Fabio Paolo Barbieri (fpb) wrote,

Mark Twain was wrong, of course

The vulgar and superficial joke ascribed to him - "Heaven for landscape, Hell for company" - just came back to my mind as I heard, in quick succession, of the passing of three lovely and wholly different human beings, each completely unlike the others except in being safe candidates for Paradise.

A few days ago, Sir Bobby Robson died after a long illness. Millions of football fans in and out of England felt that they had lost a friend. This miner's son from the coalfields of County Durham had risen in his profession till he coached England and several leading European teams, and of course, that must involve the occasional use of force - giving orders and talking down people, forcing players to do things they may not want to, disciplining the obstinate. Twenty or thirty well-paid, widely popular young men in their twenties are not managed with a feather. But that was never the impression he left. From the first to the last, everyone who remembers him used the same word: enthusiasm. He loved football like a child: something that came out irresistibly in his very presence. One cannot help but remember him with a sparkling grin, his deeply lined face and his lovely thatch of silver hair alive with enjoyment and vitality, with that shine that simply cannot be counterfeited. And with all that, he was what coaches should always be and rarely are - a paternal presence to his players. The strange footballing idiot-savant Paul Gascoigne, whom Robson managed better than almost anyone, said quite simply that he had just lost his second father. Never was a sporting knighthood better given and better deserved - "for services to football," indeed. In the deepest sense of the word, he served both his sport and his country, and served them well. He ennobled rather than abandoned his working-class origins, expressing himself cheerfully and vigorously in the dialect of his mining ancestors, but carrying at the same time a dignity and palpable honesty. He always dressed very well, not out of pretension - he was the least pretentious of men - but out of respect to his role and the position he had achieved. He was the manager, the man in charge; he had to look it. And his players always responded. If his last job - manager of his own favourite team, Newcastle United - was at best a mixed success, it was not his fault, but the fault of a disastrous set of owners who have brought a once-great team to its knees; but the fans understood, and never blamed him. He passed with the love and affection of everyone in Britain who knows what football is.

On the same day, the news came that former President Corazon Aquino had passed away; and that her whole country had dressed in mourning. Now it is difficult to imagine a more different person - in terms of background and culture - than Sir Bobby; she was a lady born and bred, from one of the richest families in her country, educated in a top convent school and married to the son of a former Speaker of the Philipine Parliament. Even when her husband courageously took on the cause of democracy against the tyranny of Ferdinando Marcos, I do not imagine that she had any more idea than to be a good political wife, helping and loyally supporting her husband - even when he had to go into exile for his health - he was threatened with severe lead poisoning, in bullet form, if he kept bothering the tyrant. It was when the lead poisoning punctually materialized that his widow's quality became manifest. Let us be clear: Corazon Aquino would have been a great human being whether or not she was ever called to political office; she would have been a first-rate woman, justly loved by those who knew her, even if she never stepped out of her husband's shadow. The difference is that now the whole world got to see what she was made of. With an impressive mixture of grace and firmness, she took her husband's place at the head of the "people power" movement ("people power" is a literal translation of "democracy") and led it to complete victory. Nobody who ever saw it will forget her words when, standing before a joint session of Congress (the parliament of the Philipines' own former colonial power), she stated her pride in standing there as the leader of a free people. It was a lesson that went around the world; and through the eighties, one tyranny after another fell to the forces of unleashed people power, until the oldest and greatest - the Soviet Union - vanished like a nightmare in daylight. And it all had started with one charming, courageous lady in Manila.

My friend kikei, in turn, reports the passing of yet another good person. The head of the religious school (Madressah) back home, Alhaj Aliraza Mulla Nanji, affectionately known as 'Ada' to everyone in the community, has passed away. he'd been sick for a while, in and out of hospitals due to cancer... I feel a little bit numb. While my experience in the Madressah wasn't wholly positive, I remember that at least this man was one person who was reliable, who ran that institution with the utmost integrity and who, under the strict demeanour, was gentle and loving and cared for every child who passed through the place. As a community member he was loved, and he's one of the few people who was exactly as he appeared to be, no secrets or false faces. I almost feel weary now, because even though I wasn't related to the man, it's equivalent to losing a grandfather, that's the kind of person he was to everyone in the community, regardless of age or status... It's a sad, sad day for our community. Today, even though I'm teaching in a secular institution, I'm teaching for him, in the hope that maybe I can make some sort of a difference, not with the skills I teach but just as a person in some of my students' lives.

These are three people we are very likely to meet in Heaven, if we ever get there. And they could not possibly be more different: a miner's son turned sporting hero from North England, a Philipine aristocrat of largely Chinese descent, and a religious leader in a diaspora Shia community in Kenya. But Twain's view of Paradise - based in a provincial kind of pessimism which knew nothing better or more religious than the narrow-minded, uniform folks at home - is wrong in a deeper sense; that one could not possibly imagine being bored with the company of any of these people. Whether it was with the enthusiastic Sir Bobby, or with the courteous and well-bred Corazon Aquino, or with Ada, so stern on the outside, so affectionate and concerned with everyone on the inside, one just knows that these are the sort of people whose company one would seek, enjoy, and regret the ending.
Tags: the passing of heroes
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