Where have all the heroes gone?

Where have all the heroes gone?

During the turbulent years leading up to our Independence, there were those who inspired thousands of Indians to take up the struggle for freedom.

From the stirring tales told by my parents and my wonderful English teacher (a freedom fighter himself), it was clear that they had many heroes to rouse them to action. Mahatma Gandhi was just one of the leaders who had the power to galvanise and transform the lives of thousands.

Even after the assassination of Gandhi in 1948, a number of leaders continued to give Indians hope, although disillusionment over political bickering among the frontliners was just beginning. The now-familiar issues of nepotism and corruption were beginning to cast their long shadows over the country, but there were still people like Vinoba Bhave and J B Kripalani who were making a difference. Bhave, in particular, touched many hearts with his Bhoodan and Sarvodaya movements. Others like philosopher-politicians Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan and Chakravarty Rajagopalachari bridged the gap between the hurly-burly world of politics and that of the intellect. Scientists C V Raman, Homi Bhabha, hockey wizard Dhyan Chand, athlete Milka Singh, to name just a few, motivated people during troubled times. Our film heroes were larger than life, no shades of grey, as they fought against impossible odds and triumphed.

Our childhood years were filled with the JP student movement, spearheaded by Jayaprakash Narayan, against the corrupt government in Bihar at the time. My elder brother’s generation talked of nothing else but this, and it was under JP’s leadership that the first non-Congress government took office in New Delhi in 1977. We had our share of sports heroes: Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi, the legendary spin quartet of B S Chandrasekhar, E A S Prasanna, Bishen Singh Bedi and S Venkataraghavan; hockey wizards Ashok Kumar, Zafar Iqbal, Govinda; runner Sriram Singh, badminton ace Prakash Padukone, and many more of them.

Interestingly, all these heroes belonged to an erawhen India did not have television transmission. We saw many of them in action in newsreels shown in cinema halls before the actual films were screened, or heard about them through radio commentaries and newspaper reports. But the advent of national television in 1982 did inspire an entire generation with Kapil Dev, Sachin Tendulkar, P T Usha and others sparkling with stellar performances.

With private channels exploding out of the skies, the same television medium has largely contributed to a distinct downswing in the collective morale of a nation, with a plethora of reports on match fixing, doping, and political scams beamed on 24-hour news channels that are digging deeply and continuously in order to attract the maximum number of eyeballs. To be fair, and to not shoot the messenger, it is also the same TV channels that are trying to make politicians accountable. But nobody seems surprised anymore when scandal after political scandal erupts.

It is as if everybody has resigned themselves to hearing the worst. Is there anybody left today that evokes the same respect that those who fought for our freedom commanded? And if cricket provided a welcome relief in the past, match-fixing scandals quickly ensured that even this mass entertainer had fans turning into cynics. Even our escapist fare of films is too real for comfort, with the hero often playing shades of negative grey and not hesitating to play dirty.

True, there were sparks of inspiration when Dr A P J Abdul Kalam occupied the Rashtrapati Bhavan, and lakhs of youngsters across the country saw hope in this boatman’s son rising to become the First Citizen. Students eagerly waited to hear him speak, and his speeches often ended with exhorting youngsters to take a pledge to root out corruption in India.

It would seem to be an idea of thepast, this inspiration of having a hero to look up to, and it would seem to be something that this tech-savvy generation might not have the time or the patience for. But look at what happened when Anna Hazare took his fight against corruption to New Delhi. Suddenly, venues across the country that supported his action were flooded with youngsters. Hope, it seemed, had been lit again. Although the Anna movement stopped short of becoming political, it did indirectly result in the surprise of AAP forming a government in New Delhi.

Anna has now teamed up with Mamata in West Bengal, leaving millions in disbelief; he had been stridently opposed to turning his anti-graft movement into a political one. AAP is training its sights on the Lok Sabha. How both these two entities affect national politics will be known when the dust settles after the elections. But the huge reaction to Anna Hazare and Arvind Kejriwal’s latest actions — cynicism, optimism, pessimism, anger, disbelief, disappointment and resignation — all clearly point to a society that is looking for a hero.

The last few weeks — indeed the last five years — of Parliament were hardly inspiring. Who expects to find a hero at this stage, you might say. Heroes have to be chosen carefully, for they represent the hopes and aspirations of a country. I personally feel that deep down, we are all scared that any hero who comes up might crumble into someone who will be revealed to have feet of clay, and so in self-defence, we have all become cynical naysayers. So, do we need heroes at all in today’s world, you ask. If you put your hand on your heart, I think the answer will be ‘yes’. And now, in these troubled times, than ever before.