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The Day Tamil Nadu Stood Still

December 5, 2016.

The fateful day.

The day Tamil Nadu stood still. The day an entire state stood with baited breath, anxiously awaiting a status update from the irritatingly quiet Apollo Hospital, about a certain person.

To an outsider, the scene throughout the state must have been a shocking spectacle. The massive crowd developing at the doorstep of a hospital, even more people glued to their TV sets, tuned into every local news channel in existence, a ubiquitous prayer on everybody’s lips, be it with the Rosary or the Sacred Cross, all for the well-being of one person. But such was the stature of the person in question. A charismatic leader, a political icon, an embodiment of strength and willpower, a public reaction with any less emotion and fervour would blatantly belie the God-like standing the “Puratchi Thalaivi” had in the state.

The news of Jayalalithaa’s cardiac arrest on the December 4 sent shockwaves through the state. Normal activity came to a scary, screeching halt as people tried to make sense of the impending catastrophe looming over them. “But she just got better, she was going to return to office,” screamed the voices of those pitifully in denial, before hurrying off to the nearest place of worship. Many believed that this would be her last journey, with the truth of her many ailments clear as day in the months leading up to The Day. Even the ardent optimist could be forgiven for resigning to grieving acceptance.

The drama continued to the next day, with a cavalcade of people storming the doorstep of Apollo Hospitals, chanting Amma’s name, calling on every deity they knew, in the hope of divine intervention overturning an otherwise grim state of affairs. The mood was pensive, surreal almost, with everyone caught in a state of trance, still unable to fathom the ill fate that had befallen their iconic leader.

jayalalithaa
Source: Reuters

Conspiracy theories started to swirl just to heighten the drama. The predominant story was that Amma was dead all along. Isn’t it suspicious that no picture or statement was released by her since her discharge the first time around? She was critical back then, too. And didn’t her miraculous recovery happen conveniently close to the by-elections a couple of weeks ago? What about her fraudulent assets case? Was she “kept alive” long enough to put that issue to rest? Or, by far the most far-fetched theory – is Modi’s demonetisation scheme somehow tied into all this?

As midday approached, a general feeling of grief swept the state. A large contingent of AIADMK supporters geared themselves up to accept the inevitable. But, optimism is contagious. “Wait,” they said. “This is our Amma we are talking about. She’ll fight out of this.” That almost inaudible voice of Hope at the back of their head now started to become louder, threatening to drown out the voice of Reason. Whenever Reason said, “It is impossible. No one can come out of this,” Hope hit back with, “But if anyone can, it is Amma.” Sure enough, more and more people jumped on the optimism bandwagon, in an attempt to will their beloved leader back.

But, that bandwagon was derailed by the shocking news of her death. At around 5:45 in the grim evening, local news channels declared her dead. The exodus that had assembled outside the hospital was in a state of shock. It had happened. It was over. Shock soon turned into anger and frustration as, predictably enough, they threatened to riot. Security was beefed up to the max, but even they were overcome with trepidation at having to control the commotion that was to ensue.

But something was off. Something about this shocking revelation was wrong. While local news channels, after reporting her death, had already started playing tribute video montages to the quintessential sad violin theme in the background, the English channels sang a different tune. There was no breaking news on any of the national news channels – they simply reported a commotion outside the hospital and nothing else. After a short while, the situation became clear. It was a hoax. Amma was still alive, albeit hanging by a thread. The collective sigh of relief on Greams Road and all over the state was proverbially deafening. Soon after, Apollo hospitals released an official statement putting all rumours to rest.

The situation afterwards was confusing, to say the least. With the hospital’s constant rhetoric of “Amma still critical” and medical clichés like “We’re doing the best we can,” etc., and AIADMK already preparing for testing times ahead by appointing a new Chief Minister, nobody it seemed, save for the people on the second floor of the hospital, knew what was going on. The mood was tense all-around, as prayers and wishes continued to pour in. Amma’s health status continued to be in limbo, as people clamoured for and pounced any piece of information they could find. Conflicting reports from largely questionable sources only served to put more people on edge.

Still, ardent Amma supporters believed. They believed in their “Puratchi Thalaivi”. They believed that their Goddess would rise from the dead, much like the Undertaker (yay, wrestling reference), rip off all the tubes and needles that tried to damage and contaminate her flawless skin, march out of the hospital onto the balcony, amidst a crowd of doctors open-mouthed in awe at her miraculous recovery, and flash the 2 fingers that never ceased to captivate the masses and send them into a frenzy.

But alas, that wasn’t meant to be. At around 11:30 p.m. on December 5, the iconic Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, J. Jayalalithaa, had breathed her last.

What followed was, surprisingly, not violence. No riots, no tension, nothing. Some of it, I guess, can be attributed to the fact that it was pretty late in the night. Melancholia had well and truly set in. Amma was no more. Prayers of “please let this be a hoax” went cruelly and sadly unanswered, as the hospital came out with the official release on paper soon after.

Personally, I’ve had my apprehensions towards Jayalalithaa, much like any other citizen of the state. But credit must be given where due. Jayalalithaa was a real iconoclast. A trendsetter, in a much less gaudy and ostentatious way than traditionally dictated by the term. Her life’s story is one of determination and strength of mind, and must be looked at as inspiration any time by someone marginalised by society who wants to make it big. She had met her fair share of adversities. Her personal life was an eternal object of scrutiny and ridicule. Her political career abounded with controversy. Cases of corruption, illegal assets and her almost callous and much-criticized response to the Chennai floods threatened to, and should have, destroyed her credibility. But, there was a certain charisma about her, a certain tenacity, feistiness, and drawing power that rendered her pretty much immune to scandals threatening her standing.

Fittingly enough, she is to be cremated at the Marina beach, by the side of her mentor, M. G. Ramachandran – the man who helped transform her from the humble up-and-coming actress into Tamil Nadu’s “Puratchi Thalaivi Amma”.

The future now looks a tad uncertain. A state once proudly led by a charismatic, strong, political icon is now suddenly without its mother. The AIADMK have a difficult task to run the state without their autocratic, but an efficient leader. At this juncture, it is imperative that the people of Tamil Nadu wipe off the tears, get back up, and continue to make long strides to contributing to the country’s development. After all, it is the bigger picture we must be looking towards, and what she would want, what she always wanted.

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Featured image source: SaiSen/Mint via Getty Images
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