By Lavanya Narayan Dec. 07, 2016
I was an outsider in Chennai. But as years passed, my indifference toward Jayalalithaa turned into admiration.
grew up outside India, a happily apolitical and largely unaware creature. Apart from the Thackeray family of Maharashtra (the state I was born in and vaguely call home), the Nahyan and Maktoum families of the United Arab Emirates, my knowledge of politics was (and still probably is) like Mysore Pak – crumbly and something that gets over in a matter of seconds.
When I was 10 years old, I became an inadvertent viewer of Sun TV’s 8 pm news bulletin, thanks to my grandmother. Whether or not I understood Tamil, I was certain about one thing: The woman with the glowing face, clad in beautiful silks was a force not to be messed with. Maybe I could see it in the way people reacted to her on TV – the supplication and the hysteria – or maybe I saw it in my grandmother’s own unblinking fixation whenever Jayalalithaa spoke. I refused to call her Amma though.
When I moved to Chennai in 2014, I was no closer to understanding the city’s fixation with Jayalalithaa. I remember being amazed at streets full of posters, billboards, and murals with that same glowing face on them. Chennai was covered like the room of a prepubescent girl with a desperate crush on Nick Carter from the Backstreet Boys. I remember how movie intervals were used advantageously to play clips commissioned by the AIADMK, boasting of Jayalalithaa’s tireless efforts for the state’s betterment and prosperity, and the godlike ring of the “Jayalalithaa is watching you” account on Tumblr. I wondered whether it would be too risky to base my dissertation on the outpouring of adulation for her because whether I admitted it to myself or not, my indifference had turned to admiration too. I hadn’t, until then, met a woman who left no stone unturned to let everyone know that she was the boss.
The violent streak of the Tamil supporter brought a new nuance into this equation. On September 27, 2014, Jayalalithaa was sentenced to four years in prison following an epic two-decade battle in a disproportionate assets case and Chennai was asked to stay indoors. Riots and violence left Tamil Nadu on tenterhooks. Buses were burnt, innocent bystanders were pulled up and thrashed. Journalists, amateur and professional, crept through the carnage to get a byte worth publishing without being pounced upon or possibly killed. Eventually, the violence died down and in 2015, the verdict was overturned. The Mother of Tamil Nadu was back in business; celebrations erupted across the state. By now my admiration was tinged with disgust, an unsettling combination like banana and bacon.
Chennai was all doom and gloom. The cabbie, who was ferrying me back from work, crashed twice in his hurry to get home, away from any rioting.
Over the years, I got to know a lot more about the woman who ruled my city with an iron fist. Her unabashed vote-bank pandering with freebie schemes, her relentless pursuit of secrecy, her unwavering determination, and of course, her failing health. Her once round face, laced with grit and a smile unforgettable by most, was slowly becoming thinner and paler. At times, even her stage-managed appearances failed to disguise signs of her limited mobility. Jayalalithaa reminded me of Elizabeth Taylor, persistent not with multiple marriages but with multiple terms as the state’s chief minister. Amid all the cases of corruption, her stints in prison, and her vast array of health issues, my feelings turned into an unholy mixture of veneration and contempt with a pinch of pity.
On Monday morning, news of Jayalalithaa’s cardiac arrest lingered on our minds like a hangover from drinking too much citrus-flavoured vodka. Her condition was “extremely grave” and the situation seemed pretty bleak. Government cars with red beacons whizzed past Chennai through the day. The number of cops on the streets gradually increased. It was only a matter of time until the formal announcement of Jayalalithaa’s eventual death was made. On top of my rational mind, was the thought of how the city would suffer in the aftermath of possible violence like it did after the demise of MGR. Those were tense moments.
I rode back home in a cab. Chennai was all doom and gloom. The cabbie, who was ferrying me back from work, crashed twice in his hurry to get home, away from any rioting. As I peeked out of the window, I saw the streets starting to resemble a scene from 30 Days of Night. Shopkeepers pulled down their shutters with haste. People on the streets panicked, they were desperate to get indoors. As my cab pulled over to the side of the street where I live, I saw policemen barricading access to the road from the other end. It felt like the gates were being shut on an era of greatness. An inexplicable wave of grief washed over me.
I don’t know when or how I had fallen prey to Amma’s enigma. I had entered the city as an outsider, like a nomad entering a town isolated unto itself, seeing everything as it was with no filters or explanation and very little to fall back on. I had no respect for her politics, her easy schemes, or the obsequious devotion she demanded of her workers, and yet, in spite of myself, I had merged with the unassailable tide of sorrow.
On Monday night, I sat like my grandmother had all those years ago, glued to the TV, watching Jayalalithaa’s luminous face light up the screen. It was an old video of her appearance on Rendezvous with Simi Garewal, where she spoke about her love for Bollywood and even sang “Aajaa Sanam Madhur Chandani”. I finally realised where the grief came from. For all her visible faults, Jayalalithaa had created for her people a magnificent dream. She had been a repository of illogical hope and a symbol of achievable possibility and her death has left a giant hole in the heart of the state.
Amma is gone, I thought to myself for the first time, as I watched millions trudging to pay their last respects to their revered leader the next day. Amma is really gone. And there will be no other.
Lavanya is a wayward gender-bending writer and actor who deals with boozing, being culturally confused and hugging her cat and dog on a daily basis. If not for this, she would have been Meryl Streep's butt double.