Their real human deeds and whom they really were, are lost to time. The stories left behind are exaggerated and unreal, but they keep the memory of these people alive.
When Lee Kuan Yew passed away, he objected strenuously to having a statue erected in his honour. He cited Ozymandias, the self-aggrandising pharaoh with a penchant for erecting monuments to himself. Lee Kuan Yew did not want to be that sort of person. I wonder though, that if this had been 10th century China, whether Lee Kuan Yew would be deified by Singaporeans and prayed to as a deity. For the next thousand years and more, effigies of LKY would be erected wherever Singaporeans set new roots. Mazu and Bao Sheng Temples have been built in Taiwan, Hong Kong and China. These are wide-ranging posthumous globe-trotters and everywhere they travel, they are venerated celebrities... though long dead.
The most interesting thing though, is that these deities were not important people in their life times. There is no temple in Singapore dedicated to any of the past emperors of China. Those were venerated in life and they had to themselves build monuments to themselves... get historians to document their deeds... in order for us to remember them today. People like the Goddess Mazu were nobodies at birth. People like the Goddess Mazu left behind a never-ending fragrance of love in the hearts of all Chinese people... and it is a love that is not depleted even today because the Hock Thian Keng Temple is a working temple with many devotees.
I don't believe that she is a Goddess anymore than I believe Cleopatra is divine. Yet, I cannot help but marvel at that never broken thread of veneration that honours the essence of her memory.
Which is better? To live on as a name etched onto a monument or to be carried in the hearts of your people and their descendants and their descendants' descendants as ripple upon ripple upon ripple through time. That must be the ultimate achievement, no?
What must one do to become a ripple that never dies out?
I now see old people from the pioneer generation and hear some of their stories. There are people who lived full and productive lives like Ong Teng Cheong, Lee Kuan Yew and Kwa Geok Choo. Old they might have become. Quite useless they might have been in the years leading up to their deaths. Yet, we felt that we owed them the very best of care and the greatest respect. There are others who have been good wives/husbands and mothers/fathers, making the most of their abilities and resources to love and provide for their families. There are stories of single mothers with 9 children who eked out a living to raise all nine. Today, they sit in a place of honour, on a wheelchair, amidst a crowd of descendants. Poorest of the poor these mothers may have been in their youth but their ripples caress 3 to 4 generations of their descendants.
I also see old people who have lived their entire lives in self-indulged luxury. Men who abandoned their families to gamble and cavort only to return when old to claim money and demand the best of medical care from the resources their family can afford. Women who abused their children and left a lifetime legacy of hurt and pain in their hearts... and continue to do so with emotional blackmail. There are old people who leave behind nothing but pain.
Of what use is a life lived like that?
I hope that when I die, my own children will remember me fondly as a beacon of light, a warm embrace, an inspiration and love. I don't think I am of the calibre to ripple through time, but at least I hope to ripple through the lives of my children and theirs.
This is the King of Bhutan on a visit to a remote village 3 days walk from the nearest road. This one's ripples will move through time.