumbed to the law on change.

Perhaps the English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (792-1822) captured this fact most succinctly in his poem ‘Ozymandias’

I met a traveller from an antique land

Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone

Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,

Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,

And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,

Tell that its sculptor well those passions read,

Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,

The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed,

And on the pedestal these words appear:

“My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:

Look upon my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay

Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away.

The poet met a person who travelled to Egypt. The traveller related that he saw in the middle of the desert the ruin of a statute, of which only the two legs remained standing in the sand, and nearby lay the broken head. From the expression on the face of the statute and, more pointedly, from the inscription on the pedestal it was obvious that the King was a man of ruthless power and arrogance. He appeared to challenge the gods themselves with the words: ‘My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings: Look upon my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’ Yet for all his boasting, he time too past, for “Nothing beside remains. Round the decay of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare, the lone and level sands stretch far away.”

This poem reminds us of the teaching of the impermanence of things. Even things that are at the pinnacle of greatness today will prove to be ephemeral and in time would be just a faded memory. The great sports champions, the mighty rulers, the powerful leaders, for them and for all of us ‘this too shall pass.’