Who are the heroes and heroines in Mumbai?
Perhaps we are seeing a transition in the kind of heroic behaviour required to make life meaningful? This thought comes to me as I reread Ashis Nandy’s introduction to his Tao of Cricket where he ends with the reflection that today “heroes are expected to redeem the killing banality and boredom of everyday life”. He is referring to media and sporting heroes but the reference can be extended to other faces of heroism. Two hero-types came into stark contrast recently in the Indian state of Maharashtra. There we saw the off the scale negative heroism of the Mumbai terrorists who attacked workers and tourists late last month yet by contrast there is also the self transforming heroism of the Dalit women who work, not far from Mumbai, as health care workers. The first group have totally linked heroism with sacrifice; the latter have woven service into the heroic model and integrated sacrifice without being drawn to its life denying possibilities. So we have heroes who deny life and those who affirm it.
The former kill to kill the banality of modernity and they do it with horrific style having media orchestrated their entire suicide mission for greatest impact across the world where violence is so ubiquitous that it needs to be spiced up with the kind of creative theatrics displayed in Mumbai. This is the poor man’s version of ‘Shock and Awe’ and will, according to analyst Nick O'Brien, be studied by many would be jihadists as a lesson in style and mythic power. The lessons can be unpacked in different ways. There is the use of technology, firearms instead of bombs, targeting of international visitors, choreographed and synchronized attacks across the city. There is also the nuanced interpersonal play where mobile phone conversations wove a tapestry of human drama around the unfolding violence. There is also an implied critique of how we do business both in terms of security as well as reportage. The event O’Brien describes as “a carefully staged media Disneyland” in which both sides did battle for those cherished but often manipulated human qualities of bravery, honour and sacrifice:
It had everything: Americans, death, fires, political intrigue, tragic human interest stories, live commentary from people hiding in hotels - some of who were later killed. And it took place over a number of days. Added to this was the use of information and communication technology by the terrorists as it was reported that they were receiving media updates on how the situation was developing via their mobile phones.
Infotainment becomes, in this context, a tool for our own undoing and the myths of hero are inverted as hero becomes villain according to cultural context: jihadi as hero/jihadi as villain. In this it is so similar to the sporting contest Nandy describes where heroes offer us “one-to-one relationship” with the key players and where we discover something of our “clandestine selves” in the unfolding drama. In this we find hero as professional terrorist – a being who transcends limitation.
Yet while the world was momentarily relieved of boredom by the terror in Mumbai, untouchable women were transforming lives in quietly heroic, but by comparison, boring daily actions. These workers approach heroism as a lifestyle, they too are professional in their approach yet they live not in life transcending fashion but in the daily minutiae of life affirming engagement. Like terrorists they have to deal with the physical realities they seek to address, yet they do not need mobile phones and weaponry; their world is built around baby scales, blood pressure kits and stethoscopes. And they walk to those they minister. They are not doctors but health care workers and they were chosen by the Comprehensive Rural Health Project, established by Raj and Mabelle Arole, from the poorest of the poor, the Dalits, because as Raj Arole notes – higher caste women would not necessarily care for the poor, but they would also lack a real understanding of their situation.
The Aroles believed that empathy, knowledge of how poor people live, and willingness to work were more important than skills and prestige.
The women they chose as health workers had to first transform themselves and this started with being able to say their name, which they had to practice saying in front of a mirror. They had to discover themselves. This is the interpersonal level where micro-heroism begins to shine; then they apply their knowledge of disadvantage critically to their worlds and begin to unpack disadvantage and the ill health that is linked to this. Quietly they have been unpicking the fabric of enculturation and futility and staking out a future that lies beyond the socialization that has held them prisoner. This is heroic work. The mythic transformation is of straw into gold, yet the weaver is no Rumpelstiltskin but themselves with a little assistance from people like the Aroles who believe in them. The mythic hero is a woman, a healer and an untouchable!
Perhaps there is a need for us to rethink the heroic. Real heroes are everyday men and women working in everyday contexts to overcome those context’s limitations. They do not need to destroy lives and act out violent nightmares in order to do this. They need to believe that another world is possible and actually start building it in the here and now.
 ‘Mumbai attacks may signal change in terrorists' tactics’ by Nick O’Brien, found athttp://www.abc.net.au/news/stories/2008/12/02/2435119.htm
 This story is told in detail in ‘Necessary Angels’ by Tina Rosenberg in National Geographic, December 2008, pp. 66-85.