The June sun beat down hard as I walked past a row of shops in the little local market. Chemist… stationer’s… grocery store… boutique… shoe shop… toy shop…
I slowed down as I always do in front of toy shops, possibly because they always bring back happy childhood memories. This one even had comic book superhero figurines in the window display.
Superman… Batwoman… the Incredible Hulk… Wonder Woman… Narendra Modi…
I stopped, backed up a bit and stared. Yep, it was him all right. Dressed in a saffron waistcoat and about half the height of Superman and Batwoman – Narendra Modi had finally taken his place amongst the pantheon of comic book super heroes.
I wondered what his superpower was. Winning elections? Creating alternative realities? Getting into the minds of the masses like Charles Xavier from X-Men?
I asked the genial old storeowner how much the figurine cost.
“Rs 700,” he said cheerfully. “The head moves if you tap it. Shall I pack it for you?”
I politely declined. Then, as an afterthought, I asked, “But if you have any figurines of Mahatma Gandhi or Nelson Mandela, I’ll take one.”
“No, we only have superheroes here,” he said, and as I went on my way, I realised the storeowner had just educated me about a very important distinction: Real heroes and superheroes are entirely different people.
The first and most obvious difference between the two is that superheroes are fictional, but real heroes are real. In every sense of the word.
Superheroes are manufactured. They are clever products of imagination. Real heroes are born out of flesh and blood and genuine struggle.
Superheroes are illusory characters who essentially denote an escape from reality; real heroes are men and women who have faced it at its worst.
Superheroes can do absolutely anything. They can repel alien invaders, defuse rogue nuclear devices in the nick of time, save entire civilisations, and routinely perform the impossible. Superhero hai toh mumkin hai.
Real heroes, on the other hand, are acutely aware of their own shortcomings and limitations and consciously work on overcoming them. They don’t try to hide who they really are. Their heroism lies in their ability to first and foremost win deep, personal victories of character in their own lives.
Another big difference between the two is that superheroes entertain, but real heroes inspire.
Also, it is interesting to note that superheroes invariably lead double lives. They are forever ducking into phone booths and donning different identities. Real heroes, on the other hand, are who they are all the time. They strive for integrity and oneness. They walk their talk and are who they say they are.
One is reminded of Gandhi’s speech to the House of Commons in England. Using no notes, he spoke extempore for two hours and brought an essentially hostile audience to a standing ovation. Following his speech, some reporters approached his secretary, Mahadev Desai, incredulous that Gandhi could hold his audience spellbound for such a long time with no notes.
Desai said, “What Gandhi thinks, what he feels, what he says, and what he does are all the same. He does not need notes… you and I, we think one thing, feel another, say a third, and do a fourth, so we need notes and files to keep track.”
Green Lantern, Spiderman, Batman, Superman, Ant Man, Wonder Woman, Thor, and now, Narendra Modi. The world is glutted with superheroes.
It doesn’t need any more. What it desperately needs right now are real-life heroes, those with deep, inner strength of character that those of the next generation can look up to and emulate.
We need more heroes like Dr Kafeel Khan of Gorakhpur who saved the lives of 60 children suffering from encephalitis and ended up being incarcerated for his selflessness.
We need more genuinely concerned citizens like Afroz Shah who successfully pulled off one of the world’s biggest beach clean-up projects at Versova Beach in Mumbai. We need journalists like Gauri Lankesh who paid the ultimate price for her absolute commitment to truth and freedom, and we need more peacemakers like Harsh Mander, who actually took his Karawan-e-Mohabbat across India and grieved with the families of those who have gotten lynched in the name of religion.
Superheroes are products of the artist’s pen who live in comic books, TV serials and movies, and who ultimately go on to become merchandise.
Real heroes are the products of tough choices and hard decisions.
Perhaps it is now time for each of us who are seriously concerned about the future of our country to start making some of those choices and decisions.
Rohit Kumar is an educator with a background in positive psychology and psychometrics. He works with high school students on emotional intelligence and adolescent issues to help make schools bullying-free zones.