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  • Don’t cry for me Islamabad

    Posted On August 28, 2000

    By Karan Thapar

    You might think it a bit odd that within the space of a few weeks four forgotten ladies from 19th century Bhopal should end up the subject of two different books but if you are the sort who frequents bookshops and pauses to read what you find you’ll soon know why. The Begums of Bhopal were special. Not just because of the two books written about them (which I commend) but because they are early examples of a phenomena that never ceases to fascinate me. It’s not a universal first principle or any such grand thing but it is an inescapable and telling social observation. Let’s see if you agree.

    This is not a male chauvinist comment but women who achieve power tend to have amazing personalities. Far more than their male counterparts – and not just because there are fewer of them – they dominate proceedings and stamp their presence on the environment. Their whims and caprices as much as their reasoned arguments and positions of principle are difficult to counter. But ultimately it’s their style that really captivates.

    In a sense this is a point the two books make. Of course, they make other points too – both more important and more historically relevant – but those are for serious study. Yet if you want to understand why women in power can fascinate then it’s to their personalities you have to turn. Both Shaharyar Khan, a direct descendent of the Begums and perhaps their rightful heir (the word perhaps is deliberate), as much as Claudia Preckel, a German Ph.D. student irresistibly drawn to the court intrigues of 19th century Bhopal, appear to accept my contention : that the style of powerful women is enthralling.

    Sociologists or psychologists will explain why and when they do they will no doubt do so at length. I shall instead offer examples to illustrate this simple but often missed point.

    Lets start with our own Mrs. Gandhi. Defeated, humiliated, arrested and jailed, she visited London in 1978 as the guest of Swraj Paul. The British press assumed she would appear before them a humbled creature, ashamed of her deeds, unable to stand up to their questioning and ready to apologise for her lapses. But they did not know her.

    Johnathan Dimbleby was the rising young star-interviewer of the time. Behind his thick-lens spectacles lay a formidable forensic brain. If anyone could ferret out the truth it was bound to be him. He invited Indira Gandhi to be interviewed and she accepted. As was her wont she sat before him with her eyes twitching (as they always did) and her manner suggesting awkwardness. Even if what follows is apocryphal it is so typical of Mrs. Gandhi you could comfortably mistake it for the truth.

    Dimbleby hit her with the preliminary findings of the Shah Commission. They were damning. Mrs. Gandhi brushed them aside. Dimbleby persisted, Mrs. Gandhi resisted. His temper started to rise, her cool stayed unaffected. His irritation became obvious, her sang froid more pronounced. At last, his anger showing, he accosted her with the worst.

    “Mrs. Gandhi” he said “either the Shah Commission Report is a lie or you are lying. I put it to you that you are not telling me the truth.”

    “Young man” she replied with withering scorn as she took off her spectacles to stare him straight in the eyes. “Don’t be impertinent.”

    Dimbleby was stunned. No one had called him ‘young man’ before. No one had had the guts to do so. And as for claiming he was being impertinent, such a reply from an interviewee was unheard of. James Callaghan (who was still Prime Minister) or Margaret Thatcher (who would soon take over) may often have wanted to but they could never summon the courage to do so. Now, this petite and fragile Indian woman with the funny twitch in her eyes had done so. And he simply did not know what to say.

    The riposte in my second example may have been different but it was equally dismissive. It happened when one of her Australian friends attempted to embarrass Benazir Bhutto. The year was 1977 and unknown to any of us her father was destined to fall from power a few months later. But at the time he was still Prime Minister of Pakistan and the daughter was the President of the Oxford Union. I was the visiting president from Cambridge and the occasion was Benazir’s farewell debate. I can’t recall the motion before the House but it hardly matters. Presidential debates are moments to praise the outgoing officer and to laugh, joke and have fun.

    When it was the Australian gentleman’s turn to speak – I can’t remember his name; history always forgets the secondary player – he rose, cleared his throat and launched into a well prepared but significantly altered song.

    “Don’t cry for me Islamabad The truth is I never left you All through my wild days, my mad existence, I kept my promise Don’t keep your distance …..

    The audience burst out laughing. The allusion was obvious and the joke, though made in fun, telling. Following the march elections, ferment had already started in Pakistan. Although the end was still unpredictable the comparison with Eva Peron was stinging.

    “Thank you, Sir” Benazir interrupted, enforcing her prerogative as president to catch the speaker off-guard. “Every Queen is entitled to a court jester but if you are looking for a job I suggest you try the Goon Show instead. I already have enough fools around me.”

    The point I’m trying to make should be obvious and I hope you will agree with it. Both ladies had the confidence to silence their critics. Mrs. Gandhi did so with scorn and Benazir, though still an undergraduate at the time, with searing sarcasm. This ability to emerge on top may be common to many politicians, several of them male, but the capacity to do so with style and to the admiration of those watching is far more unique. Women in power have it. The rest of us are best advised to sit back and applaud.

    The Express style

    There are times when I can’t recognise what I read about myself. One such was last sunday in The Indian Express. The paper published a full-page story on KBC which is my favourite television programme. As often as possible I spend weekday evenings sitting in front of the box transfixed by it. Not just that, whenever I look away it’s only to ring friends and get them to watch as well. Those of you who read Sunday Sentiments will vouchsafe for the truth of this admission.

    Yet what do I read in the Express? The paper claims in quotation marks that “I don’t even watch Kaun Banega Crorepati”. I wonder what they mean by the word ‘even’? What else don’t I watch? I wish they would tell me. But on

    -: 4 :-

    reflection perhaps the accuracy of their claim – by the way it’s theirs, not mine! – turns on the word ‘watch’. It’s true that I don’t merely watch KBC. I sit there goggle-eyed, staring at the screen unblinkingly and quite incapable of tearing myself away. Now, that’s much more than just watching. In which case may be in a rather convoluted fashion the Express is correct.

    And when it comes to giving ratings I would give a 100 out of 10 to Amitabh Bachchan and a similar score to the producers and the channel. Given that I only give myself 9 out of 10 you can see how hugely I admire the programme and its presenter!

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