It was December 5 and the clock struck five in the morning, in California. I woke up with a jerk and checked the news. A sigh of relief passed when I saw that it read Jayalalithaa was still alive and on life support. She has been undergoing treatment for various ailments for 75 days and now fighting a cardiac arrest. This woman who charmed the entire nation with her smile, intellect, and wit has been a fighter all her life. Will she emerge victorious this time?
As I was making my cup of coffee, my thoughts drifted to May 2015 when I attended her swearing in ceremony. The auditorium was filled with politicians in white and the who’s who of the state. The announcement of Jayalalithaa’s arrival sent a wave of silence through the auditorium. The media that was actively covering Rajinikanth now turned their attention to an old woman draped in green sari taking small steps to the center of the dais. The lady, the enigma, walked in attracting every pair of eyes in the auditorium. Her radiant skin seemed to weave a magical halo around her. The simplicity of her attire was more than compensated for by her enchanting smile and poised gait. Her weak steps were overtaken by her intense voice that reverberated in the auditorium when she uttered “Jayalalithaa ennum naan.”
My dazed morning halted when the news was announced. Jayalalithaa was no more. Her fortitude and willpower had failed her this time. All I felt was a void in my heart and a lump in my throat. The day went by, but my mind was still stuck on the morning news. I sat there in front of the screen watching her funeral, and wondering about the future. My future. The future of many other women like me.
Many, if not most, of the condolences emphasized her success despite being, single, and childless. The fact that the society explicitly called out her relationship status in its condolence message was intriguing. I cannot recall the same people talk or bother about Dr. Abdul Kalam’s relationship status. I was amused to see a meme liked and shared by thousands that read “She proved a woman can survive without father, husband or son: Iron lady for a reason.” Why does the society still correlate women to marriage, children and family?
Many spoke about how she faced immense hardships in male-dominated politics—in a conservative state like Tamil Nadu—and how she chose to de-sexualize and de-glamorize herself post the assembly attack in 1989. We are now in 2016, and the Tamil Nadu politics is still largely male-dominated; women are still not accepted as leaders unless they shed their womanly qualities. When a woman does imbibe the qualities of a strong male leader, the society is quick to brand her an aristocrat. Why do women have to be like men to be accepted as a leader?
Her rebellious behavior as an actress and MGR’s role as her mentor was discussed in depth in many of the eulogies. It is a known fact that MGR was a very charismatic person, and it is hard not to fall in love with him. Nevertheless, in interviews like the one with Simi Garewal, Jayalalithaa has been quite vocal about how her life was controlled by MGR at one point. She was prohibited from signing movies with other stars, and, finally, he made the path harder for Jayalalithaa to excel in politics. Still, we want to accept him as a great mentor; we accept it without questioning. Why do we not emphasize on the need for men to be better mentors for women?
Reports read that Tamil Nadu is among India’s best states in industrial, social and crime rankings. While the Indian culture is being branded as the “rape culture”, Tamil Nadu boasts of having the lowest crime rate against women in India. As a testimony to this, leading singer Chinmayi blogged her experience of attending Jayalalithaa’s funeral in a hundred thousand people and still got back home without a single incident of grope or molest. Growing up in Chennai, I know how big a deal this is. I can vouch for it myself with every visit of mine to Chennai the last nine years.
While NDTV covered the funeral, staunch supporters of DMK party took to the streets to talk about their awe of Amma. One woman recalled her experience in the maternity ward of the government-run hospital that she found to be well equipped with state-of-the-art facilities and maintained in the most hygienic manner. Despite her ability to strategize and serve the people in a manner better than her competitors, Jayalalithaa is more famous for her leadership style than her outcomes as a leader. A greater emphasis was on her leadership style that the media deemed dictatorial. Why does the outcome mean more for male leaders, while the style means more for a female?
Jayalalithaa knew her life was dominated and controlled by her mentor for a significant part of her life. In reality, she was not mentored to fight, rather used as a glamor element in politics. When she was suddenly unprotected after the demise of MGR, she drowned in sleazy comments, physical abuse, and life threats. To emerge as a stronger leader, she tapped into her inner grit and transformed into someone she was not. Despite her intellect and ability to run the state of Tamil Nadu, she needed this outer coating of iron to get accepted as a leader. This is a unique battle that only women leaders fight in all fields. Yet, we do not have enough women leaders from this cultural background to guide the next-generation women to face this combat.
Because of the woman she was, because of her ability to fight the norms, today, women of different statures and background are taking to the social media, just like myself, to hail this iron lady. Every woman who has known Jayalalithaa in some capacity relates to her ability to fight the questions that I have asked above. Every woman, be it a home maker or a political leader, is facing the same battle “to be heard and accepted as themselves”.
This is the moment of truth. I am glad that the same men who ridiculed Jayalalithaa in 1989 have come out in the open to sing her praises. Many more men from that era have shed their ego to accept her as a great leader. I only hope these men, now see a Jayalalithaa in their mother, wife, daughter, coworker, and friend and make their journeys to fame easier than it was for the iron lady herself.
Rest in Peace Amma. You have sowed the seeds, and you will see the fruits soon.