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Make the deaths of these greats matter

So many good people are dying in quick succession. First, it was Wangari Maathai, our very own iron lady of legendary courage. Next Steve Jobs passed on, leaving an army of bereft customers in his wake. And now another man goes leaving a gaping hole in so many lives: Jagjit Singh, India’s renowned singer and composer.

I have taken all three losses very personally, as all featured very strongly in my life. Wangari was the protector of our environment, the lady who understood the gifts of nature and the need to protect them. She saved our trees and parks from evil developers and politicians. Who will save them now?

Steve Jobs is perhaps the only CEO to be mourned by presidents, by hundreds of millions of his customers – and even by the competitors whose businesses he flayed. Do you know any CEOs who can pull that off? I have written many times on this page of the importance of bringing art and artistry into business. Steve Jobs was the one man who believed in that ideal, and made it a reality in everything he did. Who will I talk about now?

Jagjit Singh is perhaps less well known in these parts, but to his many followers his loss is equally difficult to bear. He excelled in the “ghazal” – a lyrical rendering of traditional Urdu poetry. But, unlike his forebears, he did not practise his art behind closed doors in rarefied company; he threw open the doors to this lovely art form to the common people. He is the reason I can speak and understand Urdu – I learned it by own efforts simply to gain a deeper understanding of his songs. And those songs have stayed with me in every phase of my life in a veritable sound affair. Who will I listen to now?

It is when people leave that their impact and legacy becomes clear, and I have spent many hours pondering on the loss of these three forces in my life. One thing is very clear: when great people pass on, others must take over their mission. That is the current of life; one wave fades, others come in to take its place.

It seems impossible to replace these greats, but replace them we must. Do we not, after all, want to protect the natural beauty of this land? Then we must have many Wangaris stepping forward to do it. Do we not want products that give us joy and utility in equal measure? Then many students of Steve must assume the mantle. Do we not want music that has lyrical depth and soaring melody? Then the singers who value that purity must be nurtured to excel and create those echoes.

If we fail in this legacy, we will have a city that is denuded and an ecosystem that is fatally damaged. If we fail, we will have to endure tedious shelves of bland, grey, uninspiring indistinguishable products. If we fail, we will have to listen to tuneless, superficial and hyper-commercialized noise masquerading as music for the rest of our lives.

I don’t want that, and will fight to prevent it happening. Will you? The message in the unwritten wills of Wangari, Steve and Jagjit to every human is this: do you want to make a difference or not? Do you want to just consume in this life, or produce something bigger than yourself? Do you want to lie down while things corrupt and degrade and diminish around you, or stand up and stand for something?

The world around us is only as good as we make it. It is not enough to follow others and hope someone somewhere does something. There is a time when you and I have to stand up to be counted. When the icons of your life start to go, that time is now.

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