By Shiv Visvanathan
Women in power are always fascinating. Unlike tyrannical men, they have a certain mystique. Tyrants like Hitler or Mussolini, or Mao seem larger than life, but they seem to lack an interior self.
Think of Indira Gandhi and Narendra Modi. Modi is like a hoarding. He is only a public expression of himself. It is as if what is inside has no value. Indira Gandhi, in contrast, appears more intriguing, more private. You want to read her diary. Modi remains a pracharak magnified. There is no poignancy to the man or his life. His career from pracharak to Chief Minister is like a collection of identical nesting Chinese dolls.
Margaret Thatcher was probably the most dominant woman in power in recent times. The Iron Lady is the sobriquet that the admiring Russians gave her, seeing her as a male Stalin, which literally means 'man of steel.'
Iron Lady, the movie, is about an older Margaret Thatcher looking back on her years in power. The big events of history become nostalgia, playing out as memory. All she has now for conversation and company is an imaginary ghost. The rest of memory shrinks to an old album or to postcards invoking a happier time. The body gives way, the chin becomes a jowl, the hair fades, memory weakens and what she clings to is hallucination.
We see Margaret Thatcher talking to her dead husband. It is a strange love affair between a woman who wanted to create history and be history and a man who felt that a crossword puzzle was more durable than the House of Commons. Dennis Thatcher’s normalcy humanises her. Here was a man happier in the golf course than in the corridors of power. Yet the message is clear that women in power render men impotent, turn them in backroom gossips, unable to grasp the dominance of women.
Yet the mystery of a woman in power is difficult to sociologise. Calling Thatcher a grocer’s daughter, as her rivals did, adds little to answering the question that intrigues us all: what drives a woman to power? It is odd that we do not question a man’s quest for power with the same intensity. Women in power seem an anomaly. Even the movie fails to answer it looking at the cost of power rather than the drive for power.
The Iron Lady is not really a story of Britain in the last decades. It is a fragment, a meditation on power and what makes it historic is the acting. Meryl Streep immortalises Thatcher with an incredible performance showing how old age creates a body politic of its own, summoning history as fragments, creating a new space where a terrorist bomb and an old cupboard seem to have equal value. Old age and history in moth balls have this much in common. They feel musty. The body avenges itself. It slowly decays, fails and tells power that it is only a skit in a more complex drama of time.
What happens when the grace and rhythm of power disappear in old age and a walking stick replaces an imagined sceptre? I have watched secretaries walking imperviously around North Bloc, stuttering within a few days of retirement. The body shrinks, and what remains is drooling memory. There is something about sexuality and power where absence leaves it totally flaccid. All one confronts is a shell, or the poignancy of autobiography seeking its revenge on history. It is almost as if the violence Thatcher does to herself is only a consequence of the violence she does to society.
Imagine if Indira Gandhi had not been assassinated. Imagine her sitting quietly watching the inanities of Congress, grown senile, mistaking Rajiv for Feroz, summoning Sanjay, replaying Bangladesh or the Emergency and wondering what went wrong. Think of Jayalalithaa out of power skulking in a hill station hovering over the real estate she has acquired. Or can we imagine an old Mayawati doddering around her giant statues, sniffling at photographs of her garlanded in currency notes?
For an Indian viewer, British history is irrelevant before this more universal fable of power. As a fable, the movie asks us whether we who think of India as a young nation, a youngistan can really confront old age today? Can India portray the politics of old age, the frailty of the powerful when power has gone? Can we watch a body thicken, blotch up, slow down, drone away when a society is obsessed with youth? Can an India which exiles film stars at thirty create an Iron Lady? Or would we censor it because we cannot watch ourselves grow old?
As a society, we do not have the courage to tell the story of our leaders in their everydayness, struggling towards the bathroom. We evade history by hiding behind myth or creating folklore about them. Maybe we see myth as an answer to history and autobiography; a way to rescue our leaders from mortality, using myth to preserve them in amber. If Thatcher were Indian, she would have been immortalised in some pantheon, garlanded as a latter day Durga. Sadly, she is British and therefore subject to vagaries of old age, allowed to deteriorate without the costume of power into the frailty of mere humanity.
History, as truth, is cruel.
Shiv Visvanathan is a Social Science nomad.