I'm in search of a hero. By hero I don't necessarily mean someone of the male persuasion; anyone with heroic qualities that I can look up to and point my children towards will do. Anyone at all — male, female or transgender; Indian, Ethiopian or Belarusian.
My search received new impetus after the hero-dom of Steven Slater, the flight attendant who jettisoned himself via emergency chute off his aircraft following an altercation with a passenger. Slater was arrested and released on bail a few hours later. By then he had already become a 'working class hero' with two lakh followers on Facebook. Television, reliable barometer of public perception, has plans for a reality show.
That Slater's halo had dimmed by week's end tells us something about the nature of instant heroism. Yet, regardless of whether you see him as a hero or felon, one thing struck me and that is our desperate grasping for heroes in this unheroic age.
Society has always needed heroes: a plus-sized Everyman who stretches the limits of human possibility and embodies our best values. Because he stretches the boundaries of what we are capable of, he points to our limitations but he's also the person we aspire to become.
In mythology, heroes taught society how to live. Today's hero is a different creature, often confused with the famous and, worse, the infamous. Every year, MTV issues a list of its icons. News channels and media organisations name an 'Indian of the Year', sometimes it is Anil Ambani, at other times it is Shah Rukh Khan or M.S. Dhoni, even baby-faced Bollywood actor Shahid Kapoor.
Our icons seem to fall into three categories: business, film and sport. Who we choose as our icons says something about us and our values. If Slater is your hero, you need to ask why. What deep-rooted frustration with our mechanical lives did he show his finger to? If it is one (or the other) Ambani brother, we again need to question why. What is it about them that we wish to emulate in our own lives? Is it their bank balance, or is it something more? When people look up to a Narayana Murthy, the middle class boy who made good on the strength of hard work, do we see in him hope that we too can become successful like him?
Film stars are paid to play roles. Even when they're not doing films or endorsing products, their choreographed public relations machinery rarely allows for spontaneity. To prop up someone who plays parts for a living, spouting other people's lines, is to erect a fallacious god. What do actors really stand for? And why do we make them our icons? Sportsmen, in particular cricketers in India, are gods anyway. But they are gods for as long as they are at the top of their game. Public adulation is fickle, even if you discount match-fixing, super-sized egos, and performance at the cost of endorsements.
That's not to say that we don't have heroes. We do. But all too often they go unsung. That woman who runs a school for under-privileged children, that man who provides basic medical care for society's deprived, those men and women who fight for the rights of those who do not have a voice: tigers, forests, tribals — they are the real heroes in today's India. The media don't tell their stories, there is little reader or advertiser support for them. Yet, their stories need to be told, and told again.
We need to tell them now when cynicism and corruption have become a part of the rhythm of our lives and when courage and sacrifice no longer hold the same value for us. We can no longer believe in our political leadership, so we heroworship celebrities with ephemeral fame. We confuse achievement with heroism, and we demand perfection from our icons, ready to dump them at the sight of a first wrinkle.
Above all, we need to tell the stories of our heroes because they help lift our eyes upwards. Right now we see a pedestal, but it is empty.
Namita Bhandare is a Delhi-based writer
The views expressed by the author are personal