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In search of a superhero

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By A children's book tries to make a hero out of everyman, reports Romila Saha
  • Published 22.07.07
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Rocket Kumar is a balding, pot-bellied, middle-aged circus-performer in a shiny blue bodysuit who shoots out of a yellow cannonball to end the day’s show.

The desi Superman’s source of power: a chronic problem of gas he uses as propulsion fuel to transport himself. In this localised Gotham of a north Indian town, superheroes have turned into mercenaries who use their powers to cut themselves lucrative sponsorship deals, where Rocket Kumar’s heart of gold wins the day.

The superhero, “the Incredible Human Cannonball”, reveals himself in Samit Basu’s story Rocket Kumar and the Desi Defenders. It is the first story in Scholastic India’s latest offering, The Fabulous Adventures of Rocket Kumar and Other Indian Superheroes.

Not quite the answer to the West’s superhero phenomenon, this is a small book that tries to make fun of the existing superhero prototypes, while telling a story to children. A hefty agenda, despite having a few well-known names in the world of “Indian writing in English”, a debatable category in itself.

The authors range from Samit Basu, the current darling of Indian writing in English, specialising in comic book writing of late (Devi and End of Story), to Manjula Padmanabhan, illustrator, columnist, novelist and playwright, and Sampurna Chattarji, who has translated Sukumar Ray’s Abol Tabol.

Scholastic, by the way, is the same house that has nurtured the Harry Potter phenomenon. Sayoni Basu, the director (publishing) of Scholastic India, explains that the need for the book rose from the absence of an Indian superhero. Though Atanu Roy’s illustration makes the concept a touch “kinky”.

Flying against a light-blue sky is the red-caped, sparkly-toothed hero, with the Indian flag where Superman’s logo would be, a pair of mojris for his feet, a paan in hand, a hairstyle that would put Hrithik Krrish Roshan to shame, with a comb held up triumphantly to emphasise the point and to (em)power him, perhaps. The ultimate Indian fantasy or just a Superman hangover?

“Ambiguities are part of the character of the modern superhero,” says Samit Basu, as he refers to the unconventional costumes, questionable sidekicks and troubled sexual lives of the prototypes. As children’s fantasy, the book is perhaps minor among the works that populate the genre, both in India and outside. It is more interesting against today’s socio-political scenario.

Radharani in Rimi B. Chatterjee’s The Key to All the Worlds lives in a slum behind the factory where her father worked before it downed shutters. She tells stories that come true. Venita Coelho’s Bihari is a 16-year-old aspiring actor who fights petty crime and leaves the scene of crime with a shake of his hips.

The book tries to make a hero of the everyman. There are brief glimpses of the possibility of a fantasy escape where the ordinary Indian, ignored in the actual scheme of things that decide his fate, acquires the power to make a difference.

Says Indrajit Hazra of his watery superhero (in The Flushman Cometh) who arrives through toilet bowls upon the turn of the flush: “I have suffered from bowel problems myself. My way of coming to terms with it is to romanticise it.”

Hazra’s stories are also accompanied by stylistic flourishes, such as: “Exactly two weeks after you read this story for the sixth time, the Palit family of Patparganj was left changed forever.” However, these don’t help the plot.

Padmanabhan’s Mr Ordinary features Orojit, a boy with only his common sense to save the world with. But children are not preached at. Basu says about the book categorised as children’s literature: “No one writes down to kids anymore.”

Glimpses of small towns, mall-infested metropolises and slums flit by, none long enough to linger. Somehow one feels that the everyman has been forgotten in the struggle to fashion him as a superhero.