Heroes in a Democratic Age
The history of the ‘hero’ as a category of description in popular imagination is surprisingly fragile and yet also complex. It is fragile because a hero is born from a marriage of circumstance and willful action, and in turn is mid-wived into this world by a fleeting rearrangement of what is considered possible. Call it fate if you will, or an act of God, or merely an improbable fruit of a branching tree of probabilities — when our present world, one filled with all too familiar cause-and-effect, splits to reveal another world, one that is improbable and yet whose shape we all to familiarly discern. A world wherein a 1970s MIG 21 can shoot down an advanced F-16 jet in a dogfight. In due course, this story of improbability accretes around this event a halo of awe.
This idea of a hero is held together in public memory by a carapace of sentiments which is cemented by an insinuation of greatness and is ultimately baked dry as a fact by the very act of repetitive narration. All the while, inside of this collectively architected reality lies the truth of the heroic action, which is obscured for all but the hero himself. The ability to transform heroic actions into a recognizable social category of the ‘hero’ has depended on the type of society in which the action takes place, the means of memorialization available at hand, and the abilities of this portrait to withstand criticism. Traditionally, what is meant by a ’hero’ is itself complex: is it one who wages valiantly against the die of fate cast by the Gods (say, Karna in the Mahabharata) or one so extravagantly blessed by the Gods that his mere presence is an event (say, Achilles in the Illiad). Irrespective, in our secular age too, much like the Age of the Epics, our intuitions about the heroic are still born from the wellspring of violence. We’ve seen this time and again — from Somnath Sharma at Badgam in 1947, Arun Khetarpal at Bara Pind in 1971, Vikram Batra at Point 4875 in 2001, or Sandeep Unnikrishnan at the Taj Mumbai in 2008.
In ancient Greece, a world where violence was frequent and often eulogized — we find that narratives of Homer and those inspired by the epic Illiad tend to have three characteristics. One, all heroes acquire thier heroic stature from war. (Our contemporary ideas of thinking where social workers who fight poverty or doctors who cure cancer qualify as heroes doesn’t qualify in ancient Greece for the title as a ‘hero’). Two, the hero often faces an existential choice: he could live a long, middling life or a shorter one filled with glory. (In the life story of Sri Adi Sankara, his parents too are a posed a similar question — do they prefer a mediocre but long lived child or a singular, resplendent son who would be short lived?) And third, there is an uncertainty in others about how to think about the hero — is he to be venerated or merely respected? The heroic mode of being, traditionally, has been as much a question framed by the actions of the individual as it is one about the responses of others to that action.
In contrast to the Greeks, the taxonomies of the heroic mode in Indian dramaturgy, and particularly Bharata’s Natya Shastra — where the protagonist is classified Dhirodhatta Nayaka, Dhiralalita Nayaka, Dhiraprashanta Nayaka etc — is preoccupied with representations of an underlying psychology. The hero is a means of embodying a complex set of emotional valences which is constrained by social prescription and emotional maturity. In neither of these traditional understandings does the understanding of being heroic come without psychic costs. Upon coming face to face with his enemy Priam, all Achilles could do was admire him; he “watched his handsome face and listened to his words”. In that penultimate moment before executing his eternal enemy Karna, even the great Arjuna balks for a moment — his humanity burbles past the barbarisms of that holocaust in Kurukshetra. The hero, irrespective of the narrative burdens of greatness, must face upto that which he must destroy in order to be ascend to greatness.
In contrast to these traditional understandings of the hero as a complex being, in our modern media narratives, the ‘hero’ is a place holder, into which an inchoate attachment and highly particularized ideas of ‘patriotism’ pours in. This patriotism on pay-per-view cable is reducible to specific set of actions which allows for a convenient demarcations of good and evil, an empty portrayal that has little interest in the everyday lives of the individuals who live inside a warrior-culture, who are often unthinkingly consecrated as heroes.
In her illuminating essay on the Illiad, the French philosopher Simone Weil writes about ‘force’ that permeates all instances of violence. She defines this ‘force’ as an intervention which disfigures and ultimately changes any human into a thing, into a phantom approximation of the living. It is this ‘force’, this dehumanizing urge, that informs all hero-narratives in our media. Our understanding of the heroic is progressively limited to the ability to kill or avoid being killed. This anemic and ahistorical understanding of what it means to be heroic implies that the anointed heroes of today will cease to matter by tomorrow’s news cycle. More troublingly, it also means our understanding of the security forces, their struggles and strifes — all become irrelevant in the relentless need to manufacture new heroes.
a version of this appeared in The Hindu on March 9th’ 2019.