The phone rang the night before I was to leave for Madras. It was from the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister's office. My heart sank. Normally, such last minute calls are harbingers of bad news.
"Sir" said a placatory voice, a touch of too eager to be the messenger of ill-tidings. "Madam would like to start tomorrow's interview at 1.30 instead of 2.00."
It was an unexceptional request. Though I breathed an audible sigh of relief I still asked why.
"It's auspicious, Sir."
Determined not to let any impediment derail the interview with Jayalalithaa I readily agreed. Three years earlier, when she first accepted to be interviewed, a Supreme Court judgement unseating her torpedoed my plans. This time, when after much persuading she had said yes again, I was on tenterhooks.
Of all the people I have wanted to interview, Jayalalithaa tops the list. She intrigues me. Her convent accent, sang-froid, deliberate manner and glide-like walk are captivating. She's so cultivated, so carefully put-together, she seems unreal.
I was therefore both nervous and excited as I entered Fort St. George. The silent army of faceless civil servants, beavering like ants, added to my tension. 'Madam' wasn't present but her presence was everywhere. The atmosphere was heavy with expectation and foreboding.
It was only the freezing cold temperature that prevented those of us waiting from swooning or going into a trance. I've never been in a colder room. My teeth were chattering, or they would have been if I hadn't kept talking. The thermostat was set at 18 but far exceeded its target.
Alas, the astrological calculations that had determined the interview hour proved false. Perhaps the stars were misinterpreted for their augury went awry. Instead Sod's Law took over. Put simply, that means everything that can go wrong will. And it did.
The trouble began with something as silly as flowers. Jayalalithaa had asked for some on the interview table. So a vast arrangement that stretched from end to end was readied. I balked and refused to allow this huge display to obstruct my view. Instead I placed them on a stool by her side.
What I did not know is that the flowers were not intended for their beauty. Jayalalithaa wanted to hide her notes behind them. In their absence, the papers she carried became visible and, as the interview proceeded, I could see her flicking through them. From time to time she even seemed to look down and read.
I suppose my mistake was to point this out. I don't know why I did it. Other interviewees have consulted papers before, although perhaps not so obviously or frequently. But on this occasion it slipped out of my mouth. Her reaction was instantaneous.
"I'm not reading" she shot back angrily. "I am looking at you straight in the eye. I look at everyone straight in the eye."
Thereafter things only got worse. I questioned Jayalalithaa about Karunanidhi, Sonia Gandhi, her ministers who habitually prostrate before her and press accusations that she is dictatorial yet, in the wake of the May elections, reversed her economic reforms to garner easy popularity. With each change of subject her smile became more forced, her voice more steely and her irritation more obvious. "I'm sorry I agreed to this interview" she said and meant it.
But it was when I turned to her belief in astrology and numerology that I sensed I had gone too far. "Who said that I believe in astrology and numerology?" she retorted, her eyes ablaze. "You say it. People in the media say it. What is the proof you have of that?"
I realised the interview was going wrong. In fact, disastrously so. In desperation I tried to claw things back. With minutes to go I said : "You are a very tough person, Chief Minister." I meant it as praise but the comment backfired. "People like you have made me so."
I felt disheartened. Events have a way of taking over and determining their own outcome. This was happening before my eyes. It was happening to me! Finally, in the last dying seconds, as I thanked her, I stretched out my hand and added "Chief Minister, a pleasure talking to you."
For a moment she stared back implacably. "I must say it wasn't a pleasure talking to you. Namaste." She rebuffed my proffered hand, unclipped and banged down her mike and left the room.
"Amma" I wanted to shout, "you've misunderstood me." But it was too late.
This article first appeared as Mr Thapar's Sunday Sentiments column in Hindustan Times on 28 October 2004. It is reproduced here with permission.