For years, Chelsea Clinton came up with a “visceral no” when asked if she wanted to go into politics. Well into her thirties now, her viscera seem to be mellowing. She gives a less certain answer now. Who knows, she says, what she might find herself going into, now that she is looking after the family foundation, and her mother is no more just her father’s (briefly wronged) wife? With the daughters and wives of the powerful and the rich, it is difficult to make out whether ‘going into’ something is also not ‘giving in’ to it. Some daughters spend the greater part of their youth trying not to be their parents — Ms Clinton drifted determinedly from academia to McKinsey to Wall Street, with a lot else thrown in — but what awaits them at the end are the dread D words. Not Dissent or Duty, but something altogether more dramatic. Destiny. With its larger-than-life feel, it narrowly misses being the anagram of its evil twin, Dynasty, while the modern world seems fixated on the nicest D-word of all — Democracy.
When it comes to daughters and wives, and their dramas of destiny and dynasty, American history fails to come anywhere near the serial tragedies of Asian politics. Only Greek tragedy and its modern but no-less-neurotic descendant, German opera, could compete with the diva daughters, wives and mothers of Asian, especially South Asian, politics — however different, culturally, their worlds and times may be. Think of Elektra, Salomé and Brünhilde, and how the combined geniuses of Euripides, Aeschylus, Wagner, Wilde, Hofmannsthal and Strauss are needed to play out the full range of how these daughters rise and fall and bring their houses — and the house — down with their dances of death. Vengeance, victimhood and violence are inextricable from one another as much in the opera of politics as in the politics of opera.
What is destiny but the mingling of bloodiness with blood? The Gandhis and the Bhuttos come most readily to mind. In both families, the roles of daughters and mothers and wives get hopelessly entangled with the deaths and lives of fathers and husbands and brothers — and to violent, futile or ineffectual ends. In Sri Lanka, the modern world’s first female head of government came to power in the wake of her husband’s assassination. Sirimavo Bandaranaike became not only the president but also the “Weeping Widow” in the eyes of her opponents. Her daughter, Chandrika — under whose rule as president Sirimavo got demoted to prime minister — out- manoeuvred her mother’s politics of victimhood. Corazon Aquino, the first female president of the Philippines, also bore the legacy of a slain husband. She became the “Mother of Sorrows”, whose Catholic disapproval of divorce and abortion went hand in hand with her dynasticism.
Is it a coincidence, then, that both in classical Athens, where women were as unfree as slaves, and modern Asia, where patriarchy often overrides democratic freedom, the powerfulness of daughters comes with kinds of tragedy that make the skirmishes and ambitions of the Clinton family look positively wholesome and bland?