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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