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  Opinion   Oped  10 Dec 2016  After Amma: Motherless in Tamil Nadu

After Amma: Motherless in Tamil Nadu

Irreverent, provocative, opinionated... Shobhaa De has been challenging status quo for four decades... and is at her best when she punctures inflated egoes. Readers can send feedback to
Published : Dec 10, 2016, 12:47 am IST
Updated : Dec 10, 2016, 6:31 am IST

Isolated and remote, cut off from her biological family, Jayalalithaa was married to politics and politics alone.

Late Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa. (PTI)
 Late Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa. (PTI)

Irony. Pathos. Sorrow. Intrigue. Suspense. Plus dollops of cynicism. A solitary woman, who chose never to marry or have children, was elevated to the position of the ultimate universal mother — “amma”.

Millions of devotees blindly believed in the Amma Cult, and were emotionally devastated when J. Jayalalithaa died this week. How did she — a fiercely private, proud and arrogant woman — convince so many followers, that behind the infamous cape, was a soft heart bleeding for the masses? There are so many fascinating contradictions in the Amma narrative. On the surface, there was absolutely nothing “maternal” about her. She was known to be curt, ruthless and self-centred. Isolated and remote, cut off from her biological family, Jayalalithaa was married to politics and politics alone. Intolerant of the slightest criticism, she was known to vanquish enemies swiftly and efficiently. Her dealings with “lesser beings” (almost everyone!) were similarly cold-blooded and lethal. So... how did the “amma” persona survive? It can’t be just through her shrewd, acts of largesse (amma rice, amma water, amma canteens etc). Others have taken this route and failed. Yes, she bussed a few semi-naked babies for photo ops (which she apparently loathed), but beyond those rare demonstrations of tenderness, Jayalalithaa was hardly a “likeable” lady. Feared, yes. But not likeable. How will historians decode her unique brand? Her charisma? Who can explain her undeniable mystique?

Her love-hate relationship with the media is well-documented. She made no bones about her contempt for the fourth estate. In turn, she was despised by terrorised reporters on her beat. Now that she is dead and gone, countless stories will come tumbling out from assorted sources, who knew a lot but were too scared to talk during her lifetime. In India, it is customary to heap praises on dead leaders — their lifelong enemies also join the chorus.

Strange that Jayalalithaa died without creating a will or nominating a successor. It was assumed her long-time confidante and partner Sasikala Natarajan was the chosen one. But then, why was she not elevated or officially anointed during “amma’s” lifetime? Considering the intimacy of the relationship over decades, and given Jayalalithaa’s high intelligence, it’s hard to believe she did not nominate heirs to her hefty estate.

Her 25,000 square home alone is valued at more than Rs 100 crores. And let’s not even talk about her kilos of gold and diamond jewellery, her over 10,000 silk sarees and 750 pairs of sandals. And this is a small part of the laundry list. Amma, was clearly a hoarder. Well... where is the hoard? Who gets it?

Then comes the funeral. Sasikala must have had a super-efficient team working for the dreaded moment well in advance. How else was she able to organise the elaborate casket in record time, complete with intricate engravings? For how many days/months had Sasikala been anticipating this eventuality? When precisely did Amma really, really die? Will it ever be disclosed? The timing of the announcement was obviously a well-calibrated political strategy. As was the hasty swearing in of the new CM at midnight. The public cannot be kept in the dark these days. And hospital authorities are obliged to reveal hard medical facts about public figures.

With the leader gone, Sasikala has now become the de facto CM of the state... the official remote control. It’s a role she is familiar with and has been playing for years. Perhaps, she will test the public mood before grabbing the hot seat herself. It is assumed Amma trusted Sasikala and nobody else. People say Jayalalithaa was emotionally controlled by just one individual — Sasikala. But is that a fact? If that was so, Amma would have left everything to her officially — the keys to the state and her personal wealth.

It was Sasikala and her kin who occupied positions of importance on the truck accompanying the gun carriage at the funeral. It is reported that Jayalalithaa’s only surviving blood relatives were not allowed to meet her at the hospital and all but one (her nephew Dipak Jayakumar did the final rites along with Sasikala) were pushed away during the funeral. Jayalalithaa had been successfully isolated from all but the sycophants.

These sort of machinations only take place when there is a hell of a lot at stake for a politician’s minders — particularly those without official recognition, position or status. With Jayalalithaa gone, it will be interesting to see how many vultures emerge out of nowhere to challenge Sasikala and claim a piece of the gigantic cake.

Now that the pre-ordered sandalwood casket has been lowered into its rightful spot on Marina Beach, it can be safely concluded a new pilgrimage centre has been created to perpetuate the “Amma” mythology — never mind the many scandals and charges Jayalalithaa faced during her lifetime.

A screen goddess will soon be positioned as a political goddess. Yes, she was bold, fearless and cerebral. Yes, she took on the system, fought ferociously, and gave opponents a hard time. Yes, the women of her state revered her, so did the poor who saw a messiah in their amma .Yes, it must have been very tough for her to survive in that prejudiced, patriarchal environment. But who says a life in politics is easy for anybody?

She was a careful construct of her mentor MGR, who propelled her career in movies and politics, but did not give her the one thing she may have craved — the status of a wife. She was repeatedly humiliated by him and his family. There was hardly a period in her young life when she wasn’t exploited.

Then came her intense relationship with life companion Sasikala (with more than one bitter falling out in between). These two women became the odd couple, challenging the old guard, battling enemies, encouraging grown men to prostrate themselves at the feet of their Queen. Puratchi Thalaivi gave as good as she got when she was alive. It’s a shame she seems to have been outsmarted and manipulated in the end. Perhaps by the only people she ever trusted.

Goodbye, “Amma”. Your children will miss you.

Tags: amma, j jayalalithaa, sasikala natarajan