“UNDOUBTEDLY THE MOST unattractive women in the world are the Indian women,” Richard Nixon said to his national security advisor, Henry Kissinger, and to the White House chief of staff, H. R. Haldeman, in June 1971, in the Oval Office. So reported Professor Gary J. Bass in The New York Times recently, after being allowed for the first time to listen to tapes of conversations that had previously been partly censored. “‘Undoubtedly,’ he repeated, with a venomous tone,” Bass wrote.
The immediate context for these views was the historic political context in South Asia at the time — Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the Bengali leader from East Pakistan, had won the Pakistani elections on the back of the sheer numbers of his constituency; the West Pakistanis sent in their army to overturn the election results; a Bengali resistance force was created, abetted and funded by an India led by Indira Gandhi; the United States, under Nixon and Kissinger, was backing West Pakistan.
There was genocide next door: millions of refugees were entering India via West Bengal and Assam; but on December 16, 1971, the West Pakistani Army would surrender to India and East Pakistan would be reborn as Bangladesh. As all this was happening, or waiting to happen, Nixon was emphasizing the unattractiveness of Indian women to his advisors. “The most sexless, nothing, these people,” he said, comparing them unfavorably with Africans: “Well, you can see something, the vitality there, I mean they have a little animallike charm, but God, those Indians, ack, pathetic. Uch.”
We have long known that Nixon was a scoundrel and Kissinger, politically, a reprobate — but did we realize they were idiots, too? It seems that in 1971, the Oval Office was where geopolitics and Dr. Strangelove met Bottom, a British comedy series in which two losers — to use a word given unfortunate currency by Donald Trump — spend a lot of time making grand plans and pronouncements to do with women when they’re not sleeping or throwing up. American presidents — Reagan (“trees cause more pollution than automobiles do”); Ford (“there is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe”); Bush Jr.’s innumerable Bushisms — have made notable contributions to public stupidity, and, more recently, with Trump, to a genre of incredible dystopia. But Nixon, one had thought up until now, was involved in the less entertaining domains of chicanery and falsehood, and Kissinger, who mumbled his replies inaudibly in these conversations, in the perpetration of massive political cynicism — who would have suspected how they really spent their time?
“To me, they turn me off,” Nixon continued about Indian women. “How the hell do they turn other people on, Henry? Tell me.” To this inquiry was added, a few days later — in direct connection to Mrs. Gandhi — a matter of scientific concern: “I don’t know how they reproduce!” On first reading this, it seemed to me there was enough material here for a radio play, if not a full-fledged theater production.
Bass’s report encourages us, nonetheless, to reassess the power dynamics between world leaders based on class and gender — as opposed to just military and economic strength — as well as style: a word that encompasses cultural histories that may or may not be fully understood, but whose presence in an interface is nonetheless palpable. Part of the way that The New York Times invites us to read Bass’s text is by cleverly situating, midway through the article, a photograph of a resplendent, self-possessed Mrs. Gandhi sitting next to a suited Nixon. Both are smiling, but the latter appears to be slightly unhappy: not because Mrs. Gandhi is “repulsive,” but because of something we can only guess at.
One reason could be Mrs. Gandhi’s intransigence when it came to American geopolitical interests, her own strategic preference for the Soviet Union, her role in a political bloc that her father, Nehru, had created with Egypt’s General Nasser, Indonesia’s Sukarno, Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah, and Yugoslavia’s Josip Tito — not the ornamental Commonwealth, which, with its ritual exhibitions of cultural amity, provided a sort of political precursor for the literary festival, but the more nobly purposed “nonaligned movement” (NAM), meant to stay aloof from both the Soviets and the neocolonial United States (though it was often weighted in favor of the Soviets).
This rebuff partly explains, in the photo, Mrs. Gandhi’s pleasurable self-possession and Nixon’s discomfiture. Although Mrs. Gandhi became an abhorrent antidemocrat, imposing the Emergency in India in 1975 and revoking fundamental rights for almost two years — the culmination of policies and machinations that would do irreparable long-term harm to India’s electoral processes — she was no Vajpayee, Modi, nor even Manmohan Singh when it came to the United States. They had made it clear they wanted to be loved by the United States; she was at pains to imply, through policy and body language, that India didn’t need the United States — whether or not they needed India — just as Nehru had made the same thing clear to Nixon’s rival and predecessor, John F. Kennedy.
There’s something else the photo reveals which may have irked Nixon. In part, it’s class privilege. Nixon was born poor, and his poverty made him turn to the conservative right rather than to the left; Mrs. Gandhi had inherited from her father both privilege and socialism. So there was probably a double resentment here, a subterranean anger.
The photograph captures the unease of Nixon’s encounter with the cultural history of Indian modernity. It’s there in the specific beauty of the sari and the way it’s being worn: the latter an innovation that goes back to the 19th century. The sari’s wide printed border is another innovation: it appears to be a heavy dark silk called tussar, with a printed border made popular in the ’70s by a shop called Ananda in Calcutta, adopted for its restraint and finesse by the educated elite. In the winter months, it and silk Kanjivarams were worn for the same reason: subtlety of color and texture. The sari Mrs. Gandhi is wearing is neither ancient nor colonial; it’s from a modernity that long predates Independence, and was still creatively morphing in 1971. It comprises a legacy that would have imparted to Mrs. Gandhi a confidence which was quite unlike the so-called coming-of-age confidence, the brashness, of globalized India.
Globalization not only destroyed that legacy and its markers (like this particular genre of sari); it made that history inaccessible. Nixon would have sensed it when he glanced at Mrs. Gandhi, and he’d have found it inexplicable. It dwarfs him in the photograph.
There’s also the matter of gender, which Nixon obsesses over, alongside race. When he says, “I don’t know how they reproduce,” he means, “Why do I have to deal with a woman at this level?” or, more pointedly, “What is it about Indian history that could have possibly given them a woman prime minister, when there’s hardly another one elsewhere?”
Indira Gandhi’s entry onto the world stage has partly to do with her family name, partly with her increasing appetite for control and her drive toward manipulation, and partly with a modernity that had created, in India, extraordinary women. This was not an outcome of a colonial civilizing mission, but of a radical societal experiment. It brought into existence women you didn’t turn to necessarily for succor, but for intellectual integrity and courage. Mrs. Gandhi’s integrity diminished rapidly, but her courage didn’t. Her self-possession comes from belonging to an ethos that had produced, in the 1880s, the British Empire’s first women graduates from Calcutta University: Kadambini Ganguly and Chandramukhi Basu. Ganguly and Bombay’s Anandibai Joshi were among the Empire’s first women physicians; and the first woman to read law at Oxford was Cornelia Sorabji of Bombay.
Nixon’s remarks have caused retrospective outrage for their racism and misogyny, as have Kissinger’s melodramatic generalizations: “They are a scavenging people. […] They are superb flatterers, Mr. President. They are masters at flattery.”
To me this sounds — going back to Bottom — like an exchange between two ungainly men troubled by inadequacy. They’ve become powerful, but haven’t been able to shake off, in their heads, who they are. We think that racism is an attribution of inferiority, but it’s equally plausible that it’s an expression of it. When the West began to conquer the world, it was at first stunned by the refinement and the superiority (whether that was cultural or even physical) of what it was destroying. Racism originated as a rationalization of envy.
In 1858, the art critic John Ruskin gave a lecture at the South Kensington Museum in London which begins by describing the acute disappointment he felt when traveling in the north of Scotland: “[I]t seemed to me that there was a peculiar painfulness in its scenery, caused by the non-manifestation of the powers of human art.” Then Ruskin expresses the wonder he experienced following his coming into contact with artifacts from India:
Among the models set before you in this institution, and in the others established throughout the kingdom for the teaching of design, there are, I suppose, none in their kind more admirable than the decorated works of India. They are, indeed, in all materials capable of colour, wool, marble, or metal, almost inimitable in their delicate application of divided hue, and fine application of fantastic line. Nor is this power of theirs exerted by the people rarely, or without enjoyment; the love of subtle design seems universal in the race.
There’s a political context here. The Indians rebelled against the British East India Company in 1857 (the Sepoy Mutiny), and the Crown took over India in 1858, the year Ruskin delivered the lecture. After a couple of paragraphs, Ruskin’s admiration becomes resentment, and resentment manifests itself as bizarre quasi-rational pronouncement: “Since the race of man began its course of sin on this earth, nothing has ever been done by it so significative of all bestial, and lower than bestial degradation, as the acts of the Indian race in the year that has just passed by.” But the Scottish Highlands? “Out of the peat cottage come faith, courage, self-sacrifice, purity, and piety, and whatever else is fruitful in the work of Heaven…”
It took both politics and a fragile sense of civilizational self-worth to cause Ruskin, the most perceptive English art critic of his time, to make this strange extrapolation from his own unequivocal assessment of artistic value. Western power has dominated other cultures, but has struggled with the ways in which it has been challenged by their achievements.
Amit Chaudhuri is the author of seven novels, the latest of which is Friend of My Youth. He is also a poet, a critic, and a musician and composer. He is a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and professor of contemporary literature at the University of East Anglia. His new book of essays is The Origins of Dislike.