My generation grew up with masked heroes. They could shoot heat beams from their eyes or knock down a skyscraper with a single punch—"kavoom"! They could lead double lives: during the day they could be aristocratic noblemen or dashing socialites, and at night, they could put on their vigilante masks and raid the neighbourhood in search of culprits and criminals. Notwithstanding the bounty on his head, the masked Zorro could torment the tyrannical lords of the American southwest and carve his initial Z on his defeated foes. Phantom would move through the jungle on his stallion with wings of the wind to ensure that the world could remain a better place without evildoers and pirates. The masks of our superheroes would give us comfort.
It was a time, when we could divide the good from the evil with a straight line drawn by our HB pencil and a transparent scale. The next generation of heroes stopped being simple do-gooders, and seemed less focused on turning the world into a better place. In their efforts to resist oppressive forces, often they ended up becoming mirror images of evil itself. The man behind the Guy Fawkes mask who quotes Shakespeare in V for Vendetta is a product of human experimentation—a bio weapon involving St. Mary's virus that killed 100,000 people in the UK—and no better than the bloodthirsty anarchy in futuristic Britain that he wants to upend. Beneath the masks, there are men (women too) whose lives are far from lucrative. They are often disturbed loners with sociopathic behaviours. Beneath their masked smiles, they have the pain and loneliness of a circus clown. Yet their asocial behaviours strike a raw nerve in all of us. Their radical, albeit anarchist, attitudes resonate with many of us whose version of truth is no longer rendered in a 2D black-and-white sketch. Truth today is either trapped in a kaleidoscope or consumable in its fifty shades of grey.
Hence the most popular series on Netflix now is Money Heist, where a nerdy academic teaches his students the power of precision with which great heists can be mastered. Dacoity, not honesty, is being popularised by a professor as a virtue. Isn't it ironic that this current generation, cushioned in the comfort of capitalism, sings "bella ciao" or fantasises of rebellion? Yet they study to become docile bureaucrats or programmable corporate bosses. Such contradictions mask reality. They promise changes, metamorphoses, without bringing any change. It's like running miles on a treadmill without actually going anywhere.
These are protests. But these are protests in which, "the best lack conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity" (WB Yeats, The Second Coming). Around the world, iconic images of Salvador Dali masks, shot to fame by Money Heist, find new currency in protests and rebellions. But do these masks mean anything? It is as futile as showing the V-sign whenever you are asked to pose for the camera. Then again, the mask is a sign of empowerment. It promises anonymity with which one can be a part of something bigger outside of oneself. It is an avatar to experience, experiment and explicate something new.
Popular media knows it all too well. They toy with this concept of masking. They plot the details in such a way that allow us to become a part of the group of rag-tag misfits who are assembled to enact a great heist (Ocean's11, Fast and Furious), a foray into the system (The Matrix, Inception), a symbolic resistance against fascist regimes and faux democracies, or a secretive unleashing of hidden desires or survival instincts (The Mask).
The famous ending of V for Vendetta where Evey tells Finch that "He [V] was all of us," goes on to show how we are all harbouring the masked resentment of V. The revolution can take place because there is a desire in our unconscious, over which we have been trained to put a lid. The mask reverses the process. The anonymity frees us from those human protocols. The deep-delved desire to dislodge the establishment is symbolised by those masks of protest featuring Dali or Guy Fawkes. They find their voices in movements, from Occupy Paris to free Hong Kong. They are worn by ordinary men and women who want to remain unrecognisable.
Do heroes need masks? Now that we are all wearing masks to both shield us from and fight against an invisible enemy, can we consider ourselves heroes in this war on disease? Our social distancing is keeping others safe. We are called on to make sacrifices: do we qualify for the fancied role of a masked hero?
As I write this, I am resisting the urge to write yet another armchair piece on Covid-19. My anxious musings are intercepted by two items: one of my doctor friends has posted on Facebook—"we are all wearing masks, yet some of our masks are unmasked [free translation]." He is hinting at the anomaly of the system that he is facing as a doctor. They were asked to intervene in the onslaught of disease with faulty face masks, hastily made in a garments factory that has no inkling about sanitisation. Why? There was a masked desire of someone who saw a business opportunity in the time of Covid-19. The doctors were told by their administrative superiors to be at the frontline without any protective gear. Many doctors had to buy their own safety devices; that too was not available.
What is even more painful is the fact that the reporting authorities of these doctors are civil bureaucrats who have neither sympathy nor professional know-how. Hence, the first batch of PPE was distributed among the admin officers. A PPE wearing admin official cannot replace a doctor who has professional training in medicine. Just like wearing a mask of Dali does not make every citizen in Madrid "a Professor". One realisation—and there is no short supply of those during this crisis—involves the fact that the fate of the physicians should not be under someone who cultures a firm belief that some cadres are more equal than others.
The other news that sent a chill down my spine is the second lead of Friday's The Daily Star: health workers are being ostracised by their landlords or neighbours. People are scared. We all are. Everybody is a potential vector, a virus carrier. But because landlords have a bit of power, they think that they can ask their tenants to stay out of their property. What is power without empathy? What power is this that sidelines the health workers and other essential front-line fighters (e.g. police) who are the real heroes of our time?
In England, they are painting thank-you notes on pavements to show gratitude for doctors and nurses. Here we are: ostracising them. The extreme case of rejection is seen in the way Dr Monir died in Sylhet. The insensitivity with which his service was compensated is inhumane. How cruel can the system be, in which the doctor does not get an ambulance? Yet how comfortable we are behind our masks as we notice all these graphic details of comic proportion unfolding before us.
The civil servants have power. They rule behind their official masks. The landlords have power. They can issue decrees at whim. Of course we all need to be safe. We need to be safe because we want humanity to continue and survive. It is at this time of danger, when humanity is threatened, the mask of civility often wears off; the raw selves come out. That is the primal location of all our animal stories. Between the shifts of the skin and the mask, changes are noticed—the change that can make man an animal. That is when metamorphosis takes place.
Covid-19 is becoming quite an author of metamorphoses.
Shamsad Mortuza is a professor of English, University of Dhaka (now on leave). Currently, he is Pro-Vice-Chancellor of ULAB.