Sobs, Cheers and Love at the Funeral of the Woman They Called Amma

Jayalalithaa’s funeral drew large numbers of party members and fans from all over, but was a very peaceful affair.

Security personnel around J. Jayalalithaa's mortal remains during her funeral procession in Chennai on Tuesday, December 6. Credit: PTI/R. Senthil Kumar

Security personnel around J. Jayalalithaa’s mortal remains during her funeral procession in Chennai on Tuesday, December 6. Credit: PTI/R. Senthil Kumar

Chennai woke to December 6 with bleary eyes. From discussions around me, it was clear that most people had stayed up the previous night, watching the news at least until midnight. Durai, a taxi driver in his late fifties, said his wife and two sons were flipping channels anxiously, till the official announcement that AIADMK supremo and five-time chief minister of Tamil Nadu J. Jayalalithaa had succumbed to a cardiac arrest. “I could not believe my ears,” he said. “I felt a weight in my heart – she had ruled for so long, she kind of was a chapter of my own life.”

As Durai walked towards the car parking lot at the airport, behind us, Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal, Karnataka chief minister Siddaramaiah and Andhra Pradesh chief minister Chandrababu Naidu arrived. Soon, there was mayhem at the gates; Prime Minister Narendra Modi too was leaving with his cavalcade. As we finally drove out of the airport, the large Indian flag fluttered against the rain-heavy breeze at half-mast.

The usually vibrant city of Chennai was eerily quiet. The roads were deserted, except for a few cars and cyclists. Shutters were down on all shops. Petrol pumps had closed the night of the announcement. Durai explained that it was because he was short on petrol that he had charged me ten times the usual fare to Mylapore. No buses or radio taxis were plying either. The driver of an autorickshaw I later shared with a young doctor couple had another reason; he was overcharging because of the “risk of riots”.

Jayalalithaa’s coffin was placed at the Rajaji Hall, a heritage banquet hall situated inside the Omandurar government estate on the arterial Anna Salai or Mount Road. In the morning, the two entry and exit gates were heavily barricaded but after 2pm, the police seemed to relax.

At this time, three grey-haired women stood on tip-toe to see over the wall of people. “I can’t see her!” cried an irritated 53-year-old Hamsa. “You are too short,” teased 55-year-old Muniamma, not perceptibly taller than her friend. A projection screen stood outside the entrance to the hall, which broadcasted live proceedings, but they wanted to “get a darshan in the flesh”. Eighty-two-year-old Chellamma said her “legs hurt,” and launched into a description of her arthritic walk from Teynampet, about 6 kms away, simply to catch a glimpse of the leader. “We are not party members but we have always been fans,” said Hamsa. “My daughters are doing great in school, I’ve never had to pay for their books, and they also have a cycle.” She was referring to the tangible benefits of Tamil Nadu’s successful universal education, which Jayalalithaa backed and strengthened with schemes like free cycles for school-going girls.

Chellamma recalled coming to the funeral of former chief minister and AIADMK founder M.G. Ramachandran – popularly known as MGR – at the same Rajaji Hall in 1987. “It was more crowded, perhaps because it was him. And the buses were running then.” Indeed, nearly one million had reportedly attended MGR’s funeral. Hearing her complain, an AIADMK member (wearing a black and red shawl) took her ahead of the crowd. Chellamma returned in a few minutes, beaming. “Our Amma is rosy-cheeked even in death,” she sighed, closing her eyes, as if committing the vision to memory.

Outside the door of the powder pink Rajaji Hall, and along its tall white pillars, Jayalalithaa lay in her glass coffin, its head slightly lifted so that her face caught the sunlight. Shrouded in flowers and her chin held up by a white cloth, she was surrounded by her friend Sasikala and her family. On the steps below, on either side, khadi-clad senior members of the AIADMK sat solemnly. Hundreds of policemen and policewomen milled around, cordoning off emotional mourners. “Some of them want to throw themselves at her feet and wail loudly, get all their pain out,” said constable Clifton K., before he ran off to scold three boys climbing up a weak tree for a better view.

Her mourners were visibly from across class and party lines: poor day labourers, government employees, software professionals, students and the elderly. Groups of women and families had carpooled or taken trains from across the state. The rural poor did not seem to have been able to make it to Chennai thanks to the sudden announcement and shutdown of state transportation. Unlike MGR’s death, which sparked rioting and looting across the state, and the suicides of 20 people, Jayalalithaa’s funeral day was remarkable for the lack of violence and hooliganism. It was clear that while conscious of all her mistakes, people were pouring in to say goodbye to a leader they felt connected with, a woman whose personal and political struggles had played out for nearly four decades in full public view.

Iyarkai, a 32-year-old cinema technician from Pondicherry, sat with hundreds of others on the sloping lawn of the Omandurar estate. He reminisced about Amma, while around him, some napped and some others sat quietly, occasionally wiping tears. Iyarkai believed that the lack of buses had reduced crowds. “Amma can summon millions,” he said. “If she had not died, she would have gone on to be prime minister one day.” For a young man like him, her “learned approach to industry and economy” was impressive. A group of Telugu-speaking chilly farmers from Karur appreciated her sustained support for irrigation, and wondered if new leaders would seek to understand agriculture as academically as she did. Chitra, a 48-year-old software professional, walked in with her husband and daughter. “I didn’t always agree with her politics, but I’m here because she is an amazing woman, an inspiration.”

K.C. Sakthivel, convenor of the Dubai Jayalalithaa Fan Club said he had returned to India every five years to campaign for Jayalalithaa. “Annually, around 1000 members of the fan club donate blood on Amma’s birthday,” said Sakthivel. “For her 68th birthday, we fed 68 people. I never expected that to be the last birthday.” Mary, who sold flowers on the train with her blind daughter, said she had distributed 11 packets of food to the elderly the previous night, a practice she intended to follow every December 5. “It’s because of her that I could eat well in Amma Canteens in the past few years,” she said. “There will be no Christmas in my house this year, because this is not different from a death in the family.”

Around 4:30 pm, as Jayalalithaa was moved to a casket and the funeral procession began, the sombre spell suddenly broke. The people in Rajaji Hall rushed out to the street, toppling wooden fences and plastic chairs, and messing up queues. As the aerial cameras swopped up and about, people waved the two-leaf symbol, grinning, whistling and hooting. Loretta, a seasoned slogan shouter for the AIADMK bellowed, “Purathchi Thalaivi!”– revolutionary leader. Some voices replied, “Vazhga!”– live! For a moment, the scene resembled one of Jayalalithaa’s election rallies, energetic and performative, packed with loyal, colourful cadre.

As the procession began, and more people were able to see Jayalalithaa’s face, many held their heads, closed their mouths, flopped to the ground in disbelief. “Is it really over?” whispered AIADMK councillor Rajeshwari, who had driven from Cuddalore for the day. She had brought her daughters and she called one over to introduce her. “The week I joined the party, I took my infant daughter to the office. It was Amma who named her,” she said. The daughter, Sandhya, is now an engineering student in Pondicherry. “My mother loves her because of politics, I love her because of her guts,” said 19-year-old Sandhya. “I’m standing here in the crowd, between all these men thinking – she did it, so can I.”

For three hours, people walked beside the casket, moving slowly, rippling like waves. There was a hushed silence, except for sobs and occasional cheering, as if to mourn her demise as much as to celebrate her eventful, dramatic life. A group of aravanis (eunuchs) wailed loudly, whipping their hair about. Reporters and camerapersons rushed about in the sidelines. All along the way, people watched from terraces, balconies, atop trees and cars, in and on bus stops and even on electrical poles.

After the procession entered the MGR memorial, the crowds were left behind. Two large LCD screens showed live images of the state burial. As the ceremony went on, people craned their necks. Behind me, a karuvadu (dried fish) seller from Tuticorin and a school teacher from Tirupur struck up a lively, rapid conversation. “I can’t bear that she is gone,” said the Tuticorin lady. “But it fills my heart that she is being buried right next to MGR.” Smelling a drunk in the vicinity, the lady from Tirupur hoped that the new party leaders would properly implement the prohibition policy Jayalalithaa had signed before her death. This turned into talk about how to control the diet for diabetes, anxieties about the new chief minister O. Panneerselvam’s competency, and if Jayalalithaa’s friend and aide Sasikala – doing the last rites on the screen as they spoke – would express political ambitions. Others joined in, worried about the state of the AIADMK, angry at Amma for not leaving a protégé “just like her” and speculating with eerie certainty about “something fishy” in the circumstances of her death.

Just then, the casket was closed. “Aiyo, why did you leave us so soon?” Tuticorin lady burst out. The Tirupur lady put her arm around her. The sound of the gun salute cracked in the air, and the casket was lowered into the ground. “Her face is imprinted on my mind,” said the teacher from Tirupur.

As I walked back, the route the procession took was thick with the fragrance of flowers showered on the leader, and now lining the road. I hitched a third of the ride home with a policewoman on a scooter, then an ice-cream salesman who had invented an MGR-pink flavour and finally, an auto-rickshaw driver who left home to get biscuits for his son and escape the “sad instrumental music” on Tamil news channels. As he dropped me off, he assured, “Tomorrow will be normal again.”

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