1. The stuff of heroes

Every yarn in the fabric of history is held together by a common thread. From the story of the light bulb to the grand history of nations, it is the colourful lives of its heroes and villains and dissensions between them, that keep the stories of our past animated and so compelling even today. Our study and understanding of history is therefore devoted to individuals on whose shoulders the direction of our civilization and evolutionary past pivots and turns; and on whose heroism our destiny is often secured and at times imperilled. History is a veneration of those mountainous giants whose lives have shaped its course through the valleys of time, carrying with it in myth and legend, a bountiful legacy that inspires us still. It is impossible to sustain the historical narrative without reference to the lives of those who shaped it. Even the history of science lends itself willingly to myths about apples falling on the brightest heads at the most crucial moments.

Legends that make up the history of nations often stretch further back from living memory to the memory of tomes and beyond, where they take root in times immemorial. We draw from that unverifiable magic of time, the narratives that define our present identity, culture and view of the world. Perched at the edge of those long and thorny tales – of heroism and villainy, insight and ignorance, disaster and fortune, war and peace – our own lives and times bloom into existence. Though told and retold until truth is no longer distinguishable from myth, the narratives of history and its heroes bear more relevance to the colour and tone of present times than we would fain admit.

Therefore, to understand a country and its people; their tinted past, present anxieties and hopes for the future, we must necessarily understand their heroes. Though heroes of all times and all cultures share much in common, their heroic status is as much a product of circumstance as much as will. Heroism is never self-professed, but always dependant on popular consensus. It is the common man who elevates heroes and heroins to such status and immortalise them in legend. Heroes are made exceptional among the common and ordinary – and the relationship is symbiotic.

Some heroes are ridiculed and rejected by their own and in their own age, only for their heroic acts and words to be recognised and venerated by posterity. Others who assume heroic status in their lifetimes by their people, are vilified by generations that follow. In so far as heroes are not of the common mould, they invariably give rise to bands of admirers as well as detractors. Indeed some iconic figures of history owe the transmission of their heroic image to little more than an inconclusive debate about how well their heroic status is earned.

Heroes are defined to a large extent by the moments in history and the geography they inhabit. It cannot be coincidence that Mahatma Gandhi should rise out of colonial India and Nelson Mandela out of apartheid South Africa? Yet their heroic status is also undeniably a reflection of the masses because it is they who ultimately define what constitutes heroism, its time and place. Even though the greatest heroes transcend both time and geography, most are known to and remembered by the communities that they impacted and in whose opinion they are considered heroes in the first place.

People choose heroes for peculiar reasons and under diverse circumstances. Therefore, the nature, character and values that are enshrined in heroic tales of the past are perhaps the most sincere account of the real anxieties, fears and hopes of the common man – inadvertently scribbled in the pages of history. We too in our turn add footnotes about our own values, fears and hopes in the pages of history by who we choose to be the iconic heroes of our times.

Heroes do not lend themselves to every generation. Indeed, some do not borrow from heroes or heroism as readily as others. Most heroes are made in times of adversity. Few manifest themselves in times of abundance and even when they do, they are rarely recognised. Bertolt Brecht observes this interesting fact in his iconic dramatisation of the “Life of Galileo”, where a dejected Andrea says “Unhappy the land that has no heroes”;To which Galileo replies: “No. Unhappy the land that is in need of heroes.”

Of course, times of adversity and war lends themselves to more tales of heroism, and more readily than times of peace. Homer’s Iliad, which marks the dawn of classical western literature, is dedicated to the story of Achilles – perhaps the first popular hero of the western world.

Sing, O goddess, the anger of Achilles son of Peleus, that brought countless ills upon the Achaeans.

Thus, it’s first sentence of the Iliad captures perhaps the most alluring quality of any popular hero: anger! Heroes are more commonly identified with “anger”, even violent rage, restlessness that is symptomatic of an absolute and non-negotiable moral bias – often for what is righteous and just. Therein lies the irony. Those who cause distress, turmoil and violent destruction for a popular – and often just – cause, captivates us in awe and admiration. Those who despise the safety and comfort of a timid peace at mortal risk – rather than a willingness to compromise or negotiate moral values for the sake of preserving peace and stability – is the stuff of heroism. It is this quality that makes heroes akin to times of adversity.

The uncompromising idealism, unrestrained ambition and willingness to risk themselves and others in what they believe to be a just cause – the definitive qualities of heroism – makes heroes out of explosive and even violent characters. As William Shakespeare confesses through the voice of Hamlet;

“Rightly to be great is not to stir without great argument, but greatly to find quarrel in a straw when honor’s at the stake.”

– Hamlet Act IV, Scene IV

In rising up to nd revelling in the fight and inspiring others to do the same with single-minded perseverance – without dimplomacy or fear of adverse consequences – heroes often imperil themselves, the people they fight for and fight with. Their disregard for death is percieved as bravery, their lack of inhibition to destroy and harm – as courage. Perhaps it befits this careless idealism that heroes are not defined by the outcomes of their glorious pursuits; but so long as the ideals they fight for remain relevant and worthy of aspiration, they remain heroes – equally in both victory and defeat.

And so a reading of the history of Sri Lanka, which is often invoked and speculated about in discussions about nationalism, politics, conflict and identity, can also be read by the tales of countless heroes whose imprint we bear in our individual as well as collective identities.

Can we dismiss as irrelevant, the dubious stories of ministers who claim a direct linage to King Dutugamunu? A discourse on “what makes Madduma Bandara a hero?” (and not Kumar Sangakkara; whose inspiration, I believe, is far more meaningful?) would be both intriguing and insightful.  And there are also more pertinent questions: at what cost do we ignore the legacy and contribution of heroes from our recent past such as Anagarika Dharmapala (so defined in the national curriculum) and Velupillai Prabhakaran (dare we entertain the thought of him as a hero) in shaping our present and future?