Protector and Fighter, the Enigma of 'Amma' Will Live On

What mattered to Jayalalithaa's supporters was that she was always there for them, even if only in spirit – and that creation of the image of 'Amma' was a political masterstroke.

A supporter of J. Jayalalithaa holds her photo at the AIADMK party office in Mumbai, India, December 5, 2016. Credit: Reuters/Danish Siddiqui

A supporter of J. Jayalalithaa holds her photo at the AIADMK party office in Mumbai, India, December 5, 2016. Credit: Reuters/Danish Siddiqui

In death, as in life, Jayalalithaa has shown herself to be larger than life.

From the hour she was hospitalised, nothing else mattered in Tamil Nadu. Nothing else made news, nothing else was talked about. Not demonetisation, not the by-polls (which her party won), not the imminent failure of the northeast monsoon. Even the illness and hospitalisation of her principal adversary, the nonagenarian DMK supremo Kalaignar Karunanidhi, was secondary.

And again in illness, as in life, Jayalalithaa was all about rumours. She is gravely ill, whispered some, claiming ‘inside information’ coming from someone who knows one of the doctors on her team. “It is pretty much over for her, only they are not saying it.” Rubbish, countered others, again citing her doctors. She is responding well, they affirmed. She is participating in the treatment with incisive questions, comments, suggestions. “She is in fact going to come out of the hospital in better health than before and rule for another ten years at least, just watch.”

In truth, her doctors, nurses and others on duty at the hospital nary spoke a word. In a very un-Indian display of restraint, no really ‘reliable’ word came out of the hospital on how Amma fared. That her illness could not really be talked about except in the sequestration of homes or in conspiratorial huddles showed that large numbers of people believed that she or someone on her behalf was listening in on conversations, keeping a tab on who was saying what. There was fear of being reported, but who to? She was ill. The general fear of the supremo, so marked in most political parties and in so many parts of the country, was in full play. Also at work was fear’s cousin, flattery. Who had the courtesy to come calling, who did not? Industrialists and businessmen made a point of visiting Apollo Hospital and having their names on log. Many called more than once.

All this of course is about Chennai, Chennai vasis and the immediate power centres.

A victor, even in death

For the 80 million people of the state, whether AIADMK supporters, AIADMK opposers or AIADMK-neutral, Amma’s battle against illness was yet another example of her willpower, her grit. Even her worst enemy will grant her that. Asadya mano-balam (incredible willpower) was how her three-month long battle with death was viewed. She is a fighter, she is fighting. And she always wins. Even as hopes of her overcoming the multiple complications besetting her receded, her image as a fighter grew. The myth, ever larger than the corporeal scope of life, now grew, acquiring a dimension that belonged to lore rather than reality, legend rather than fact.

She played that final act heroically, even triumphantly. The film actress of decades, the heroine, unbeatable in verve and vivacity, was not going to let death find her meek. Even in dying, she showed herself to be the master of the proceedings. Death became a kind of guest actor. It was kept waiting at her door, like a vassal, an applicant, a petitioner, a strong and wealthy petitioner, perhaps, but one who had to sit it out till Amma was pleased to let him enter. ‘You may now enter’, she finally said. And it came in meekly, on her terms and in her time, not its own. Death was getting a favour from Amma, as it were, by her leave.

Jayalalithaa has left the stage a victor in every sense. Winning her last election, winning reprieves in court, winning the one thing that seemed to be eluding her and on which so much hung – freedom from the obloquy of a conviction in the disproportionate assets case. As a friend of mine put it, Jayalalithaa has died un-convicted and therefore legally untarnished. She has not been proved guilty and hence, in the best practice of the law, she has died with her innocence intact, her honour safe. No one, at least for a long time, will talk about the charges of corruption against her, the rumours of wealth impossibly out of range in terms of normal earning or accumulation. With her death, the case too dies.

But she lives.

Becoming ‘Amma’

Tamil Nadu has had great chief ministers. Rajagopalachari was a statesman, Kamaraj a pioneer, Annadurai a game-changer. Karunanidhi brought to the job a level of administrative competence that amounted to a finesse and MGR grew from being a beloved star to being a beloved leader. But to Jayalalithaa will belong an altogether unique mystique, that of the people’s protector. She was projected as being that, being a mother-figure, a guardian angel, who gave simple but ‘real’ succour to the people, not ideology or principles. Drinking water and cooked food are for the now, and the people have a sense of the now; tomorrow is theory. Jayalalithaa as Amma became the carer, the thirst-quencher, the hunger-allayer. It did not matter that the people did not get to see her in person all that often, her pictures were everywhere, smiling in parental bonding, with an ‘I am here’ look to them. ‘Amma is always there for you’, her pictures said.

Credit: Vishnupriya Rajgarhia

Credit: Vishnupriya Rajgarhia

And added to that was the concomitant mystique of being Amma was being a single-parent Amma, one who has had to strive against the hounds of life, the wolves and hyenas that prowl in the underworld that shares so much subterranean space with politics. She was seen as the woman who had to protect herself as a woman, a beautiful woman and, after MGR, a beautiful woman who had no one to support her, as a woman who had to claw her way out of threats, vulnerabilities, dangers. And had done so brilliantly. In gender terms, Amma was a triumph. To survive in a man’s world and then to rule it like a lion-tamer, was no mean achievement. “I now give as good as I get,” she told Simi Garewal in a memorable TV interview, “or even more than I get.” The number of persons she ‘gave it’ to rose, diversified. Some lucky ones she ignored. Others she treated to all that she meant by ‘give it’. The Amma who protected was also the Amma who could punish.

The appellation ‘Amma’ itself was a political masterstroke. Her previous six-syllabled self-description of puratchi-thalaivi (revolutionary leader) had done its bit and flagged. But the new two-syllabled ‘Amma’, replacing two political adjectives with a single home name, worked. It brought into play the comfort of a snug domesticity replacing the formality of an abstract polemic. It mattered little that Jayalalithaa was personally inaccessible, a spangled figure who was to be seen in her blow-ups, not in person, who was to be glimpsed occasionally rather than seen, heard over the cold screen rather than the vibrating mike. It mattered little. What mattered to her steadily burgeoning support base was that she was there for them, an ‘Amma’. And surely if slowly, the ‘Amma’ness grew into another being, not just a mother but a mother-goddess. Mothers comfort, goddesses protect. From what? The question did not merit a detailed answer. Piety took over. And Amma’s own devotionalism helped. She became the blessed one who blessed.

If the intelligentsia found all that unconvincing, so much the worse for the intelligentsia. If the court placed restrictions on her pictures being displayed, so much the worse for the order. If city purists thought Amma’s hoardings disfigured roads and walls, so much the worse for purism.  The intelligentsia, courts and environmentalists were living and working right amongst the people, yet they were remote. Amma, who was personally nowhere near them, seemed to be right beside them. They, hard-nosed realists, were theory; she, in her remoteness, was reality.

For the media, the intelligentsia and professionals, Jayalalithaa was an enigma, a highly ‘cultured’, cultivated woman who spoke ‘convent English’, grasped subtle points of law and engineering (see her stand on the Cauvery dispute, Katchativu, Kudankulam ), impressed visitors from outside, held officials spell-bound or in awe, but then used real politik without compunction, harboured deep political prejudices, suspicions, vented spleen and had her opponents scurrying for sheer safety. I, for one, miss her thoughts on demonetisation. Would she have supported it, like Nitish Kumar? Or would she have lit into it like Mamata Banerjee and Arvind Kejriwal? One cannot be sure.

For the millions of Tamil Nadu’s middle class, lower middle class and poor voters, however, she was was no enigma. She was just Amma, a mother-goddess, fluxing a modern-day provider of creature comforts with ancient bell-metal images of an omnipotent deity. Her championing of a ban on liquor, though implemented patchily, was seen by women as another sign of her divinity. Floods washing the daylights out of Chennai was thought by the so-called analytical as sure to dent her electoral prospects. They did nothing of the kind. Floods were an act of God. Amma, by doing direct transfers to small bank accounts and personalised cellphone messages, more than made up for the appalling mishandling of city water bodies, blind construction on rain-sponges and the clogging of drains that lay behind the flooding.

Does all this make Jayalalithaa a master of make believe? It does not, for somewhere in her own mental make up, she was that very Amma. She believed she was the deliverer that her mass support base believed her to be. The Amma who shaped her support was also the Amma who was shaped by her supporters. She was as moulded by her supporters as she moulded them. She was the potter and the pot. She turned the wheel and was turned by it.  And this is where lay her triumph lay and her dilemma. She had modeled herself into a role that took over her life. The ‘simple’ actor in her vaporised as the ‘party’ politician took over, the politician in her dwarfed when the leader in her took charge. And finally the leader in her subsided before the Jayalalithaa who became Amma. The masses loved her, many feared her. Some hated her. And she herself? What did she think of herself? No one knows, nor ever can guess. She has carried more secrets with her than the world will ever know. More fears, more disappointments than she would want us to suspect.

Had the Madras girl never joined films, she would have, at 68, been living with an Aiyangar family in Triplicane. Had the starlet never met MGR, she would have retired in a manor in uptown Chennai as a respected ‘star of yesteryears’, interviewed occasionally by weekend papers. Had she not won political battles and come to head the AIADMK , she would have been a grey eminence. But none of these ifs were to be. The ‘role’ became reality. Jayalalithaa vaporised into a sculpted Amma that could never deplete, never diminish, not a person but a phenomenon.

In 1984, when MGR was still battling his stroke, she came to call on the governor, S.L. Khurana. She was utterly lonely. And lost. As secretary to the governor, it fell on me to receive her and spend with her a few moments as she waited to be shown into the governor’s study. “I want nothing, Mr Gandhi,” she said. “Nothing beyond the chance to fulfil my destiny.”

Neither the governor nor she knew what incredible things destiny had in store for her –  charisma, fame, power. I certainly did not. But those words kept coming back to me these tortuous weeks, when destiny gave her a triumph of the human will even as it dropped the curtains over her last great role.


When Simi Garewal got her to talk about her favourite film song and (if I am not mistaken) to hum it, it turned out to be a Hindi song: ‘Aa jaa sanam madhur chandni mein hum tum (come, my darling, in the sweet moonlight let us…)’

As Amma fulfils her destiny, Jayalalithaa is perhaps reclaiming her lost chandni.