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This story was published a few years ago in an anthology for children, Superhero! The Adventures of Rocket Kumar and other Indian Superheroes (Scholastic). I’ve done some more superhero work since then, but that’s very different, and not really for children, and not published yet. But as they say, Meanwhile…
Rocket Kumar and the Desi Defenders
A hush descended upon the audience. Parents adjusted their bellies, and chewed globs of gum fell out of the open, gaping mouths of their awestruck children. A lone dog barked. Drums rolled. Lights flared. JFK Santosh, the ringmaster of the Jhinchak Circus, inhaled deeply and cursed in four languages. He cracked his whip and twirled his moustache. The evening’s show had been a disaster, as usual. But this—this was the main event. This was what people had paid to see. The one act that could save the show, or at least upgrade it from horrible to strange.
Rocket Kumar, the Incredible Human Cannonball.
As the circus band struck up a stirring march, a line of mournful-looking, plump women in tiny sequined costumes pulled up a cart, on which sat a large yellow cannon made of recycled plastic. Inside the cannon, clad in a bright, sparkly red bodysuit, chewing a paan, dreaming of better days, scratching his armpit, lay our hero. Defender of the Needy. Jail-sender of the Greedy. The Incredible Human Cannonball. The Circus Superhero.
As JFK launched into an inspiring monologue, Rocket peered out through the cannon’s barrel, looking far above, towards the opening in the circus tent he was going to fly out of. He closed his eyes, and pictured himself soaring through the sky, kissing the clouds, skimming over the rooftops. Soon. Except, in the version inside his head, he was wearing a cape and superhero tights, not this ridiculous circus outfit. His body was muscular, perfect—gone were his pot-belly, his ridiculously thin legs, his ever-increasing bald patch. His hair, lustrous and thick, was more stylish than Elvis’, and the paan in his hand was filled with gelatinous sunshine. This was the real Rocket; real life was full of disappointments.
Fireworks went off. Rocket knocked his knees together, twice, and felt huge bubbles of air gurgling in his stomach, loud, angry rumbles threatening to split him apart, covered up by the rolling of circus drums. And then, with an ear-splitting, squelchy explosion, he was off, a blur of red streaking into the sky to waves of applause. The Incredible Human Cannonball. A balding, pot-bellied arrow that sped out of the circus tent and into the sky, signaling the end of the evening’s show. That wished fervently, for the millionth time, that his superpower was anything else, anything a little more socially acceptable, a little more … heroic.
Rocket Kumar was a superhero. Or at least a superperson—he’d been given the power of organic rocket propulsion by alien wizards one rainy summer evening in the late 1990s. When the Indian Superhero boom had happened in the early years of the twenty-first century, Rocket Kumar had applied for membership to all the newly formed superhero groups—and they hadn’t wanted him. It wasn’t as if they disliked him, they’d explained kindly, but ordinary people were very wary of superheroes anyway, and they had to play it safe. Superheroes had to be celebrities. They had to be public figures, adored by the masses, promoters of the best brands, shining ideals for normal mortals to adore and imitate (in spite of frequent public service warnings). Rocket just wasn’t … marketable. Consider the heroes of the Desi Defenders—King Khan, the super-strong, flying Bollywood star with his Nuclear Eyes and his Dazzling Smile; Oktata, the fastest man in South Asia; Apsara, the mysterious demi-goddess from the Himalayas; Akhada the Strong, a giant from Ludhiana; Outsource, a former IT tycoon with a love for fancy gadgets, and Item Girl, a shapeshifting detective. Now they were superheroes. Everyone knew them, loved them and bought their action figures. They had glamour, mystique and lavish endorsement contracts. All Rocket Kumar had, basically, was gas.
Gas and hope. Because tonight, the Desi Defenders were auditioning. Their seventh member, the mysterious masked cricketer/swordsman known as Square Cut, had recently left for New York and joined GenTwo, the fashionable NRI/PIO supergroup, and so they had a vacancy—a vacancy Rocket Kumar intended to fill.
By wiggling his arms frantically and twisting in mid-air, Rocket steered his way towards Defender Tower, the Desi Defenders’ headquarters. He arced jerkily towards the massive skyscraper, losing altitude fast; he bounced, hard, on the pavement in front of it, smashed through the glass door and skidded through the great hall. Massive statues of superheroes z legs that eventually stopped in front of the receptionist’s desk.
Have to work on those landings, thought Rocket for the millionth time.
Dominica D’Souza, the Defenders’ exceedingly glamorous receptionist, took off her glasses and wiped them as Rocket staggered to his feet. ‘If you’re here for the auditions,’ she said, ‘you’re late. Up the stairs, second door to the left. Try not to break anything else.’
Rocket looked at her, sighed wistfully—everyone who saw Dominica sighed wistfully—and headed off to the audition.
The Desi Defenders sat around a huge circular table, looking at the three applicants with slightly bored expressions. A strange little man in a red bodysuit, another man, a hulking specimen in what appeared to be a rhinoceros costume, a woman in tribal costume and a rather dashing man in a suit and turban. The Desi Defenders yawned. They were difficult to impress.
‘Do we really need another member?’ asked Outsource.
‘It has to be seven,’ said Apsara, rolling her beautiful eyes. ‘We’ve discussed this endlessly.’
‘Might as well get this over with,’ said Akhada. ‘Name. You, with the bleeding head.’
‘R-r-rocket Kumar, the Incredible Human Cannonball,’ said Rocket. ‘We’ve met before.’
‘We have? I don’t remember,’ said Oktata, speaking, predictably, fast. ‘What are your powers?’
‘I’m a human rocket,’ said Rocket. ‘I fly.’
‘Just flight? Anything else? Strength? Intelligence? Magic?’
‘I can play the harmonium,’ said Rocket defensively.
‘Right. Who are your sponsors?’
‘Products, man. What do you endorse?’
‘N-nothing,’ said Rocket. ‘I work at the circus. As a human cannonball.’
‘Get rid of him quickly,’ said Oktata.
‘I don’t know. We could use a comic relief member,’ said Item Girl, looking speculatively at Rocket. ‘Works with the kids. Are you funny?’
‘No,’ said Rocket firmly.
Apsara sighed tragically. ‘And who are you, sister?’ she asked the woman.
‘This is the audition for Champakali, Bride of the Tiger God, right?’ she asked nervously.
When she had left, the Desi Defenders turned to the man in the suit.
‘I’m Lucky Singh,’ he said. ‘A dashing gambler, a risk-taker, a devil of the dice. I’m a puzzle-solving genius and have a variety of luck-themed weapons. And I also own a chain of casinos, and would be happy to offer free life membership and unlimited credit if you take me.’
‘Do not try to bribe us,’ said King Khan sternly. ‘We are the Desi Defenders. And who are you?’
The squat, broad, muscular man in the rhino suit glowered. ‘Kaziranga,’ he said, in a deep, scary voice. ‘The Beast from the East. The Terror of Tezpur.’
‘You beat the Brahmaputra Brawler! I’ve heard of you,’ said Item Girl excitedly. ‘Ok, let’s see—from your costume, I would take a wild guess and say you summon rhino powers—strength, invulnerability, maybe animal communication … some kind of charging finishing move?’
‘The Horn of Horror,’ said Kaziranga. ‘And yes, to all the others.’
‘Perhaps a hero from the North-east is a good idea,’ said Apsara, turning to King Khan. ‘We’re underrepresented in the eastern zone anyway. There was Piscemoshai—remember him? But he went off to join the Underwater Adventurers, and we’ve not had anyone since then. This Lucky seems all right, but Akhada’s from Punjab already, so…’
‘I will be chosen for who I am, not where I’m from,’ said Kaziranga grimly.
The Desi Defenders looked most amused.
‘Yes,’ said King Khan finally. ‘We should still let both of them take the test, though. It looks fairer, and this rhino man might turn out to be all hide and no inside. Write that down.’
‘Right,’ said Outsource. ‘So, we have a little assignment for you, Kaziranga and Lucky.’
‘What about me?’ asked Rocket, tears welling up in his eyes.
‘You?’ asked Akhada. ‘What makes you think you are worthy to join the Desi Defenders?’
‘I have superpowers,’ said Rocket. ‘I want to help people. I could be a hero, if you let me.’ He stopped, as a roar of laughter echoed across the room.
‘Hey, I remember you!’ squealed Item Girl. ‘It’s the guy with the gas! Remember, people? The one who burned down Cutiepie Cosmetics a few years ago!’
‘That was an accident,’ said Rocket. ‘But I’m glad I did it. They were testing products on little homeless girls.’
‘In the interests of beauty, you loser!’ cried Item Girl. ‘The evidence was inconclusive! Besides, Cutiepie was heading to be a global prettiness leader!’
‘They were hurting small children. And animals, too,’ said Rocket. ‘Anyway, I didn’t mean to burn down the factory. I was just trying to rescue a clown’s daughter.’
‘Yes, burning down huge buildings is a good way to do that,’ said Outsource. ‘Anyway, look, we have a photoshoot, so let’s move this on. You can take the test, since you’re here. Tell them, King.’
King Khan stood up, regal and magnificent. ‘We hear Resham Remixer is back in town,’ he said. ‘He’s setting up a Greatest Hitmen studio by the riverside, uniting the Bhangra Bangers and the Dangerous DJs and other musical hoodlums. Go shut him down. Whoever brings back the Remixer’s CD-shaped pendant gets to join us.’
‘Will there be photographers?’ asked Lucky.
‘All that’s later,’ smiled Apsara. ‘What are you waiting for? Fame and Fortune await! Go! Be superheroes!’
In a vast warehouse by the riverside, lit up by disco lights and neon signs, the city’s newest nexus of electronic evil got down to the beat as they planned their musical mayhem. Huge speakers pulsed out deep, neighbourhood-shaking beats. Gun-toting dancers stomped in ever-changing formations or slithered around poles. In a corner of the warehouse, in a sound-proof VIP enclosure sealed off by piles of broken musical equipment, sat Resham Remixer with his audiocidal acolytes, the kingpins of the Bhangra Bangers, the Dangerous DJs, the Gangsta Gang, the Punk Punks and the Qawwali Mawalis, writing the lyrics to a song that started with music piracy and ended with world domination.
A black limousine pulled up outside the warehouse and a dapper man in a smart suit slithered out. His turban was maroon and crisp, his beard short and smart, and the gun in his hand embossed with an intricate pattern of hearts, diamonds, spades and clubs.
‘Well well. Looks like today is my lucky day,’ said Lucky Singh.
Two giant bouncers stood outside the warehouse, watching Lucky with granite expressions as he sauntered towards them. Lucky opened his mouth to speak, no doubt to say something witty involving luck, but before he could speak, one of the bouncers rumbled, ‘You’re not on the list.’
‘How unfortunate,’ said Lucky. He drew their attention to his gun. ‘How unfortunate, that is, for you.’
The bouncers seemed strangely unafraid. In fact, they weren’t even looking at Lucky; they were looking out in the distance, at what appeared to be a train made out of dust rushing towards the warehouse, heralded by a sound like thunder.
Annoyed by this lack of respect, Lucky Singh shot the bouncers in their pillar-like legs and entered the warehouse. The dust-train faded away, to reveal Kaziranga running as fast as a racehorse, a terrifying battering ram that charged straight through the warehouse wall, shattering brick and concrete, leaving a man-sized hole that let in clouds of dust and let out a deafening wave of sound.
And up in the sky, a red streak of light arced downwards, aiming at the warehouse door. Rocket hadn’t factored in wind speed, however, and ended up crashing through the warehouse roof, into a stack of empty cans, through a huge speaker, ultimately rolling to a halt at the feet of an extremely menacing Punk Punk, who was holding an even more menacing PVC-sheathed machine-gun.
I really must work on my landings, thought Rocket.
The next few minutes were a blur of activity. Kaziranga and Lucky raced about, dealing out punches, grenades, head-butts, bullets and various other forms of extreme violence. Fallen tuneful troublemakers piled up all over the warehouse, and inside the soundproofed VIP enclosure their bosses chatted on. But there were hundreds of gangsters present; they swarmed on the superheroes like flies, and soon even Kaziranga went down under a heap of rhythmically twitching bodies.
‘Don’t kill them!’ cried Rocket. ‘They’re just teenagers!’
Kaziranga nodded, burst out of the scrum and powered through another wall, making an escape route for the musical mischief-makers. An escape route that was used by dozens of gangsters during the free-for-all that followed. Lucky and Kaziranga could still have been overpowered, though, had it not been for the brilliance and bravery of the Incredible Human Cannonball.
Rocket tapped his feet together, twice, and took off. They say setting off a rocket indoors is dangerous; they are absolutely right. He bounced off walls and poles and floor and ceiling like a crazed ping-pong ball, ramming through speakers, dancers, gunmen and random bystanders, a ball of bouncy red fury. Miraculously, no one managed to shoot him; perhaps because the sight of him ricocheting around the great warehouse made them dizzy. Perhaps it was because people as brave as Rocket Kumar live enchanted lives. Whatever it was, Rocket cleared the room like a bowling ball. Kaziranga and Lucky threw off the villains that held them down, and joined in the fun. But there was only one man who could take the credit for the demolition of the Greatest Hitmen studio, and his name was Rocket Kumar. And when he was done knocking out henchmen, he made a perfect landing just outside the bosses’ soundproof chamber, standing in a truly heroic pose, like an ancient war-god. Unfortunately, momentum then caught up with him, and he fell over and rolled a good distance. One can’t have everything.
Kaziranga then burst into the soundproof chamber where the gang bosses, having observed the mayhem after a while and realised they could do nothing of any use about it, were now cowering. Bullets bounced off his skin like water droplets. With one huge, savage swing, he knocked out everyone in the room, sending Resham Remixer flying. Resham wobbled through the air across the warehouse and crashed to earth at Rocket’s feet. Instinctively, Rocket reached for his neck, where a large, shiny pendant shaped like a CD vibrated gently in time to the thumps still bursting out of the speakers. Rocket picked up the pendant and looked around triumphantly.
‘Now that was a stroke of luck,’ said Lucky.
He took a little grenade out from his pocket. It was shaped like a die, big yellow dots on red. He tossed it at Kaziranga, and the explosion knocked the rhino-hero off his feet and on the floor, unconscious. Rocket gasped in horror, and grasped Resham’s pendant tightly.
Lucky advanced towards him. His coat was in tatters and there was a cut under his eyes, but he was smiling. Very sinisterly.
‘Do hand that over, you ridiculous little piece of flab,’ said Lucky Singh, waving an elegant gun at Rocket. ‘Look at you! The Defenders would fire you within a week, for—I don’t know—being an idiot? Just toss it over, quietly. I don’t want to hurt you.’
‘But … you’re supposed to be a superhero,’ said Rocket. ‘You can’t cheat.’
Lucky laughed. ‘The reason the Defenders asked us to bring that pendant back to them was because they knew the only really dangerous part of the mission would be after one of us got the pendant. You don’t understand how the world works, Rocket Kumar. You think this is about saving little girl and making things better? Please. This is about money, baby. Power. Pushing the world along in the direction our bosses think is good for it. You’re just a circus freak. Now, the pendant, if you please.’
‘They’ll find out,’ said Rocket. ‘You’ll never fool them. They’re good people, you know. Sure, they get distracted by fame, but they are still the Defenders.’
Lucky snorted scornfully. ‘This is your last chance,’ he said. ‘Lose a pendant, or gain a bullet. Your choice. You’re all out of luck, Rocket.’
‘Look out behind you,’ said Rocket.
‘Oh, please,’ said Lucky.
He would, no doubt, have made some clever remark about luck, but he couldn’t, as Kaziranga, who had risen and crept up behind him, flattened him with a powerful punch.
And then it was just Rocket and Kaziranga, standing in the middle of the wreckage, surrounded by fallen villains, staring at each other and at the pendant.
Rocket looked at Kaziranga’s immense muscles, at his dirt-streaked costume, at the intensity of his eyes, and shivered. There was no way he could take Kaziranga in a fight.
‘The test’s not over, you know,’ said Kaziranga. ‘You still have to make it back to the tower with the pendant.’
‘I suppose you’re going to attack me now,’ said Rocket.
‘Why should I? You won it fairly,’ said Kaziranga. ‘I was just offering you helpful advice. And congratulations. I work well on my own anyway. Besides, there will be other days, other vacancies. Superheroes are short-lived, and I have a thick hide.’
Rocket held the pendant out. ‘I think you should take this,’ he said. ‘The Desi Defenders need you.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘I know you felt the same way I did at the audition,’ said Rocket. ‘Those guys have lost their way. They need to be changed from within. And you’re really good. You could do it. Stand up to them. I couldn’t. They’d just ignore me.’
‘You don’t want to join the Desi Defenders?’
‘Of course I do. I’ve always dreamed of it. But … I wouldn’t fit in. I’m not stylish. I wouldn’t look good on a billboard.’
‘Nothing a little plastic surgery wouldn’t fix. And definitely a new costume.’
‘Take the pendant, Kaziranga. I’ve decided I don’t want to be famous.’
‘But you deserve to be, Rocket Kumar. You’re braver, stronger, and more powerful than a lot of superheroes I know. The Desi Defenders could use someone like you. Hell, I’d change it all right, but you won. You should get in there and show them some stuff. A little old-school heroism. A little helping average people. A little ugly.’
‘Well, that’s too bad,’ said Rocket, tossing the pendant at Kaziranga. ‘I already have a job.’
‘What? Your circus thing? Human cannonball? Don’t be ridiculous!’
‘Not just any human cannonball,’ said Rocket Kumar proudly. ‘Rocket Kumar. The Incredible Human Cannonball.’
He tapped his heels together, and sputtered off into the sky.