Heroes & villains

Mar 9, 2014
Reality check

Have we become a jaded nation, suspicious of placing role models on pedestals? Or, are we making heroes out of non-entities? Sheila Kumar tries to look beyond the cynicism that pervades the day.I’m conducting an experiment. I start with my neighbourhood, then move in concentric circles to the world at large. This experiment consists of one question I ask the people I meet.

Who is your hero?

The answers come thick and fast, sluggish and slow, off the top of the head and well considered.

“I don’t have a hero. They are all frauds.” This from Venkatesh, all of 14 years old.

“No heroes for me. I used to admire Arvind Kejriwal, but he promises more than he delivers,” says Meena, 46.

“What do we need heroes for? We are doing okay without any heroes, thank you,” says Imtiaz, 24.

“I used to have role models, heroes. Then I started hearing things about them, each and every one of them. All my heroes turned out to have feet of clay,” muses Ajit, 43.

Sharada, 38, begins by asking, “Heroes? In this day and age?” Thinking for a bit, she says, “I’m not sure I have a full-on hero. I admire different qualities, different strengths in different people.”

I then turn to the Internet, ask a random selection of people the same question. The answers do not surprise me any longer.

Mahatma Gandhi, says one, then adds that ‘the whole experiment with celibacy thing’ put him off.

Chetan Bhagat, respond at least three people. However, it is not his writing skills they admire, but his ability to make big money.

Anna Hazare, say two respondents, and then get into an online argument about how he frittered away everything he had going for him. A few lines down and it is clear Anna Hazare is no hero to either of the two.

The current Pope, says one man, then feels impelled to add that he knows next to nothing about Pope Francis.

The answers also run the gamut of the frivolous: Salman Khan for his six-pack; Amitabh Bachchan for his voice; Deepika Padukone for her gams.

Hero, as defined by the Oxford Dictionary, is a person who is admired for his courage, outstanding achievements or noble qualities.

An unassailable need

This brings one to the question: do we need a hero?

Here is Mathew George, 51, on the subject: “Well, we need reference points to avoid being self-referential. Being self-referential is like being dead, no change, whereas reference points which are high up and at a vantage point, broaden one’s point of view. Heroes can be those reference points. Heroes can cause us to aim higher and raise ourselves to be the best we can be. So yes, we do need heroes.’’

Niranjana Menon, 22, echoes the sentiment. “I think we need heroes,” she says. “The ones who leave you with some magic or hope to aspire to do something worthwhile. The world is so steeped in apathy that you need people who push you out of that zone. Like they say, you need to be ‘bewitched, bothered and bewildered by life again.’ Only a hero you look up to can make you do that.”

So, it’s not a paucity of heroes actually, that the nation is suffering from. People have their heroes, but they largely seem cavaliers with caveats. We are, consciously or unconsciously, setting up transitory heroes, focusing on one aspect of their personalities, their abilities, their success stories. These are heroes of the moment.

More jeers than cheers

Then again, that is not necessarily a bad thing. It’s a cynical wind that is blowing through our nation. Battered and buffeted as we are by scams, scandals, acts of violence, acts of injustice, we feel collectively let down. Let down by our politicians, our bureaucrats, our judges and godmen. Let down by the system. Condescended to by those who have garnered more money, more power than us. Ignored or shooed away by those we turn to for help. Our government has failed us, a large section of our media has failed us. The very fabric of society is fast changing, we are grappling with the business of living. What price heroes, then?

Also, all our holy cows have stumbled and fallen, one by one. Everything we believed in, everything we still, secretly or otherwise, believe in, has come under siege. As we see the depredation and degradation of core values all around us, we withdraw, pulling cloaks of skepticism and pessimism around us. Cynicism has ridden in where heroes fear to tread.

That journalist with an admirable ability to use words for change in society? We hear that he’s preyed upon a young colleague, and worse, rumours abound of slush funds.
That stout pillar of broadcast media? We find out she’s in cahoots with tainted politicians.

You admire a sportsperson, only to read one day that he’s being hauled up in front of the ethics committee.

The writer whose works you so like? Turns out she’s involved in a scam that involves bulk buying of her books to push them up the bestselling charts.

Time and again, our heroes stand exposed. After a while, it becomes easier not to have a hero. It becomes far easier to jeer than cheer. After a while, even as you admire an individual, part of you is waiting the inevitable denouement that you know will follow, sooner or later.

There is a pendulum momentum at work here. A people with few heroes tend to deify those few heroes. See how we elevated Sachin Tendulkar, admittedly a great cricketer, to the status of a god? Worse, how we lavish praise on people for doing their job well? What we are actually doing is, revealing how starved we are of people to look up to.

Hero for a day

Then again, it’s a whole new world out there now. It’s a whole new world in India itself. A full 65 per cent of the population is under 35, which means a section of society is finding itself having to adjust to those younger to them, of having to keep up with gizmos that come with built-in obsolescence, to live in a time when the loud and lewd seem to be inheriting the earth. When you need to flaunt it, flash it and brag about it, even when you may not have it. When attention spans, linguistic skills and good manners have all given way to expedience, convenience.

The argot has changed, the currency of the old culture is no longer usable. The Young and the Restless. The Bold and the Brash; these are now sobriquets sans irony. The exemplars of the day are people whose star dazzles for all too brief a time, then plunges into complete darkness. After all, nothing has staying power any longer, so how can heroes survive? And some of those people are so mediocre, the very act of making them heroes is an act of unintended irony. The Page Three heiress who works in her father’s Fortune 500 firm. The playboy who squanders his father’s ill-begotten riches. The foul-mouthed actors of television reality shows.

It stands to reason that our obsession with trivia may well throw up trivial heroes. Also, we are torn between disparaging our heroes and building improbably high pedestals for them, clean forgetting that heroes are human too and we need a more balanced view of them.

This is the Age of Offence as Salman Rushdie put it, everyone is ready to take offence at the drop of a phrase. This is the day of the lynch mob, on social media and on the street. The problem is, even as we storm all the citadels that offend us, we are, wittingly or unwittingly, throwing our heroes over the ramparts.

A society needs its heroes. People need men and women of sterling qualities to look up to, to point out to their children, to try and emulate. Otherwise, we are just savages huddling together in the Thunderdrome, that bleak, gladiatorial arena first depicted in the Mad Max III film, and then replicated in many futuristic, apocalyptic films and books.

So, let us pick our heroes, wisely or otherwise. But pick them, we must.

We don’t need another hero? Oh yes, we do.


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