By Shambhavi Saxena:
Up till the age of 10, nearly all my summers were spent at my paati’s (grandmother) house in Chennai, a city we still fondly referred to as Madras in those days. It was the very early 2000s, and the drive down from the airport was always an event for me, because of the rows and rows of billboards advertising cars and phones (apart from other things). And multitudes of these were invariably covered with images of the same matronly woman. I’d often seen relatives grumbling in Tamil at the very mention of her, but it wasn’t until many years later that I began to understand the full significance of the ‘woman on the billboards’. And what couldn’t be discussed even during my political science classes at school, has been encapsulated by Vaasanthi’s new book, “Amma”.
Subtitled “Jayalalithaa’s Journey from Movie Star to Political Queen”, it is a story of how sheer grit and a sharp mind got J. Jayalalithaa to where she is today – one of the few women Parliamentarians in India, having served as Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu for five whole terms.
But “Amma” is very different from the news reports and even telecasts of Jayalalitha that we are so used to seeing. The book looks at its subject with a touch of humanity. It shows us a woman who is meticulous about her work and her person in equal measure. It shows us a woman who is deeply superstitious, seeking refuge in holy baths, appending ‘auspicious’ vowels to her name and more. It also shows us a woman in her moments of great insecurities, left in the lurch by her political mentor, fending for herself, and often relying on the dubious help of her aides. Even as we are presented with a Jayalalithaa who is as much a person as you or I, Vaasanthi makes sure we appreciate this woman for the political entity she has engineered herself to be. And in spite of her many failures, the book does not gloss over her significant achievements, such as her government’s timely response to the 2004 tsunami that devastated the South Indian state.
“Amma” has something of a tripartite structure, following Jayalalithaa from childhood, to her move into politics, and finally looking at her most recent years in public office. It is a lucidly written bildungsroman (fancy German for ‘coming-of-age story’), about a woman who has been fanatically adored and venomously reviled, in equal measure.
The book begins by highlighting Jayalalithaa’s contentious relationship with her mother Sandhya, and her film co-star and mentor MGR, who were both anchors to the two overlapping parts of her life – movies, and politics. While she was still in school, Jayalalithaa had to make the difficult decision to drop her plans for higher education to pursue her acting career. And back in the day, a woman doing film did not have it easy and was often accused of selling her body. But the switch to politics was none too pleasant for her either. For much of the initial chapters, the sympathies of the book lie solely with Jayalalithaa, whose inner turmoil is given plenty of room. However, “sympathy” becomes a little more complicated during moments like the time she was viciously and physically attacked during a chaotic state assembly. From this point on, Vaasanthi begins offering some biting critiques of her subject:
“From then on, Jayalalithaa sought to exploit this ugly incident to her advantage, with a concerted effort to play upon people’s sympathy and use the attack on her as a metaphor for attacks on a woman’s honour and modesty in general,” she writes, bringing the reader closer to the Jayalalitha that most people know of – the Jayalalitha of the many scams, of the corruption, of the fair-weather political allegiances.
The book goes into great detail on these and other instances that were so typical of her time in office. For example, there are numerous mentions of the reign of terror and sycophancy produced by Jayalalithaa’s ministry. Vaasanthi notes how she became “intolerant of criticism,” and how her ego began to cloud and corrode the freedom of the press in Tamil Nadu. It also doesn’t spare her lapses of political judgement, and the absurd prevalence of “Amma” brand colour TVs or fans or laptops in the state.
The book marks two decades of Jayalalithaa’s complicated but immensely interesting political run, and it’s an interesting time to reflect on it. After AIADMK-chief MGR passed away, the mantle fell to Jayalalithaa, and, as Vaasanthi notes, “A new cult of leader-worship had been initiated.” Much can be said about the deification of leaders in this country. It’s almost as problematic as the “maternal” role (the title “Amma” says it all, really) cast upon women like Jayalalithaa. But all of it does make you wonder – what is it about this woman that has captivated people for over twenty years? And this book just might set you on the path to that answer.