Bela was no dainty belle
If you’re a young ‘liberated’ woman who has managed to bypass those grindingly righteous ‘gender rights’ seminars and have figured out that being a ‘feminist’ (how’s that for ‘female objectification’?) won’t get you a discount at any Fab India outlet — but that being a woman entitles you to ‘happy hours’ at a South Extension bar on ‘Ladies’ Night Thursdays’ — you should be thanking one woman: Bela.
You probably can’t even register the name. And yet, more than any other iconic role model, it’s Bela of the bell-bottoms and green kurta (kurtis were still gender-neutral those days) that symbolised the modern Indian woman that was yet to come. Bela was the ‘love interest’ of the desi comic book hero Bahadur created by Aabid Surti in 1978. Bela, like Indrajaal Comics in which she appeared, disappeared when the publication folded in 1998. (She is slated for a comeback this year on a new ‘Bahadur’ website.)
Unlike the ‘trophy girlfriends’ of comic book heroes of those pivotal post-Emergency, Angry Young Man times — Phantom had the ditsy Diana; Archie had the blonde and ‘blonder’ combo of Betty and Veronica; Amar Chitra Katha heroes, (barring the ‘Rani of Jhansi’) were mostly surrounded by brainless demi-apsara sorts — Bela was more ‘sidekick with benefits’. And she had dollops of attitude, certainly more than the young Ravi Shastri-looking Bahadur. Together, Bahadur and Bela would kick dacoit, smuggler, gangster ass.
She was proficient in martial arts (prefiguring today’s knack for hitting the gym) and was ‘whole woman’. Not only was she in a live-in relationship with Bahadur — and, mind you, this is small town north India that she and her boyfriend inhabited — but she was also very much rooted in her Gangetic plains surroundings and didn’t require to be westernised to be ‘liberated’. There are episodes in which she snapped back at village elders when panchayat head Mukhia and police officer Sukhiya were in a spot. No khap panchayat claptrap for her.
Bela would have found it deeply patronising if any culturewalla tagged her as being ‘as tough as a man’ (unlike another icon Indira Gandhi, who was called ‘the only real man in her cabinet’ as a compliment). Her response to Bahadur every time he would want to take her out was the lovingly caustic, “Neki, aur puchh puchh” (That’s a good thing and you want to keep on bloody asking me?) is delightfully coquettish.
For a country where the (misplaced) perception of a woman being modern was to be westernised, where the Pill didn’t set a generation’s bodies free, where no one burned bras, or dissed men by coining convoluted slogans that involved the image of bicycles and fish, Bela was the original spunky woman, an invisible role model for all those Belas out there now.
(Mondy Thapar is a Delhi-based writer)
*The views expressed by the author are personal.