Woman Power

Indira Gandhi: The alpha female who was attracted to alpha males

She was a petite virago, the horse-riding, skiing girl-boy, whose identity was defined by power and lineage rather than by gender.

Indira Gandhi was widowed at 43, a young, attractive and stylish woman in the prime of life, radiant with good health and energy, eager to claim her place in the political sun. Did she miss an intimate male presence in her life? In 1966, there were rumours that Dinesh Singh, the handsome and sophisticated raja of Kalakankar and a minister in her first cabinet, was her lover and even functioned as the power behind the throne.

There were rumours, too, of her closeness to spiritual leader and yoga instructor Dhirendra Brahmachari in his younger days, and about her alleged romantic involvement with Jawaharlal Nehru’s secretary MO Mathai. However, her close associates strongly refute these rumours. “It was just not possible for her to have an affair,” said former Congress leader Natwar Singh. “There were security men under the bed! Dinesh Singh only spread rumours about his so-called closeness to her to advance his own cause and was soon turfed out. Of course, you’re not made of wood but this is the price you pay – you don’t have a private life.”

Gandhi loved being admired and being the centre of attention of good-looking, witty and intelligent men, but, as her friend Pupul Jayakar writes, “the sexual side of her was underdeveloped”. She confessed to Jayakar:

“I do not behave like a woman. The ‘lack of sex’ in me partly accounts for this. When I think of how other women behave, I realise that it is the lack of sex and with it a lack of woman’s wiles, on which most men base their views on me.”

The “lack of sex”, the reluctance to play a subordinate, seductive role was a subconscious resistance to male authority. She may have submitted for a while to her father Jawaharlal Nehru, husband Feroze Gandhi and son Sanjay Gandhi but rebelled against them as well, entering full-time politics with gusto against her father’s wishes, refusing to be a Lucknow wife to a parliamentarian husband, lifting the Emergency in defiance of her aggressive younger son.

Indira Gandhi with her father Jawaharlal Nehru in New Delhi in 1961. Photo credit: AFP.
Indira Gandhi with her father Jawaharlal Nehru in New Delhi in 1961. Photo credit: AFP.

When dominating principal secretaries like PN Haksar asserted their wisdom too much, she removed them. When American presidents thought they could take “the pretty girl” for granted, she thumbed her nose at them. “I’m not a feminist,” she said. “Till I was 12 years old I hardly knew the difference between being a boy or a girl. I was brought up amongst boy cousins climbing trees, flying kites and playing marbles.” Instead of a feminist, she confessed to being a “biform human being” like her grandfather, Motilal Nehru, neither man nor woman, and the man in her personality was more dominant than her feminine nurturing side.

Drawn to power-wielding men

Indira Gandhi was an alpha female who was drawn to alpha men, preferring sinners to saints. Motilal Nehru, Feroze Gandhi and Sanjay Gandhi were the alpha males in her life. Brought up by a refined and intellectual father, she was paradoxically drawn towards darker versions of men – aggressive, dynamic men on the make who perhaps satisfied her own latent adventurous, defiant side. Perhaps hers was a subconscious revolt against the high bar set by Nehru, or perhaps insecure about wielding power without too much political conviction, she turned towards brash, power-wielding men rather than towards philosopher-idealists like her father, with whom she had never been able to communicate easily and who might disapprove of her methods. Sanjay Gandhi was that more hotheaded wildchild sort of man, so was Feroze Gandhi and so was MO Mathai with whom she allegedly had a relationship.

Sanjay Gandhi was the last of the naughty boys to whom she warmed more intimately than she did to her cerebral father or her other son, the gentle Rajiv Gandhi. If Jawaharlal Nehru was the saint-hero, these men were the anti-Jawaharlal, the opposite of saintly.

Indira Gandhi lifted the Emergency in defiance of her aggressive younger son Sanjay Gandhi.
Indira Gandhi lifted the Emergency in defiance of her aggressive younger son Sanjay Gandhi.

Gandhi’s relationships with men were a contest of wills, her powerful personality and dominating presence – however softly expressed – invariably leading her into conflict with family patriarchs who misjudged her as retiring and malleable. She fought powerful men at every turn, anxiously sought approval from the men she loved and used feminine unpredictability to stymie the men who plotted against her.

She would say of her relationship with Feroze Gandhi:

“We quarrelled a lot yes, we were two equally strong types, equally pig-headed – neither of us wanted to give in. And I like to think that those quarrels enlivened our life, because without them we would have had a normal life but banal and boring. We didn’t deserve a normal banal and boring life.” 

"We quarrelled a lot", Indira Gandhi said of her husband Feroze Gandhi. Photo courtesy: YouTube.
"We quarrelled a lot", Indira Gandhi said of her husband Feroze Gandhi. Photo courtesy: YouTube.

Indira Gandhi and Feroze Gandhi were more alike than different, both were strong, rugged individualists with an urge to dominate the other.

In politics, Congress bosses thought of Gandhi as a goongi gudiya (dumb doll), fooled by her early quiet and shy manner. As prime minister, when she asserted her will against them, split the Congress, took over the party and made herself its supremo, they were left bewildered at the blitzkrieg she had unleashed, taken aback by what a formidable woman she was. Growing up in early 20th century India, when openly assertive women were regarded as unacceptably outrageous, Indira Gandhi concealed her firepower under a cloak of demure girlishness, yet lashed out unexpectedly against her father and husband when their expectations of her ran counter to her own ideas of the larger role she wanted to play. Indira Gandhi was a petite virago, the horse-riding, skiing girl-boy, Indu-boy, whose identity was defined by power and lineage rather than by gender, and she was drawn to equally dominating daredevil men.

In politics though, she opted squarely for loyalists over equals; any show of dynamism, autonomy or alpha male-ness in party colleagues always alerted her to grave danger ahead.

Sagarika Ghose is the author of Indira, India’s Most Powerful Prime Minister.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.