Opinion I Are you looking for a heroine?
Each of us is modelling behaviour for someone else. Luckily, being a hero does not have to be a full-time job
Here is a really old ad for an Indian clothing brand. I wonder if anyone else remembers it. A young woman with short hair and a serene face is drinking tea. She is parked on the highway, talking into the camera, documentary style. She says something about how every now and then she needs to get out of the city and “clear her head". “Mother sometimes worries but I’ve got him," she says, pointing to her big dog. As a teen, I loved it. Her androgynous clothes, her air of competence and kindness, the dog, the driving, all of it. Mostly, I loved the idea of being able to say aloud something as fancy as needing to get out of the city to clear your head. She was my hero for a long while.
As an adult, of course, I wonder whether that self-aware, self-reliant creature was the fantasy of some 20-something, male part-time poet, part-time copywriter. But so what, really? Whatever cynicism may or may not have fuelled the creation of that gamine woman in pants, it quickened something inside me too. You stumble across heroes all the time when you are looking for them.
Last year, I read in Shanta Gokhale’s fantastic memoir, One Foot On The Ground, that she and her young daughter (who later became the famous Renuka Shahane) would meet after work and after college, respectively, take the train and go to music lessons together. I was immediately fired up by this vision of the good life. Frankly, everything in that book made me want to run out and become a cool person.
You look a lot for heroes when you are young and you know that your textbooks are not going to teach you how you want to live. Many career teachers I know have told me that they paid careful attention to how they behaved in class and on campus because they knew that their students were looking for clues. Some teachers chose to make themselves transparent and self-effacing. Others, flamboyant and carefully rebellious. Other teachers brought the world to you. In school, one of my teachers invited a young alumna to come and read from her work. A poet, she wrote about everyday life with love and affection. The resin seats of buses, food, tiredness. I don’t remember her name but I remember being thunderstruck that you could write in English about desi things and write poems without floral references. Whatever their method, serious teachers knew that these choices had impact, and not necessarily in the predictable way of creating a classroom of imitators.
When you are older, it becomes a bit harder to remember to look outside yourself—but we all need it. My historian friend, Polly, is part of a loose group of philosophers who believe that Indians find their ethical framework in action, not theory. Polly is thus a believer in the power of daily ritual. Swimming, learning Sanskrit, yoga, watering a zillion plants grown in curd containers, the ritual has varied over the years. By doing the same thing over and over again, she has built her faith in herself to climb most mountains.
If I was indeed a better person, I would have learnt from Polly and ticked off more of those items which have appeared in my annual goals list since I became an adult. You know the ones I mean, lose weight, save money, go to Ladakh. You know. And I have had shame and despair about not becoming my heroines. I have had it for years.
To be clear, I can’t sing, I can’t drive, I don’t have a dog, I clear my head by hiding in the bathroom and the last time my hair was spiky short was a long, long while ago. But I have never stopped being infatuated by the idea of those other lives, those other people you could also be.
More recently, though, I have come to understand what all my heroines had in common, from the girl in the ad to Shanta Gokhale, tothe postal worker on my street who wore red blouses and denim handbags with her uniform. They had spent time thinking about what made them calm and happy and worked to get it.
And as terrifying as it is, I have come to realize that each of us is also modelling behaviour for someone else. Haha, who, me, you say. Yes, you. On the street, in our neighbourhood, on WhatsApp calls, if you remember that your behaviour is a model for someone looking for a clue, what does that do to you? Do you feel your laughter fading away? Do you feel terrified? Good. Why should I suffer alone? Just kidding. Luckily, being a hero does not have to be a full-time job. It’s a work from home position with lots of benefits. Put on that cape and let the wind ruffle your hair and clear your head.
Cheap Thrills is a fortnightly column about millennials, obsessions and secrets. Nisha Susan is the editor of the webzine The Ladies Finger.