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Picture-7As 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.

12 Responses to “Finding a Bangladeshi hero”

  1. Tarek Murshed

    Thank You Mr. Morshed. Yes we do need a Hero. What makes a person perfect- their Deeds. What controls our Deeds- Our Knowledge. Where from we acquire Knowledge: Family, Educational Institutions, Society / Culture. What are we learning from our family- How to grasp others wealth [my powerful father/mother is doing that], Vulgar and so on. Educational Institutions- Fighting and Killing. Society/Culture- Society is polluted, Religion is not being practiced they way it should be. So where we’ll find a Hero. Honestly- I do not have an Answer. Does it mean that Bangladesh will disappear from World Geography? Certainly Not. Do you know what People does in such a situation- Return to almighty and ask for forgiveness and mercy. Almighty created Human being as Representative and gave lots of power to Create. We are in minus zero [-0]. Lets try to bring it to Zero and the next generation will Turn it Zero+. Be honest with Yourself and try to be a Hero just doing – What I am suppose to do rightfully. Ameen !

  2. Mohammad Zaman

    We have plenty of “heroes” amongst the common people.

    Think of the person who went againt all odds to save a woman at Rana Plaza and lost …

    Or think of that little boy and or/girl who toils the whole day and at evening buy a little rice for his ailing monther or his little sister and/or brother …

    We need no hero and/or superman.

    We, however, do have two super bugs and that’s enough!!!

  3. Golam Arshad

    Never a HERO in a Heroic Time! Live by example! In all Heroism shines Patriotism. It is an IDEAL expression to glorify a Heroic Act. Be One in all can dour and love thy soul for ALL.

  4. rifi

    Mr. Morshed, when day to day life in Bangladesh is quite a struggle, the people barely have the energy to think about imaginary superheroes. people really are struggling here in some form or another whether they come from affluent background or she/h is a factory worker who just had to face psychogenic illness. in the summer heat when temperature rises, unlike you, people here just want to get through the day, and do not have the luxury to escape in the fantasy land. may be you live a life of comfort and on a hot summer afternoon you drive your fancy car to a summer blockbuster and imagine who could be an ideal hero in our country. since you are a probashi and feel for your motherland, couldn’t you write about the real issues that are affecting Bangladesh? whimsical pieces with hundreds of questions do not solve any problems that we are facing here, we need smart solutions to the problems that are defining our daily lives here. heroes are more or less ‘mythical’ figures. real heroes are the people who are toughing it out day in day out by battling adversity. op-ed page writers should write about more pressing issues than a possible candidate who fits the description of a superhero.

  5. russel

    We don’t need a super man.No choice.so We need a super lady to run the country 🙂

  6. Rezaul Karim

    We have two Supergirls in Bangladesh, you know who!!!. Prof Yunus could turn into a superman or at least JorEl, the dude’s father.
    Sometimes our army chiefs become superman. You have described the religious rogues as LexLuthor. As in superman stories, the religious LexLuthors could rule in Bangladesh in the near future. The religious LexLuthors (Hefazat, Jamat Islam and others) tell the voters to vote for BNP and the voters comply. It is a Kryptonite effect.

  7. shottobhasi

    In Dr. Morshed’s fantasy world, a hero would save Bangladesh from eternal damnation! Plato once thought of the same in quest for an ideal world, never existed!

    No wonder, why shushil society’s dream wonderland, devoid of reality, shatters in electoral politics! In reality, as verdict comes they go into hibernation in their comfortable den, tagging tail behind, only to reappear with the dream of a new wonderland.

    But, dream costs nothing!!

  8. Shahriar Bin Rouf

    At present there is none to be a Bangladeshi real hero.

  9. Rabiul Zaki

    Your opinion piece is very nicely written and it is thought provoking.

    I vaguely remember a part of history of our motherland taught in our school. In the 7th and 8th century AD, our country and its adjoining areas were leaderless, lawless country. The big and the powerful would trample the weak and the vulnerable (sounds familiar?). The situation was described in ancient Bengali as “Motsonnaya” i.e. big fishes were gobbling up the small fishes.

    Then in mid 8th century AD, the people of the land selected/elected Gopal as the saviour, the king and he apparently did rescue the country by putting together a stable administration.

    It was a unique example in the medieval era. In the 21st century, we perhaps need to act again.

  10. Nafiz indicaz

    Those superman will remain within imagination only as far as u can imagine. but true fact is that those born (because superman born here only not made) superman lost their energy to zero because of h/she couldn’t find place, and hold his proper holding position to grow–only to tight him/her to more narrow; therefore he turned into a real man,no more superman.you know that real man are useless!

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