There is a constant pattern in which Indian literature has chosen its heroes with certain quintessential characteristics. These “naturally” acquired or arbitrary qualities of the heroes are unfamiliar to the masses which further alienates them from their true potential because they don’t see themselves in these “change-making heroes“.
The image of the upper-caste Hindu male with idealised values he can afford to flaunt is reiterated so many times that it is ingrained into the collective conscience and therefore the possibility of any other alternative is squarely rejected. Literature being one of the most powerful catalysts in the process of building strong institutional beliefs in us right from childhood, this is how the image of heroes is cemented into our conscience.
In a country like India, where the oral literature tradition was strong, we cannot begin to fathom how much they may have contributed to shaping the conscience of the people. Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie said, “Language is the repository of our prejudices, our beliefs, our assumptions”.
I believe, language is therefore also a fertile ground where these prejudices are transferred from one generation to another. Since the language-literature equation is permanent, this flow of prejudices is also constant.
Deconstruction of stories – fairy tales, folk tales, epics, and folk songs suggest that it is in our narratives and language that all our prejudices lie. This problem can be understood by breaking down the phallogocentric use of language that has even appropriated spaces of achievement of women or any other non-normative hero with the cunning use of language. In Subhadra Kumari Chauhan’s poem Jhansi Ki Rani, there is a refrain that says,
“बुंदेले हरबोलों के मुँह हमने सुनी कहानी थी,
खूब लड़ी मर्दानी वो तो झाँसी वाली रानी थी।“
The constant repetition of these “strongest” lines in the poem itself takes away from the queen’s greatest attribute that she, being a woman, transgressed all norms to protect what mattered to her. Rani of Jhansi has a prominent place in our folk and popular memory. However, everywhere, even though she is heroic woman, often seen as Druga and Kali, her act is still labeled as that of “masculinity” which is quite contradictory in itself.
Movies and books influence children the most while choosing their heroes and if these tools are used inappropriately and carelessly, our biases get carried on through generations, further pushing us away from an egalitarian society. Since childhood, we have grown up on fairy tales and stories where we have almost always heard about the woman being a “damsel in distress” who needs a “knight in shining armor” to come and protect her. This story has been reinstated so many times into our minds that women grow up believing they need to be saved.
In literature, women have often been portrayed as very loving beings, and there is nothing wrong with it. The demand for this attribute is so pressing that during the Bhakti period, male Vaishnava poets wrote as if they were women embodied as Gopis or Radha herself to rightly appropriate their love for their God.
However, this is a starting point of an extremely patriarchal tradition where women are aspired to love, marry, and have children. Men on the other hand treat these aspects as phases of life and are not taught to aspire for them as a single most goal. This also creates a huge imbalance and inequality in a heterosexual relationship.
Apart from this, women are also constantly asked to be chaste and the demand for this characteristic in “ideal” women heroes in literature modifies their character graph to suit the moralities of society. Even Sita had to prove her chastity twice in Valmiki’s Ramayana. Her words of subtle rebellion are interpolated to suit the “husband-worshipper” image that has been weaved into our common conscience.
This also teaches little girls to be lovers first and individuals later. Instead, if their minds are also filled with stories of women like Laxmi Bai, Indira Gandhi, Aruna Asif Ali, Irom Chanu Sharmila and the like, it would definitely change their sense of worth and self development.
This problem of misplacing heroes is not one that is problematic in its gendered aspects alone. For a very long time, the world has glorified men with caste-privilege and weapons more than it has glorified people with ideas that have significantly impacted us.
An article that tries to explore the contributions of marginalised leaders and their contributions as teachers observes – “We must not forget that the majority of the country will continue celebrating Teachers’ Day in the name of Dr. Radhakrishnan. Hence, as activists, writers and journalists, we must try to interrupt and create alternative forms of content that highlight the contributions of teachers from marginalised communities—Dalit, Bahujan, Adivasi and Muslim—who due to their social position and the overwhelming political powerplay that idolises upper-caste, upper-class men and their work for historiography, could not find equal or adequate recognition or representation within the national platforms.“
One of the biggest examples in our history of this choice to sideline Bahujan voices can be seen in the difference in our representation and narratives around Mahatma Gandhi and B.R Ambedkar. Both of them were visionaries, but only one of them is given due credit. B.R Ambedkar spoke about positive mobilization within the caste system and of course, is also known as the father of the Indian constitution. However, while there are chapters dedicated to Mahatma Gandhi, there is only a small paragraph about B.R Ambedkar in our history books. Most of the country knows very little about his rich body of work.
As long as we don’t bring more inclusivity to our narratives both public and private, we will lag as a civilization in terms of equality, representation, and freedom. Introduction of texts like Bhimayana for young adults, exposing children to diverse leaders like Savitribai Phule and retelling epics without the problematic conditionings of its time help interpret narratives with a renewed political understanding. They throw new light on our conditioned binaries of good and bad. Only then can we break free from the lop-sided glorification of our heroes, both in literature and in life..
This is the kind of positive modernization that we should aim for where we break away from conventional patterns. We must question establishments, challenge institutional beliefs, and create constant resistance against systematic pedantry.
- Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi. 2017. Dear Ijeawele or A Feminist Manifesto In Fifteen Suggestions
- Chauhan, Subhadra Kumari. झाँसी की रानी की समाधि पर
With a bachelor’s in Comparative Literature from Jadavpur University, Rushalee is currently pursuing her Masters in Mass Communication at AJK MCRC, Jamia Millia Islamia. She is an aspiring journalist with a great passion for storytelling through writing. She wants to work towards building an egalitarian society and speak truth to power. You may find her on Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn