As the storm around the death of Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa settles, there is one question that has been haunting Tamil Nadu’s citizens: Why does the death of Jayalalithaa affect us common people so deeply? Young or old, Tamilian or non-Tamilian, rural or urban – it was evident this news had disturbed and shocked everyone alike.
As I sat glued to the TV for about two days, continuously watching updates about her health, her subsequent death and the events that followed, I sank into deep thought. There was not a hint of the usual chatting in the houses nearby, which I was expecting, given that it was a public holiday – a day when families would be together at home. And mind you, I had heard gatherings of people engaging in lighthearted conversations even when they were stranded in the floods last year – a life-threatening, unpredictable situation. But those two days after the news of Jayalalithaa’s cardiac arrest broke out, there was nothing but silence that engulfed my neighborhood. No one talked, no vehicle passed by, and I didn’t even hear neighbours engaging in discussions about her political career. It was my first experience of pin-drop silence with no hint of any unrest anywhere.
Like all other anxious Chennai citizens, we had stocked up on our provisions when news about her cardiac arrest broke out. The moment the news about her death was made official, my parents anxiously recollected MGR’s death and the violence and vandalism that followed, and feared a repetition of history. To my surprise, it was not just my neighborhood, but the whole city that was reportedly plunged in silence, and a sense of discipline, that did not have to be imposed, all through the events that followed her death. Mourners all over expressed their grief in peace.
This silence piqued my interest in the woman, who was being showered with all sorts of appreciative titles on social media – ‘Lioness’, ‘Iron Lady’, ‘Fighter’, and so on. I read all the articles about her that flooded the internet. I also paid a visit to her burial site a day after the funeral, and looking at the sheer number of people who had assembled there to catch a glimpse of her memorial, and were still pouring in even at 10 pm, realisation dawned upon me.
That silence was not out of fear that the bloody history of the aftermath of MGR’s death would raise its ugly head again. It was out of sheer respect for the leader of the state. While I was at the memorial, I saw a massive cross section of people from different religions and age groups continuously walking into the memorial at that hour of the day. After ensuring that we congratulated the police officers for organising things immaculately, my mother and I talked about this rather peculiar scale of homage that was being paid to this woman, and more so, one who was predominantly recognised as a political figure.
This massive scale surprised me, because in the ruthless era of the internet where opinions are available aplenty, we can never completely admire someone, because perspectives with bouquets and brickbats coexist. And there was never a shortage of criticism of Jayalalithaa’s political moves.
But what drew crowds to Jayalalithaa’s funeral, and reluctant political news readers like to me to her memorial was not because of the politician that she was. It was for an epitome of empowerment – an empowerment which she did not wait for someone to confer upon her, but took it herself with every personal and political battle that she fought. It was for that actress who defied patriarchy in the film and political world. It was for the glamorous fashionista who brought in sleeveless blouses and skirts into the Tamil industry for the first time, and then vowed to enter the State Assembly only as a Chief Minister after she was physically assaulted. It was for her feminism. It was for Jayalalithaa the woman, and not Jayalalithaa the politician. Making people take note of the human hidden behind the politician outside election rallies is nothing short of unbelievable. Jayalalithaa did that, and a generation of people have been inspired.