Misplaced Heroes is a consequence of the act of glorifying men with swords and guns, more than praising and giving space for representation to people who make a significant impact in the world with their pens and ideas.
I don’t think we understand the importance of celebrating the right kind of heroes enough, especially in front of kids. In most cases, heroes are strong, fair, tall, armed superhumans wearing capes, and mostly male (barring convenient transgressions). Now, fiction or not, when we weave such characters into the collective consciousness of the masses, we tell people what to expect from the world, and more importantly, what to expect from whom.
I grew up reading stories in which women were mostly the ones who were being saved, “the damsels in distress”. When you read something over and over again, you grow up believing that it is but the truth. It is ingrained into the collective conscience and thereby solidifies gender roles.
So, “the damsels in distress” were imaginary characters in men’s world. These men who were suffering from a saviour complex created women and put them in complex situations only to be saved by their “knight in shining armour”. These men satiated the kind of needs their ordinary selves could not fulfil in real life. These fantasies are estranged from the truth, but it leads to so many women believing that they will be protected from the world by their “knight” who is often a drunk that can’t walk straight past 11 pm.
So many women have stayed in abusive relationships because they think their abuser will protect them better from the world: a world that they have grown up to believe is ugly (which it is). However, what they don’t tell us is that we are perfectly capable of protecting ourselves. It is not just about believing that a man will save us. Most of us even expect colleagues, friends and parents to protect us. It is not bad to expect the people we love to protect us, but it should be reiterated to us in our childhood that we are our own saviours.
No one else will save your life with the same passion as you. And this change in consciousness can be brought by unlearning and placing the right kind of real heroes who get up and make things better for themselves and the people around them.
Gujarat Files by Rana Ayyub is a piece of investigative journalism. I am no one to decide the validity of the facts in the book. For that, the Supreme Court is there. However, on my part, I could not help myself but be in awe of this 26-year-old woman who disguises herself as a Hindu, in what was perhaps the most religiously polarised state in India, to carry out a sting operation on top government and police officials over strange “terrorist” encounters and the infamous 2002 Gujarat riots.
I am 22 years old today, just four years short of what she was when she took on his brave project for Tehelka. I don’t know if I’ll ever have this much courage in life (not to forget, I still have the religious privilege in this country that she doesn’t).
I cannot even begin to imagine the amount of anxiety she must have gone through to bring out the truth she believes in. I kept thinking, while I read this book, “What if this book was made accessible to millions of children in the country?” It could be made available, perhaps, in a different format, but basically to propagate the idea of different kinds of heroes that exist and exist so bravely in our worlds. Not so. We are clueless about these heroes. Besides stirring a political scandal, I think it would inspire little girls to dream big and dream strong.
To go to a strange city all alone and attempt to save the ‘damsel in distress’ a.k.a. the democracy of this nation, is not exactly something girls are encouraged to do and yet, some who are more rebellious than others do it anyway. This paves way for everybody else. Rana Ayyub is one such example.
Sometimes, when I have anxiety attacks over the fact that I am aspiring to be a journalist in a country where the freedom of press is a joke and anybody who asks relevant questions is slammed with serious charges, I think about the 26-year-old Rana as Maithili and that gives me the strength to go on. That is the potential of real heroes.
This person, in blood and flesh, is a journalist. I didn’t even know about her until a few months ago. I got to know about her from her interview with an international organisation called RSF during the launch of the Press Freedom Index 2020. I was not surprised, since this society has always done its best to hide its boldest female voices.
In a seminar on Academic Social Responsibility earlier this year, I thought it was important to mention that in my interaction with 13-14-year olds of this country, I have realised that they have no idea about people who have brought ground-level impact in our country. They have no idea who Savitribai Phule is. There is only a small paragraph in our history books about BR Ambedkar.
We are told there are caste-based reservations but aren’t told why. In classrooms, we are not taught about the bravery of Aruna Asaf Ali. We are truly estranged from the realities of people in our country. Our academic social responsibility does not end in unlearning our conditioning but lies also in spreading what we learn through the power of words. This is our only tool in this battle against systematic oppression.
When equality and equity as concepts are not taught in our classrooms, how do we suddenly expect children to grow up and practice them? Our syllabus lacks representation. Our reading list lacks representation and even our cinema lacks representation. So, a child who grows up in such a black and white world suddenly sees different colours, it does not know what to make of it.
When children don’t see themselves in their heroes, they further alienate themselves from their potential. They feel they cannot do it because they don’t have the same colour of skin, they don’t share the same realities or even the same gender. We think only someone with certain qualifications can bring change because only people with quintessential characteristics have been shown to bring change in mass media which has been affecting the minds of people to think only in binaries. It is the need of the hour to break away from this herd mentality.
What the mainstream has been telling us is far away from the whole truth. We all have the power it needs to make the change we want to see in the world. One month back when I read The Odessa File by Frederick Forsyth, another story (although partly fiction) about a male investigative journalist going after a war criminal, I loved the story. It was interesting. But it did not ignite a spark in me. It did not motivate me because I did not see myself in Peter Miller, the white male journalist. For however brave he might be, our realities were still very different. That is the potential of relevant heroes.