Last week, my cousin, a college professor, lamented the fact that his students lacked the idealism of his generation. He had seen the fervour of the 60s and 70s and while the long hair and the beards are gone, he couldn’t understand why his students are so focused on ‘getting rich, getting ahead’.
Yes, this generation has access to the things we could only dream of (blue jeans, Bic pens, deodorant!). But what this generation doesn’t have are role models. Smartphones and cars on easy EMIs, but not a hero in sight.
With corruption charges across parties, dynastic politics, an opposition sunk into rigor mortis, and a government stricken by a perception of paralysis, politicians are the anti-role models. Do we have a replacement? In Delhi, Team Anna, once the great middle class hope, seems split wide open. Accusations are traded on TV and there is open disagreement on core issues like whether names should be named. Elsewhere, a battle between the former army chief and the defence minister has, in addition to the Adarsh scam, eroded confidence in the army. In Mumbai, Shah Rukh Khan rages against a security guard at Wankhede Stadium, an ugly exchange replayed on national networks with more bleeps than words. When regret arrives during an interview to NDTV’s Barkha Dutt, it comes with qualifications: there had been a communal angle (never spoken about so far) and he was only apologising to his kids anyway.
Khan says he is not a role model. “I want to keep acting,” he told Dutt. “I did not set out to be a role model because role models are people who play a role.” Yet, regardless of what Khan wants, he is idolised. When he scraps with a friend’s husband or smokes during a cricket match, his fans get the message: no big deal.
Perhaps the fault lies in who we — and I include a worshipful media — choose to prop up as ‘role models’. An actor who reads someone else’s script, an athlete who plays cricket for a living or an industrialist on a magazine’s rich list should not automatically become society’s lodestars. We confuse achievement with heroism and we should ask what it is that we are celebrating. Is it success, celebrity, wealth or is it some inherent human quality that touches us? Does the current adulation of Viswanathan Anand, for instance, spring from our understanding of his game and genius, our respect for his innate decency or does it come from the fact that he’s brought us sporting glory? When we say that NR Narayana Murthy is our role model do we wish to emulate his bank balance or his philanthropy?
We don’t lack personal heroes — a father perhaps or a young woman who won’t be beaten into submission. We hear enough stories of the triumph of the individual spirit from ordinary people, people whose names we forget as soon as we read them. But we do not have an agreed upon public hero. And because we live in such contentious and fractured times, getting everyone to agree on such an exemplar is impossible. One person’s demigod — pick any name, Baba Ramdev, Arundhati Roy — is another’s villain.
Worse, we are now just as quick to demolish these constructed gods as we are to build them. A year ago, we could see no wrong with Anna Hazare; now we see conspiracies and secret alliances. A year ago, we wanted nothing less than a Bharat Ratna for Sachin Tendulkar; now we make silly remarks about his hairstyle.
I have written earlier that society needs heroes because they tell us how to live, they give us something to aspire to and they bring us in contact with our core values. But perhaps we also need heroes to reassure ourselves that we are still capable of goodness, that we still have values we want to pass on to our children.
Once we had Mahatma Gandhi, BR Ambedkar, Vinoba Bhave and Mother Teresa. Today, well, kids just want to get rich, get ahead. Can you blame them?
Namita Bhandare is a Delhi-based writer
The views expressed by the author are personal