POLITICS

The Jayalalithaa Of My Childhood Was Complicated, And Thus She Would Remain

It's true she triumphed in a society filled with men. But then, as it turned out, she was not much better than them. 

07/12/2016 1:13 PM IST | Updated 07/12/2016 2:24 PM IST
AFP/Getty Images
Indian supporters of Indian politician and actress Jayalalithaa Jayaraman, light candles as they pay tribute after her death, in Allahabad on December 6, 2016.

I saw the woman, who was at once desirable and as old as my mother, a very confusing union then, being slapped and kicked by some men on the open, slow hearse. It was Christmas eve, 1987. I was watching Doordarshan's live broadcast of MGR's final journey, and I took some time to figure out it was Jayalalithaa who was receiving the blows.

Most regular people had not seen her in years and knew her only as a former film star and MGR's rumoured love interest. I was thirteen but the story behind the incident on the hearse did not seem complex. The family and sidekicks of MGR were driving away the challenger to the legacy. It was an age when dramatic visuals from real life were very rare and the assault on Jayalalithaa was my first experience of a violent, disturbing video.

A mysterious phenomenon followed. Some of the Tamil films that were broadcast on Sunday evenings began to show Jayalalithaa in scenes that were raunchy by the standards of that age. I remember one vividly.

Jayalalithaa tried to be defiant but the blows were probably severe and she withdrew. What she attempted to do on the hearse was not merely an act of love for a man, who had in fact grown to dislike her towards the end of his life, as I would learn many years later. Her action is best explained by Frank Underwood in House of Cards: "Power is a lot like real estate, it's all about location, location, location. The closer your are to the source, the higher your property value." She knew that, of course.

The Party chose MGR's wife, Janaki, to lead. That woman was certainly not interested but she was inspired to accept the job probably because she knew it would otherwise go to Jayalalithaa.

A mysterious phenomenon followed. Some of the Tamil films that were broadcast on Sunday evenings began to show Jayalalithaa in scenes that were raunchy by the standards of that age. I remember one vividly. She is having a bath and the soap slips out of the tiny bath enclosure and she has to now walk towards the soap. Only her bare legs are shown, of course. A naked bathing woman is somehow not as exciting as a naked woman walking to another part of the bathroom. Or, maybe, it was just that I was thirteen.

In time Jayalalithaa would win because she was interesting, and the impoverished women loved her because they considered her useful.

She was not diminished by the many attempts to show her as a loose woman. Sexual morality appeared to matter only to the middle classes that ran the media. Among the voters there was never an expectation from politicians to be regular or even idealistic. Just remarkable, hence useful. That was a quality the mainstream media always refused to accept. It understood politics through its own lame values, and portrayed elections as a moral judgment of the masses, which it never was in Tamil Nadu, or anywhere else in the nation.

In time Jayalalithaa would win because she was interesting, and the impoverished women loved her because they considered her useful.

It is an intriguing quality of famous people that they never interpret the affections of millions as proof that humanity is endearing. They are instead radicalized by the hatred of the few who matter to them--of lovers, colleagues and friends. And Jayalalithaa was disappointed by the people who once mattered to her.

Hindustan Times via Getty Images
NEW DELHI, INDIA NOVEMBER 2, 1991: (File Photo) Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa with BJP Leader LK Advani at National Integration Council Meeting on November 2, 1991 in New Delhi, India. Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa suffered a cardiac arrest late on December 4, 2016. She has been put on a heart assist device. Jayalalithaa has been in intensive care since September 22, after she complained of fever, dehydration and congestion. It had been announced on December 4 that she had made a full recovery. (Photo by SN Sinha/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

She treated both men and women poorly but because there are always more men than women in a given Indian moment, an optical heritage of her despotic rule would be the many ways in which she made large burly powerful men worship her. She made them stand in long lines and come to her to fall at her feet. Falling at the feet, in Tamil Nadu, is an act that allows no ambiguity. It is not how it is in the North where a man, in the presence of an elder, would bend and appear to reach for the senior's crotch and everyone would accept it as feet-touching.

HuffPost India

HuffPost India

In Tamil Nadu you lie down with the full frontal touching the ground. And you lie, and you lie. Thousands of men have worshipped her in this manner even though they wore whites. She also put powerful men in geometric formations and made them stand with their palms joined. She made them cry, she made them run behind her car and touch the tyres of her car because her feet were not available.

She was never a feminist icon in Tamil Nadu because her true supporters were not acquainted with the label. She was more saint, and a beloved alms-giver to poor women. Once, she went on a death fast in Chennai. It was a ludicrous scene. She was a plump woman then. All around her malnourished women wailed and made a gesture as though they were asking for food. But what they were doing was begging her to eat.

As Tamil Nadu's most powerful woman, she did almost nothing transformative to its society. She did not alter the lives of poor women. She did not groom women to replace her because she was as suspicious of women as she was of men.

As Tamil Nadu's most powerful woman, she did almost nothing transformative to its society. She did not alter the lives of poor women. She did not groom women to replace her because she was as suspicious of women as she was of men. In the tradition of mediocre Tamil politicians she gave away stuff and trained the society to be grateful for the alms. She not only accepted bribes, she also bribed the masses. Somewhere along the way she was, among other things, accused of having acid thrown on a woman's face.

It is true that she had triumphed in a society filled with men, violent dangerous men. But then, as it turned out, she was not much better than them.

More On This Topic