The loneliness of Jayalalithaa

Last Updated: Wed, Dec 14, 2016 12:37 hrs
280 people died of grief, shock over Jayalalithaa's death: AIADMK

Chennai: Perhaps there is something in us, which after the death of someone who has had a chequered career, makes us focus on only the good.

In the case of a politician, that can often make us wonder why our criticisms have given way to hagiographical tributes and we may choose to be contrarian, insisting that death should not yield forgiveness and highlighting the bad and ugly aspects of that chequered past.

I belong to a generation of Tamil Nadu residents who have spent most of their growing up years with Jayalalithaa for chief minister.

We can all recount the ordeal of her first term, with its traffic blockades and rumours of land grabbing and suicides from loss of revenue and its culmination in an exorbitant wedding which cost Jayalalithaa the ensuing election.

We can also recall her second term, an exercise in austerity by comparison to the first, a term dedicated to winning the support of the masses who were most offended by the infamous wedding – the people who had to struggle for food and shelter every day, for whom education was the privilege of those more fortunate and for whom wedding expenses entailed crippling loans from usurers.

Most of us would marvel at her third term in power – was this indeed the same chief minister our state had had from 1991 to 1995? The matriarch who ruled the state and started a series of eponymous welfare schemes was a very different person from the autocrat who had run the state like a fiefdom in her first term.

This complete change in image was perhaps why the floods of 2015 failed to do what the tsunami of 2004 had done – affect the outcome of the election.

But the sadness all of us feel at the death of Jayalalithaa, within months of her historic victory as incumbent, is not because we believe that the change in image was reflective of a change of heart.

We all know that Jayalalithaa was a politician. She did not hide the fact that she had to be ruthless to remain in power. She adopted the one epithet that could give her gender a positive spin in a world that is traditionally ruled by men – that of ‘Amma’.

However, the twenty five years she spent in fighting to retain the throne that was hers when she died were preceded by a longer struggle.

Few people, leave alone women, born in middle-class Brahmin families to a lawyer and a housewife in the fifth decade of the twentieth century were likely to spend 52 of 68 years in the limelight.

The tragedy of Jayalalithaa is that she was always famous, always surrounded by people, and yet always uncomfortable, if not unhappy – a misfit in every field, even if she succeeded in each one she chose.

If misfortune had not struck her family in her infancy, Jayalalithaa would likely have lived the life of most of her contemporaries – a good education leading to a profession, with marriage running as a parallel track.

Unlike most politicians, Jayalalithaa rarely changed the story of her life, and rarely made revelations. She would have liked to have become a doctor or a lawyer, having topped the state in the matriculation examination.

But her father’s early death had led her mother Sandhya to films, and Sandhya’s ambitions for her daughter – and the family’s financial situation – pushed Jayalalithaa into the same industry.

Jayalalithaa, whose performances on stage with the group United Amateur Artists (UAA) had impressed veterans of theatre, was a misfit in the more glamorous world of cinema. No less beautiful and more talented than many of her contemporaries, she nevertheless struggled with the off-screen role of heroine. Co-actors and crew members often spotted her reading books on the set.

Jayalalithaa’s career peaked early, when she co-starred with MGR, and plateaued at the peak.

Her partnership with MGR segued from cinema to politics.

Becoming his protégé and political heir meant she could not retire into the comforts her lucrative career had guaranteed her.

In politics too, she was a misfit. A woman with no background in student politics and no family in the field either, she was derided with unpleasant labels and subjected to personal attacks. Her erudition, dignity, and articulateness were useless without a benefactor to showcase them.

Her future without a mentor was apparent when she was physically shoved off the gun carriage which was taking MGR’s body to the burial site.

She surrounded herself with a family of lieutenants and sycophants, but allies usually come with a price tag, and it was suspected that Jayalalithaa’s case was no different.

She presented herself as an authority, candid to the point of being cutting, with the confidence of one who brooks no counterpoint. Yet, her life with Sasikala’s family, conducted behind sealed doors, was the subject of several conspiracy theories.

She was not free of them even in death, with close-up images of bruises on her cheeks and whispers that she did not die a natural death doing the rounds on social media.

In the meanwhile, her adoption of another family had alienated her own.

Was Jayalalithaa ever truly loved, one wonders.

Was there anyone she could truly call her own?

Did she have any bond that came without strings attached?

If the answer to any of these questions is no, it speaks to a terrible loneliness.

And that loneliness makes itself felt even through the most stoic of masks.

It was perhaps the sense of this loneliness in Jayalalithaa that stirs sorrow in those who saw her in her various avatars, starting with the smile of a sixteen-year-old state topper and ending with a lifeless face lowered into the ground with state honours.

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