Review of Amma: Jayalalithaa’s journey from movie star to political queen

Why do some people fascinate us beyond reason? In a bare-all age, is it foolish to retain an air of enigma around you? Or does it add to the myth-making that draws people to you?

Vaasanthi’s biography of Tamil Nadu’s current Chief Minister (Amma: Jayalalithaa’s journey from movie star to political queen) seems to ask this exact question towards the end of the book:

“Amma doesn’t quite realise how Tamil Nadu has changed since she first entered politics. There is a huge social churning going on among the youth, now exposed to the Internet and WhatsApp.”

Amma is completely absent from any such digital extensions. Her party, the AIADMK, arrived on Twitter only in February 2014 and was not even a verified account until early this year.

Of course, the publishers (Juggernaut Books) also seem to have pushed the ‘go’ button just before the results trickled in for the 2016 Tamil Nadu Assembly Election. The gamble seems to have paid off.

The author in her acknowledgments concedes that she has “only tried to decipher Jayalalithaa’s many-layered personality. She is too complex and reserved to reveal herself fully.”

Amma is, without a doubt, a fascinating read for anyone with a remote interest in politics or in just the person that is Jayalalithaa. The book is meticulously researched and the author mixes a good amount of histrionics with the linear narrative. The introductory chapter especially is tailor-made for an opening scene if Jayalalithaa’s biopic is ever made in the foreseeable future.

The book delights the trivia aficionado with bits such as this: “On 24 March 1984, MGR announced that Jayalalithaa had been nominated  for the Rajya Sabha. The seat given to her … was Number 185, the same that C.N. Annadurai had occupied when he was an MP in 1963.” Another tidbit traces the origins of the practice of prostration — which her party cadre exhibit with full gusto — to one Mr. K.A. Sengottaiyan, an old party hand from MGR’s time (he’s just won his seventh Assembly Election from Gobichettipalayam). After she was sworn in as Chief Minister for the first time in 1991, “Sengottaiyan, a newcomer to the cabinet, fell at her feet. Other junior ministers went further and prostrated themselves full length on the floor before their deity. A new cult of leader worship had been initiated. And the male world that had tried to put her down was now at her feet!”

That conspiring male world was present in both the DMK and the AIADMK, right from the time Jayalalithaa stepped into the big, bad world of politics, as the book would tell you. Chapter-after-chapter, Vaasanthi constructs a storyline that gives the reader a picture of a tender woman who is repeatedly punctured by acts of betrayal and humiliation — be it a 13-year-old ‘Ammu’ (Jayalalithaa’s childhood nickname) being done in by an eavesdropping milk vendor for playing host to the flirtatious activities of a neighbour or the pretty face of the party who was snubbed by her leader when she needed his support the most. And not to forget, the pathetic levels of patriarchal discourse from her opponents that she endured.

Amma, nonetheless, is a required read for those who want the most complete and balanced telling of Jayalalithaa’s story. That it equips you with a firmer grip on Tamil Nadu’s (and India’s) politics is an added bonus.

For the most part, the biography seems to be constructed from bits of jigsaw puzzles gathered from a handful of sources: the late ‘Film News’ Anandan, her classmates from Church Park Convent and R.M. Veerappan, who made it his life’s mission to rid MGR of Jayalalithaa’s influence. The rest is almost common knowledge, pieces that belong to an already complete picture of the hardened woman we are familiar with today. But a few answers remain elusive. Was she really wedded to the Telugu actor Shoban Babu — an already married man with a teenaged son? Does she wear a bulletproof vest underneath that caped sari? Why did she adopt a son from the Thevar community — genuine maternal sentiment or political convenience? This is where your guess is as good as Vaasanthi’s. No one really knows. And the bigger puzzle might never be completed.

The edited version of this article can be found here.

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Shelf Help – For Information or pleasure? That is the question

A column for The Hindu on … quizzing. Thanks to Radhika for pressing me to write after long. 

“We always read for one of two things — information or pleasure”.

My college English professor often spouted this fountain of obvious wisdom every now and then. But I don’t think I used to think, back then at least, that the two could go hand-in-hand. What was important for an 18-year-old me was to read facts for what they were and recollect it in my head during quizzes to score points. These points were very important, especially when there were cash prizes at stake — a difference of 5 points could mean a potential loss of Rs. 2,500 or in the case of business quizzes with plump sponsors, multiple times of that.

So the natural thing thing to do (at least what some of us thought back then) would be to keep your daily dose of Wikipedia completely disconnected from your reading of say, Paulo Coelho or Jhumpa Lahiri (“What question could possibly arise out of the boring Interpreter of Maladies?”). The dry Wikipedia-and-old-trivia-books-mugging method persisted for most of the time. And that’s how most college quizzes used to function. You see a keyword in the midst of all the text on the projector slides and hit the buzzer.

“This started as Galvin Manufacturing Corporation in Illinois, …”

*BUZZ*

“MOTOROLA!”

“The blue agave found in Mexico …”

“TEQUILA!” (The liquor is made from that plant)

And then when you seek to unlock new levels of awesomeness on the bigger stages (the open quizzes), you hit a roadblock. There are some questions so beautifully framed and possibly, so complex that there would be no way you could have answered it without having read the piece of associated literature. These were nothing like your college quizzes — most of which were set in the twelfth hour and scraped from older powerpoint presentations. There was considerable amount of research that had gone into setting them. A major portion of that effort required reading books (fiction, non-fiction, pulp thrillers, comics … the whole lot). And after several occasions, the goal was no longer about brownie points. It was about whether you remembered the story behind why you actually knew the answer. This is slightly relatable to that feeling Dev Patel’s character has when he keeps giving right answer after right answer on the quiz show in Slumdog Millionaire. He hasn’t scoured through Wikipedia articles and infused trivia in his brain; there’s actually a story behind every answer. An emotional connect, be it joy, sadness or even anger. And nowhere is this more relatable than reading a good book that narrates facts in the most recollective style of prose. Sample this:

“In France, a chemist named Pilatre de Rozier tested the flammability of hydrogen by gulping a mouthful and blowing across an open flame, proving at a stroke that hydrogen is indeed explosively combustible and that eyebrows are not necessarily a permanent feature of one’s face.”

― Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything

Chances are you’ll never forget Rozier’s name from now. I can’t say the same if you encountered him on Encyclopaedia Brittanica though.

I had a fractional Slumdog Millionaire moment once in high school: “Who was the first man to set foot on the Hipparchus Crater on the Moon?” read the question. When I noticed teams before us were listing out possible names of astronauts from the Apollo Missions and were not getting any affirmative reaction from the quizmaster, I picked up the mike and said: “Tintin”.

That was possibly the greatest moment of ecstasy I felt back then. You needed to have read Destination Moon in-and-out to crack that one.

Another memorable one (although this was on an online forum) was when someone asked: “What reason do travel guides usually give to unwary tourists when they want to know why temples like Khajuraho have erotic sculptures?”

The answer: ‘So that the people, in the aftermath of the bloody Kalinga War, would be aroused to reproduce and get back the population on track.’

How much ever apocryphal this story seems, this is exactly what a character named Mr. Kapasi says to an NRI family who come heritage-hunting in that boring book — Interpreter of Maladies, by Jhumpa Lahiri.

An edited version of this article can be found here.