In Greek mythology, before the mega war of Troy, Achilles was sceptical about fighting. His mother gave him a piece of advice, what is now called in pop culture a pep talk, that ‘if you don’t fight, you will live, marry the most beautiful woman, and have wonderful kids. Then those kids will remember you, then the kids of your kids, then their kids, and so on and so forth. But if you fight, you will die, but your name will be remembered by people across centuries. You will be immortal.’ Achilles died in that war, because of weak heels, and we are still reading and writing about him.
What Achilles’ mother was talking about was war with weapons. But we are here to talk about a war that life itself sometimes is. Whether anyone remembers the names or not, we all have to die fighting it, and still, immorality evades most of us.
The unsung heroes are the ones who wage a war against life every single day and die unknown – albeit victoriously.
Everyone should aim to be Achilles. Or Gandhi. Or Einstein. Or..the Buddha. But not everyone can be! Because, let’s face it, as mortal humans, we need to eat, cloth, and live. And in this circle of struggling to make ends meet for eating, clothing, and finding a roof over our heads, most of the unsung heroes are found! Like I had heard in an interview: there are great, known yogis, sure, but in India, the number of great, unknown yogis is even greater. The same goes for unsung heroes. In our lives, we come across more unsung heroes than sung ones.
Growing up, we had a maid who was a common maid for our entire building. She did all the housework for 7-8 homes. Her small daughter, around 10, used to accompany her. She would start mopping, cleaning, and washing clothes at 10 am, and would take a lunch break at our home at around 2, then resume washing, cleaning, etc. till 4 or 5, and then take a long route home, most of it by walking. By the time she reached home, and finished her own household chores, it would be pretty late at night, and she would be dead tired. Ironically, her name was Jeevaben – the one who is infused with life!
Apart from the physical chores, being a woman, Jeevaben also had to fulfill the wishes of society and the family by bearing a son. Fortunately, she had a son right after her two daughters. She scrubbed, and cleaned people’s homes all her life, until she was 48, and died of blood cancer.
Some people would call this a ‘mediocre’ life. The life of some woman who never broke any glass ceilings, probably broke a few glasses here or there while washing dishes in strangers’ homes. But the real reason that Jeevaben is an unsung hero was that she was married into this uber-poor family to an unemployed, lazy man whose profession was unknown! She herself was unlettered, and her husband barely earned anything. There was a time in her life when Jeevaben was so poor that they had no food to eat, and was afraid that her babies will die of starvation.
But instead of being helpless in the face of poverty, she took up household chores. Gradually, she not only did our building’s chores but also of a few homes in the building adjacent to ours. Despite such poor conditions, never have I ever heard her complain or cry about it once! I remember her always smiling. She was kind to children and respectful to elders. Once, being a spoilt kid, I playfully shut my grandmother out of the lift, and she had to climb up the stairs. This didn’t go down well with Jeevaben, and she gave me a sound scolding, not worrying about any consequences, until I apologised to my grandmother.
Jeevaben worked hard to earn enough money to not only put food on the table for her family, but also educated both the girls along with her son, who is now fully grown, and probably married. When the girls came of age, she married them off properly, with respect, to men who knew how to take care of them. She also took great care of her mother-in-law, who died in her arms at the age of 98. During her last days, Jeevaben might have hoped to use the same money that she earned so painstakingly to cure her cancer, but it didn’t help. Again, she didn’t complain.
Despite being helpless, and poor, she did what she could, and died an unsung hero’s death. It wasn’t a life well-lived, but a life, well, lived.
In this era of 15-second fame, what we don’t realize is that sometimes it’s okay to not be famous, great, or immortal. Sometimes, it’s just important to go with the flow and make lemonade, if life throws lemons at us. Or cake, if we end up falling into a big tub of flour.