The tragedy of Jayalalithaa

Kaveree Bamzai
Kaveree BamzaiDec 06, 2016 | 09:48

The tragedy of Jayalalithaa

Jayalalithaa Jayaram was a tragedy much before her tragic death. Where did the tragedy begin?

When she was two and her father’s body was brought back home and her mother Sandhya forced to start work as an actor to keep the family together financially?

As a young girl sent away to her grandparents in Bangalore to study, or when she was sent back to Chennai, always waiting to catch the attention of her busy mother?

As a 15-year-old bright topper forced by her mother’s emotional blackmail to become an actor, which she had been loath to do? Or as a 16-year-old paired against MGR, 35 years her senior, and shivering, playacting opposite him, pretending it was her “first night” and he her lover?

Or much later, when MGR started controlling her life, telling her what to wear, where to go, and what to spend, when she rebelled and didn’t speak to him for nearly a decade? 

Or even much later, when she laid claim to his legacy and recalled the symbolism of MGR placing her palm on the picture of his mother Sathya, forcing her to take a vow that she would not quit politics?

Jayalalithaa was forced by her mother’s emotional blackmail to become an actor.

Or all the many times she was abused by her rivals, who described her as a woman of low morals and easy virtue? Because she had dared to write frankly about her relationship with actor Shoban Babu? Because she had dared to question MGR, a man she had called her "father, mother, mentor, friend, philosopher and guide", a man the rest of Tamil Nadu considered God?

I am not a person to be taken lightly, she once told the now defunct Sunday magazine in a rare interview. Indeed, those who dismissed her as a pretty face did so at their peril. 

Five-time chief minister, long-time Tamil cinema sweetheart, an independent single woman much before the term became fashionable, a Brahmin in a Dravidian party, and a myth-making powerhouse who understood the importance of her legacy. Who understood the importance of emotion in politics, in a way that perhaps only Indira Gandhi before her did.

Mayawati may have her statues and Mamata Banerjee may have her Rabindra Sangeet, but nobody can equal her Amma Unavagams (canteens), laptops, salt, seeds, cement and even mobiles. In a world that doesn’t give an inch to a woman, she took the yard and more. Much before the world told women it was possible to take the apron and turn it into a cape, she did so.

She was a superwoman with a cape and a sari. The same sari that DMK supporters once tried to pull off her in Assembly when she was Leader of the Opposition in 1989 and tried to question M Karunanidhi. And when she vowed that she would not enter Assembly "until conditions are created under which a woman may attend the Assembly safely."

But, and there is always a but when it comes to a woman leader, much before Hillary Clinton ran up against the firewall of misogyny that saw America elect a self-serving tycoon with a thin skin and muddle brain.

The but is the wealth she allegedly amassed. The but is her autocratic way of functioning. The but is the way she treated her rivals. The but is what every male leader does but is forgiven for. What is viewed as qualities of a strong man are seen as aspects of an undemocratic leader in a woman.

Jayalalithaa at MGR's funeral.

This is not a plea for gender-neutral corruption or even a defence of her absolute intolerance for any kind of criticism from the media, but for an understanding of how difficult it is to be a powerful woman in India. Even for those born into power, like Indira Gandhi, but especially so for those whose origins are in the glamour industry where it is wrongly assumed that intelligence is in short supply.

Powerful women in public life have few role models and practically no accepted mythologies to back them - are they Sita, the long suffering spouse? Or Draupadi, the woman given away to five husbands, who kept her dignity intact while men around her lost theirs? Or Durga, the destroyer of evil? Or just mortal, flawed human beings with extraordinary skill to move masses?

The tragedy of Jayalalithaa is the tragedy of all single-women politicians. As she said to The Hindu in an interview in 1996 after being defeated in the Assembly elections, after Sasikala had been dramatically arrested by the Karunanidhi government and sent to jail for violations of the Foreign Exchange Regulation Act (from Amma, Jayalalithaa’s Journey from Movie Star to Political Queen by Vaasanthi, Juggernaut):

Sasikala never functioned as an extra-constitutional power centre. People must understand that a politician also needs someone to look after his or her home. A male politician has a wife at home and a woman politician has a husband or brother to take care of her personal matters. I have no one. It is only because Sasikala stepped in to take care of my household that I was able to devote my full attention to politics....After MGR’s death, I went through a very traumatic phase and I had no one at home here to help me with anything. So at that time Sasikala and Natarajan offered to help. So I accepted their help in good faith. They both came to live here.

The wedding she conducted of their son, with her playing Queen Mother, was one of her greatest self acknowledged blunders.

But that was the triumph of Jayalalithaa. She survived jail. She survived electoral defeat. She survived public ridicule. She survived politics.

Last updated: December 07, 2016 | 15:42
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