There must be thousands of 68-year-olds in Chennai who are unwell and under medical supervision at the moment, but only one of them has kept the city on its toes since she was taken ill last week.
The news of J. Jayalalithaa, the chief minister of Tamil Nadu and leader of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), being admitted to the Apollo hospital due to fever and dehydration has caused an outbreak of alarm, panic and despair among her followers, affecting public life in the capital of the state.
Popularly known as Amma, or Puratchi Thalaivi (Revolutionary Leader), Jayalalithaa commands the kind of devotion among the masses that is usually the preserve of celebrity actors—she was one many years ago—causing her supporters to often behave in ways that baffle reason, decorum and sanity. Leaders of her party, irrespective of their place in the hierarchy, are regularly seen supplicating before her in public and often on camera.
But given her secretive nature, Jayalalithaa has never revealed the exact diagnosis of her condition. Left to be a mystery to the public, the various myths circulating about her health have lead to a barrage of misinformation. From diabetes to renal disease to liver trouble to gangrene in her toes, guesses about her problems are varied and just as unverifiable.
The only consistent feature of this well-worn narrative has been Amma's response to rumour-mongers: of utter ruthlessness. When Rediff carried a report last year on her health, her government filed one of its many defamation cases against the portal, accusing it of false reporting.
In the light of recent developments, the gossip mills of Tamil Nadu are once again churning "progress reports" of the chief minister's health every day, operating through various social media and, of course, WhatsApp, perhaps the most favoured channel of public communication in the country at the moment, The News Minute reported.
Jayalalithaa's retreat into the hospital, it was being whispered, was a strategic move in view of the impending verdict on the disproportionate assets case filed against her. This was followed by another speculation—misreported by a television channel in Delhi as 'Breaking News'—that Amma would be travelling to Singapore for further treatment. The claim was dismissed by the Tamil Nadu government and retracted by the press.
In the mean time, normal life came to a standstill in parts of Chennai, especially around Graems Road, where Jayalalithaa has been hospitalised. Except for ambulances, no other vehicle was allowed to get through the main entrance of the hospital, which led to friends and family of the people already being treated at the Apollo having to walk a certain distance into the building. Fearing an outbreak of violence or chaos on the streets, some companies took precautionary measures with respect to their employees, until the police stepped in to restore normal life by dispelling the rumours.
People from far and near have travelled to Chennai to stand by their dear leader in this hour of crisis. As Hindustan Times reported, some have come from as far as Tiruchy and are spending roughly 10 hours lurking around the gates of the hospital. When news of her gradual recovery was revealed, a mood of jubilation broke out. People celebrated with a feast at one of the Amma canteens established by the AIADMK government as part of its election promises.
"Amma should live hundred years, she is the goddess for Tamil Nadu," is the common sentiment among the gathered, The Indian Express noted. In extreme cases, this feeling translated into self-harm. Former policeman R. Rathinam tried to set himself on fire by pouring kerosene on himself outside the gate of the Collectorate building in Salem, Tamil Nadu. He cried out, "Long live, Amma," before proceeding with his plan. The police on duty at the spot were agile enough to prevent him from causing too much damage to himself. He was rushed to a hospital later.
This was not the first time Rathinam had taken a dramatic step to display his allegiance to his leader. As he told TNM, nothing, not even his own family, mattered to him as much as the well-being of the chief minister. In 2004, he had cut off three of his fingers at the Ramar Temple in Ayothiapattinam in the hope that Amma would win the polls with a huge margin. When a horrified Jayalalithaa tried to get medical help to him, Rathinam resisted. "Amma wanted me to get my hands treated at the Apollo hospital in Chennai but I refused. How could I take back my offering which I have given to my god?" he told TNM .
Rathinam's worshipful adoration of Amma goes back to his fervent devotion to her mentor, the legend of Tamil cinema, MGR, the founder of the AIADMK. When the latter died in 1987, Rathinam had to be kept under police observation to ensure he did not cause any grievous injury to himself.
"Amma wanted me to get my hands treated at the Apollo hospital in Chennai but I refused. How could I take back my offering which I have given to my god?"
In the meantime, the business of politics is being conducted from the recovery chambers, as the chief minister's meeting with ministers over the Cauvery water dispute would testify. Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) leader S. Ramadoss has urged her to release a video, following MGR's example at the height of his ill health in 1984, showing the improvement in her condition to dispel the confusion among the people. But no such message has been forthcoming so far.
Strange as it may seem, such a gesture of reaching out to the public is not something one would expect of a hugely popular leader like Jayalalithaa, whose private life has been shrouded in layers of enigma. In fact, as a recent biography by journalist Vaasanthi showed, a large part of the mystique of a figure like Jayalalithaa lies in her ability to cultivate this aura of inscrutability, be it in times of health or sickness.
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