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‘I Hope Amma Lives’: Scenes From A Crazed Chennai After Jayalalithaa’s Cardiac Arrest

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I arrived in Chennai on December 2, from foggy Delhi. I was greeted by an outpour of rain. A conversation with the cabbie about demonetisation brought up a little bit of a common man’s perspective. He spoke of how the people can only do what they can, that they can speak and complain, but never is there strong consensus on anything – good or bad. And without a strong consensus, there’s nothing they can do, nothing they can attempt to change the way things are. I’m reminded of Carl Jung’s words, on how political correctness is a means of psychic isolation, causing the people to be unable to rise up en masse.

I remember telling my mother last night that I think it might rain later. It did. Now I see the news channels plastered with the story of Amma (Chief Minister J. Jayalalithaa) and her cardiac arrest. There was news that the Governor of Tamil Nadu returned to the city due to the emergency. There was news that Prime Minister Modi might be coming to the state last night (which we now know was false). On TV, there are videos of women crying, clapping their hands in a desperate plea, faces turned upward praying for the long life of their ‘Amma’. Jaya TV, the channel known to have political affiliations to the ruling party, plays music that sounds victorious, akin to the music played when Hollywood celebrities win awards, while displaying news of their leader’s cardiac arrest.

It’s a cool night. There’s a nice breeze, while people clamour around, receiving WhatsApp forwards speaking of distinctly diverse possibilities of Amma’s situation – from ‘official’ news that she’s already passed, to ‘controversial’ news that this is all just a publicity stunt to reclaim the cult status of Amma, giving her publicity she could have never bought.

Everyone suddenly becomes expert informants. Everyone has some friend’s mother’s father’s niece who works at Apollo Hospital where the CM is held, offering ‘confidential’ and ‘secretive’ news about the situation’s unfolding. There’s a sense of gossip in the air, an almost playful contemplation; the people’s unrevealed desires of journalism bloom and everyone wants to know. Information, truly, is beautiful.

I believe this year has been unforgettable. Trump, demonetisation, Brexit, and a general comic suspension of disbelief while dealing with current affairs that the people have developed. My television at 10.40 p.m. showed videos and images outside Apollo Hospital, where the crowds were growing bigger, there were signs of panic and violence. Funnily, I see videos of women crying again, but this time, an unassuming group of women, who don’t notice the camera, speak to themselves, smile, and joke, before another one signals to them that the camera is pointing at them, and they resume their mourning and praying.

Tensions ran high. People declared that they won’t step away from the place till their Amma came back. Apparently, at 10.43 p.m., I heard that people were jumping over walls and entering into the area where people were gathering, and paramilitary forces were being deployed to contain the situation. I don’t know what to feel, for in all honesty, I have in me a combined perspective of a cynical teenager who just returned from a stand-up comedy show critiquing the media’s inability to disagree, and of a critical scholar of the liberal arts and humanities who has been exposed to disagreement, and can make peace with it.

Everybody knows what would happen if Amma should pass – the city and most of the State would shut down for a long duration. Extended periods of mourning and a struggle of power within the party would begin. The political scientist in me, can only draw parallels with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) dealing with Tiananmen Square, with the AIADMK similarly lacking enough unity in party leadership to know what to do if their cult leader was to pass. In Chinese political history, a leader passing away would mean protests and riots, using the emotion of death for a cause that they believe in. Would the same occur here? Here in Chennai, where even after last year the rains caused floods that would never be forgotten, there hasn’t been one change in infrastructure, roads or drainage? Chennai, where experts say, like Mumbai, is a disaster waiting to happen?

Knowing me, a boy who’s lived and grown all his life in this city and loved its days immensely and its nights more so, I don’t know if we’re capable of a long-term struggle in large numbers. I’ve only known us to be a people of impulse, to act on emotional bursts that inspire us to do things that nobody else could have imagined possible.

But what I love about this city more, is its incredibly diverse craziness. I was on my way back on an auto-rickshaw when the news about the cardiac arrest began to spread. I didn’t know about it yet, but I remember the auto-driver stopping at a liquor store to get some change. For some reason, there was an unnaturally large crowd of people, pushing against the bars of the state-run TASMAC liquor store clamouring for their liquid courage. A member of family comments while I wrote this, “Hey! You said Amma could never be arrested. Well, she has a cardiac-arrest now. Does this count?” My friends make bets on their WhatsApp group on whether she’s alive or not.

And while I wrote all this, there was an unspoken hostility in the air, as if even the atmosphere is calling me insensitive and nonsensical in a time of crisis for the State.
But honestly, does it matter? Where unknown ‘experts’ make monetary decisions that take our money away, leave us powerless, where we gain news of leaders unknown, making decisions we don’t want, where we discover of ruling party individuals doing not much during the Chennai floods, but have goons attach stickers of Amma to packs of food supplies, where we don’t feel like we can change things, can we be blamed for being a little sly? In the spirit of disagreement, can I attach humour to this situation, and revel in the constitutional freedom of being able to do so?

I don’t know. At 11.01 p.m., I heard of a set of doctors from AIIMS, Delhi, being flown down to help. Having had a 5-hour delay due to the fog in Delhi on Friday, I sure do hope they get here (as they did).

CM Jayalalithaa is important to the State. She is a reminder of the State’s obsession with the film industry, where our cinematic heroes are our real ones. For we are an emotional people, as much as we are attributed to being intellectual.

But I, personally, hope the Chief Minister survives. Not because I know her, or believe in her, or think she’s done something positive for me – my opinions of her are largely negative, driven by personal experiences, as are all of our opinions. The personal is never separate from the political. I hope the CM survives, because my sister, my akka, is travelling for a wedding, and I still haven’t seen her at home.

For my Akka, I hope Amma lives.

I think it might rain later tonight.

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