Who is an idol?
If we look at the question the way a celebrity-obsessed, media-driven culture wants us to, its answer becomes simple: an idol is somebody we know ('we' here standing for the urban middle class which has set a certain standard for its idols, and those fitting in are duly worshipped at the altar of popular culture.) So we have numerous awards organised by newspapers, radio stations to TV channels, with their own annual list of 'idols'. Their claim to fame is a dogged devotion to a certain idea of India which, unfortunately, remains an idea patronised by a rich and magnificent minority within the nation. It is precisely in their worship that these idols gain legitimacy. Worse, it's transient.
So again, who exactly is an idol?
Well, there are many, to use an old cliché, 'unsung heroes' out there away from the bright arc lights of obsessive public attention and drooling. They are people, who with their sheer courage, grit and compassion, make a difference to people and institutions around them. They are people who stand up for themselves and others even when there are no cameras around to watch them do it. They are people who don't wear make-up when they walk out of their homes, or need glycerin when they cry for others.
We don't need an annual list to talk about such idols. They have always, and will always, walk this earth in their unassuming little corners. However, they must be included in an annual list, only to carry home the point that it's not just the gloss of our plastic world that comprises news, and to remind ourselves of some real heroes out there who make the world go round.
Let's take West Bengal's Tarit Chakrobarty as an example. Tarit, an AIDS victim himself and secretary of the Bengal Network of People Living with HIV, is a fighter teaching others like him how to overcome pain, stigma and alienation they meet as victims of the deadly disease. Tarit has brought together 9000 HIV-positive people from across West Bengal and has taught them to fight for themselves. Don't the other 23 million people living with the HIV virus in India need more heroes like Tarit?
Or take Ira Parihar, the 12-year-old swimming champion from Bhopal. At the age of 8, she crossed the breadth of Bhopal's historic Upper Lake. This is nothing unusual, except that Parihar has Down syndrome, a genetic disorder associated with learning disabilities. Ira's condition did not prevent her from accomplishing what most swimmers have not even attempted.
There are some, who, despite being a part of institutions considered exploitative and seldom associated with compassion, transcend their positions and reach out to the marginalised. Bihar's retired IPS officer J K Sinha is a case in point. Sinha has set up a free English-medium residential school to educate 200 Musahar boys. It's a big step for the people who, at the bottom of the caste hierarchy in Bihar, have survived humiliation and discrimination for ages. One small initiative by an individual has affected hundreds of lives for good and when these catalysts of change walk out of this institution, the ripple effect it would cause within the Musahar community is expected to change the social and economic dynamics of the community at large.
Amitava Bhattacharya is another example of a hero transcending his position. An IIT-Kharagpur alum, Amitava could have easily opted for a life full of comfort and of course money. Instead, he quit his cushy job in the Silicon Valley to give a new lease of life to a dying art form in West Bengal. Bhattacharya and his team have worked with more than three thousand folk artistes from across six districts of Bengal. Through self-help groups and specialised training, they have converted this art into a legitimate source of income for these artistes.
In a state infamous for female foeticide, Prakash Kaur is mother to 60 abandoned girls in Punjab's Jalandhar district. She has given those girls a life to look forward to when their own parents wished they were dead. Sixty years ago, Prakash too was abandoned by her parents and a local Gurudwara was what she called home. Prakash set up the Unique Home for girls on land donated by the Gurudwara where she grew up. Prakash now lives for the girls. Stepping out in tattered clothes she picks out fruits for her 'daughters'. Giving them the best in life is the only thing that is on her mind and Prakash knows there's no shame in asking people for help.
Major D P Singh, our next idol, was a regular Army officer, going about his duty of protecting the nation. His world changed in July 1999 after the front post he was leading during the Kargil war was attacked by the Pakistan army. Severely injured, Major Singh lost a leg to gangrene. Like a true soldier, he didn't give up and with his synthetic legs, soon became a marathon runner. The war veteran, also called Blade Runner because of the shape of his artificial legs, recently clocked 2:40 at a half-marathon held in the national capital. From being declared dead at the Akhnoor hospital in the LoC to forming a support group for trauma victims, the man has been an example of courage under fire.
Then there is Irfan Ahmad from Dausa in MP, giving the small-town its very own 'Chak De' moment. For 20 continuous years, students from the government school he works in have been participating in state, district and national games. Over 15 students have taken part in nationals and over 300 at state-level games. A real-life Kabir Khan for the little athletes of the town, Irfan also helps them land government jobs. For his students, Irfan is an inspiration, a real-life Shah Rukh Khan and while they dream of doing a Sania Mirza and Saina Nehwal for India someday, he hopes of seeing at least one of them play at an international tournament. This sports teacher indeed is a real-life hero!
The point for us is more to emulate and be inspired by the amazing stories of these heroes and less to know them. After all, such unsung souls thrive on anonymity. They shun accolades and award functions, many even refusing to accept them. They may even object to being addressed with epithets like 'idols' or 'heroes' in the first place.
It is precisely for these reasons that they remain one for us.