As I was watching the head-spinning excesses of Zack Snyder’s “Man of Steel”, I kept on thinking who would be a Bangladeshi equivalent of Superman.
Superman is an American hero. He saves the weak and punishes the corrupt and the oppressor. He is almost like a prophet, except that he puts on a sexy costume. He possesses immense physical strength and has x-ray vision. Thanks to his mythical red cape, Superman inhabits a privileged sky like gods, and polices the boundary of good and evil. Yet he is also vulnerable, for he has a demure alter ego in the form of a journalist named Clark Kent. Superman is part of the American folklore.
Superman also has a grounded social history. Two working-class Jewish immigrant boys named Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster from Cleveland, Ohio, created the character of Superman during the Great Depression of 1930s America. In keeping with the popular saying that “America is a country of immigrants,” Superman was a galactic immigrant, sent off to Earth by his parents before an apocalypse destroyed Superman’s native planet Krypton. He was then raised in rural Kansas by parents with pastoral values.
But Superman eventually left behind his rural setting and came to Metropolis (read Dhaka?) to fight the evil. The kind of unethical financial system and urban corruption he was battling in a fictional world were real problems in America during the 1930s and later. Fighting bad guys ever since, Superman has come to embody the American ideals of justice and individual mobility. Thanks to Hollywood’s global influence, the superhero has long transcended the American boundary, sometimes with ironic commentaries on globalisation. Superman T-shirts are now made in China, Bangladesh, Vietnam, and other countries.
Despite his Hollywoody glamour and romanticised good-guy/bad-guy storyline, Superman tells us a parable: People imagine their heroes based on real needs of the time. The hero allays the public’s inner anxieties and uplifts their spirit when times are not good. The idea of heroes has flourished since antiquity as necessary myths to articulate identity narratives of various people, ethnic groups, warring parties, religious formations, and, of course, empires. From the Mesopotamian king Gilgamesh and Homer’s Ulysses to Gandhi and Nelson Mandela, heroes have inspired humanity’s imagination of greatness.
In the historically agrarian Bengal delta, heroes have been variously imagined in popular culture, literature, poetry, films, and the arts. Bengali heroes usually came from a humble rural origin, making a living off the land and water. They were peasants, boatmen, and fishermen. They endured nature’s violent fury — tidal waves, tornados, cyclones, hurricanes — with resolute determination. They fought the oppressive zamindari of the feudal tyrant. They revolted against the exploitative economy of the colonial shahebs. Bengali heroes were pious but they resisted the cunning of the religious mercenaries and their superstitious regimes. SM Sultan’s muscular peasants are a classic rendition of Bengali heroes. Their bloated physique is the reflection of their resilience. The hero was sometimes an antihero, as in Walliullah’s Majid in Lal Shalu, somewhat in the vein of Goethe’s Faust.
The Bengal delta, however, is no longer the agrarian prairie (by no means a utopia) that it used to be a hundred or so years ago. Cities now dominate. They are the centre of power politics. Roads, cars, buses, and trains have diminished the insularity of village life. Divisive politics often defines public discussions. A new urban bourgeoisie has emerged. Market economy and consumerism have rearranged social relationships. Democratic barometer goes up and down with the political mood. Invested quarters have created a false division between religion and secularism. Readymade garments and foreign remittance have pushed agriculture to the back seat. Corruption has poisoned the veins of the nation. Social mobility has spawned a corrosive “by-any-means” mindset. Microcredit promised a fragile social revolution. Traffic jams are, ironically, a new sign of economic prosperity. Technology, particularly cell phones and the internet, has created a networked society. These are new realities of the land. This is modernity, and it is deeply contradictory.
Who, in this new social context, fits the mould of a modern Bangladeshi hero? What kind of physical and mental qualities would be appropriate for the hero?
The answer could only be sought in a series of questions. Should the modern Bangladeshi hero aspire to Rabindranath’s vision of universal humanity and Kazi Nazrul Islam’s rebellious persona? Should the hero possess Fazlul Huq’s physical prowess? Bangabandhu’s oratory? Surya Sen’s nationalism? Mohammad Yunus’ visionary thinking? Jibonananda Das’ Bengali genius loci? Begum Rokeya’s sense of gender justice? Bhashani’s rugged-peasant machismo? Pritilata Waddedar’s revolutionary spirit? Shamsur Rahman’s poetic social critique? Fazle Hasan Abed’s sense of social empowerment? Shakib Al Hasan’s sporting acumen?
Should the Bangladeshi hero be tall? Masculine? Humble? Assertive? Where should the hero live? In the city? In the village? Would the hero come from a middle-class background? An idealist or a pragmatic leader? A visionary or who gets things done?
How would the Bangladeshi hero show his or her heroism? Would the hero fight the rampant corruption that ails the society? Size up the crooked politician and the greedy businessman? Punish the unrepentant razakars? Ensure the rights of marginal communities? Fix the judicial system? Cleanse the bribery culture? Ensure health care for the poor? Bring the garment factory owner, who doesn’t provide workplace safety, to swift justice? Save a Nobel-winning microcredit bank from an autocratic government takeover? Catch the criminals who oppress women and children? Punish the rogues who engage in dirty politics in the name of religion? Thwart autocracy that masquerades as democracy? Convince the prime minister that alienating the USA and the world for no good reason is a terrible idea and the suspension of GSP is most likely a symbolic rebuke for a wide range of missteps? Perhaps inspire the prime minister and the leader of the opposition to retire for the greater good of the country? Lead a social revolution?
It’s not the actual hero but the imagination of the hero that matters. Because imagining certain virtues in the hero will eventually inspire us to strive for those virtues ourselves. Or, perhaps we need a superhero to lead us to a better future?
Adnan Morshed is an associate professor in the School of Architecture and Planning at the Catholic University of America in Washington, DC.