An excerpt from Anita Sivakumaran's novel, The Queen, inspired by the true story of the rise and fall of a film star who becomes one of the most powerful politicians of her time.
The meeting grounds at Madurai were even bigger than in Karaikudi. A restless crowd had gathered, large and urban, and though most of them were dyed cotton PFD supporters, there were also pockets at the back who jeered and made hyena calls as the speeches carried on. Kalai was scheduled to speak last. She felt sure this was Maran's revenge for the previous morning's fracas. Ilango, in the melee of minions at the back of the stage, whispered encouragements to her, but she hardly heard him. It was noisy everywhere. The crowds chattered among themselves, the minions chattered to the speechmakers, and the speechmakers no one heard. One after another, they droned on in a tiresome manner. Like the people of Karaikudi, the people of Madurai had not been informed PKB wasn't coming. They stood there in disappointment, without the wit to realise they could leave. They were here, and they would stay till the end. She hoped they would. Or it would look like her presence triggered the emptying of the grounds. As though she was putting people off voting for PKB.
For the moment, the crowds stayed, and the speechmakers did their best to alienate a generous audience.
Finally, Kalai's turn came. The audience stood quieter than before, the whistles and cheers fading. A woman in an orange sari smiled at her from the front row. Kalai was, after all, the legendary actress. They hadn't seen her speak in person before. A rapt young schoolboy in a corner, waiting. Their minds were open. She must not give doubt a chance to enter into her head. She cleared her throat. The mike man adjusted the height of the microphone. She began to speak even as his fingers left the microphone stem.
'People of Madurai. Madurai. Where the Tamil of Sangam lives. Madurai. The heart of the Tamils. Madurai. Our oldest and grandest city. People of Madurai, you who are the blood of our blood, in two weeks' time you not only determine the fate of your own city in the coming elections, you determine the fate of all the Tamil people.' She paused for breath. The sound of her voice ricocheted in her ears.
'It is a bad time in the world. Poverty, corruption, the decline of morals. These are enemies within as well as all around us that we fight. No. We battle! We are in a war. And your king, the bravest and most noble king of Madurai, Sudarapandyan, "Maduraiyai meeta Sundarapandyan" himself is preparing for war. He is asking you, loyal citizens, brave souls, to join the fight. Take up the mantle and the sword, look around at your possessions, your rivers and fields. Look at your families. Fly. Fly to defend them from the evils of corruption, poverty and the hundred other enemies that besiege us. Fight beside your king, shoulder to shoulder. Our king who is determined to save you and all the Tamil lands from the outsiders, the Cheras, the Mughals, the British, and all the evils that they bring.'
She paused for effect, carried on before they could applaud or jeer: 'But you are saying, we are not in a movie! We are not in the costumes of the soldiers of the Pandya king. We do not have to fight the Cheras and the Mughals any more. The British left. The times may have changed, but the enemies remain, undefeated, in different forms, fooling you into believing you are safe. No, become alert and vigilant. Use your power. You may no longer need swords and shields. Then how do I fight? You ask. You have the power of the vote. Vote to keep your lands and wealth in good order. Vote to eradicate poverty and corruption. Vote for the only leader who has the interest of the common people at his heart, not the interests of his nephews, cousins, sons and daughters in the party hierarchy. Vote for the party of your King Sundarapandyan, who rises to battle every day on your behalf. Vote for PKB. Vote for the Coconut Frond!'
As she raised her fingers above her head in a sign of victory, flushed, she wondered if she had gone too far. She was only just becoming truly aware of the vast physical presence of the crowds before her. She had not watched their reactions at all through the speech.
The world seemed to hold on the in-breath. Her fate, her life itself seemed to hang, precarious, above some black chasm. Then the applause began. To her amazement, it rolled higher, bigger, like thunderclouds in the sky, till it became deafening. She wanted to stoop beneath its power. Instead, she stood taller, raised her hand with its victory salute higher. The people, it seemed, loved hyperbole.
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