Who, or what, is a hero? How do we define heroism? We give out medals, adore them, even take them on as our role models, but do we pause and ask what exactly is it that we are adoring. Is it the person? If so then what kind of person would we typecast as a hero? For that matter, is there any such thing as a ‘typical hero’? Is there any checklist, physical or mental, that has to be crossed off before a person qualifies as a hero? The most common quality that we usually attribute to a ‘hero’ is bravery. Soldiers dying on the battlefield, people protesting a repressive regime, they are all heroes, that is the burden that society has bestowed them with. But is that all? Many young infantrymen displayed exceptional bravery while fighting for Nazi Germany. Tales of their heroisms, and courage resound even today, but while we unflinchingly use the word ‘heroism’, not one would ever accord them the status of ‘Heroes’. Brad Pitt pretty much summed up how we remember them 60 years later, when he called them “the foot-soldiers of a Jew-hating mass-murdering maniac”. So do we take it that to be a hero, you not only have to be brave, you also have to fight for the right side? And it’s the winner who writes the history books, so what does that tell us? What if the Nazis had gone on to win the war? Say they went ahead and conquered all of Europe and Africa, and say Hitler died the very next day. And to the helm came a ruler who not only established full human rights, and peace, he did that across his global empire. Would there have been a Balkans, or a Desert Storm? Africa for one would have been definitely better off, pretty much anything is better off compared to how they have spent the last half-century. So in this Utopia, would we remember the American and British troops who stormed Normandy as heroes? Or the foot-soldiers of a corrupt and violent way of life? Memory is short-lived. Alexander of Macedonia, indisputably a hero. Tell that to the villages that smoldered in his wake. Genghis Khan, revered as a god in Mongolia even today, how would the people he raped and killed in his wild rampage feel if they heard that?
But bravery in the battlefield is only one of many kinds. Courage comes in many forms and so do heroes. M.K. Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr., random Egyptian on the streets a year back, brave people who went up against a whole system. What they lacked in skills they made up in moral strength, going up defenseless against a powerful foe who only needed to say the word and they would have been dead the next instance. Humans, a species as obsessed with worship, as with optimism, thus fused the two together, valor with moral strength, fighting skills with incorruptible good intentions to create the concept of God, or their modern day pop culture counterparts, comic book superheroes. Who as child did not believe, or at least wish, that Superman or Phantom were real? What really is the difference between a college student who studies nothing and goes to the temple before the exams, firmly believing, or hoping, that ‘God will save him’, and the 3 yr-old who jumps from his balcony with full faith that Superman will catch him before he hits the ground?
But till gods and superheroes come back again (or out of disguise, we know you are there!), ordinary mortals will have to do. And thus the whole weight is for the chosen few to carry. A soldier wins the Param Vir Chakra, and the country goes gaga about him. How did he not feel scared, they ask. How would it be to run straight into machine gun fire, without feeling the slightest tinge of fear, they wonder. A recurring theme in every war hero's testimony is that they never ever felt like heroes. They would call the people they served with heroes, but never themselves. They would say they felt fear stronger than anything else they had ever felt. They would say every action they did, was for their own survival and for the man next to them, that thoughts about country and strategies and armies were not even in their minds. But we choose to ignore that. In our movies they cry out the country’s name before dying, keep the national flag in their pockets. Because they are our mules. Theirs is to carry this burden that they have earned. Because a hero is more than a person. A hero is a belief. A belief that our world can be saved. A belief that our world is worth saving.