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Jayalalithaa Chronicler Paints Picture of a Woman Who Made it in a Man's World

Poornima Murali | CNN-News18

First published: October 8, 2016, 2:23 PM IST | Updated: October 8, 2016
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Jayalalithaa Chronicler Paints Picture of a Woman Who Made it in a Man's World
A woman walks past a mural of Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa. (FILE PHOTO: REUTERS)

Tamil Nadu’s popular and all-powerful chief minister J Jayalalithaa has been under treatment in Apollo Hospital, Chennai, for the last two weeks. On Friday, Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi dropped by wishing “maximum energy” to the CM, making him one of the many praying for her speedy recovery. Opposition parties have been demanding regular updates on her health, and the Madras High Court has dismissed a PIL asking more details on her medical condition. In fact, Jayalalithaa has always been a mystery except for a small group of close confidantes. Her media interactions are rare and her public appearances are only for poll gatherings.

Chennai-based journalist Vaasanthi has been tracking J Jayalalithaa for a while. Her first attempt at writing her biography hit a judicial hurdle in 2011 as the book got banned. Vaasanthi is now back with ‘Amma: Jayalalithaa’s journey from Movie Star to Political Queen’. She speaks to CNN News18’s Poornima Murali on Jayalalithaa’s persona and her two-year struggle to know more about the reclusive ‘Amma’.

Biographies, especially political biographies, almost always end up as hagiographies in India. Will ‘Amma’ be any different?
Biography becomes hagiography when you feel obliged to the person you are writing about. That happens when you meet the person, interview and tell the person that you are going to write a book on that person. Then you feel there is a kind of a commitment to always say nice words about the person. I wanted to avoid that and I didn’t want to see her before writing the book. I have met her once in 1984 and I have watched her for about 10 years when I was the editor of India Today, Tamil edition. I knew her, I kind of marvelled at her, the way she behaved and she was full of surprises and some of her actions are shocking and unbelievable. Then, I gathered a lot of information from her close friends and other politicians.

Why Jayalalithaa? What about her really fascinated you?
I didn’t do it on my own, it wasn’t my venture. It was Penguin that asked me to write a biography on her and I hesitated. I didn’t want to do it because I knew that she was a very complex person and she doesn’t trust the media. I knew she wouldn’t want to meet me or she wouldn’t even allow me to write if I ask her. I was so hesitant because it was so difficult to get news about her. As journalists, we used to break our heads to get quotes from officials or administers during an important occasion or crisis. We weren’t able to do that. We couldn’t get a single quote from anyone who worked in her government. And she, of course, didn’t open her doors to any journalist. It was easy to meet Karunanidhi but not Jayalalithaa. I was very hesitant and I knew she wasn’t very tolerant of any criticism. I couldn’t write just praising her. So it had to be an honest, balanced view of her profile. So I hesitated to even accept this suggestion by Penguin. But they kept on persuading me and I finally succumbed to their request.

Penguin suggested that you write her biography. Why did they not appeal to the higher courts when the book was banned by the lower courts?
It was exasperating. The case in the lower courts took about one year. Fighting a political power, especially somebody as powerful as Jayalalithaa was not to our advantage at all and Penguin thought ‘enough is enough and it is not worthy of such a fight’. It was devastating and I went into depression for two years.

Your book was all set for release by Penguin in 2011 but it was banned. Now it has finally hit the stores. What changed in five years? Did you have to make alterations or cut out a few portions to ensure it saw the light of the day?
Writing about her never crossed my mind. But Juggernaut came to me with a request for a short biography that is a new book. They wanted a new book; it was not the old one at all. They just said a new book about less than 30,000 words that will be suitable for phone apps. Reading on a mobile phone is faster and easier and it doesn’t take much of your time. I then consulted my lawyer on whether I could accept because the original book has a permanent injunction from the court. My legal adviser gave me a go ahead and that is how I came to write on this book, which is a short version. The book is just a smaller version and kind of highlights the positive aspects. Many of the things from the big book are not here but I suppose it says enough of Jaya’s persona.

Is this book a combination of secondary sources and research available online? Have you met people who know her?
I have met a number of people. First, I was very frustrated because I couldn’t get hold of her classmates and friends because she moved away from them all. I was about to tell Penguin I’m not going to write this book. But a friend of mine gave me a tip: the number of a source. So I got hold of them, through close friends of hers. They gave me a lot of insight into her younger days, which was very revealing of her character and the way she shaped later on. I met a number of her political opponents and her admirers. So it was a long journey. I took two years to write this book.

One leaping anomaly here is that the closest person to Amma, Sasikala is missing from your book. Why so?
I haven’t missed much. I personally never believed all these kinds of tales her opponents spread about her relationship with Sasikala. I have written about Sasikala but not in great detail. I feel Sasikala is as enigmatic as Amma is. She has not spoken a single word to any journalist. She has been very discreet. I suppose this is her quality that Jayalalithaa likes about her. People say Sasikala sits even in the official meetings that Jayalalithaa has in the house but I don’t know how much of it is true. Sasikala has shown that she is very loyal. Because of her closeness to Jayalalithaa, partymen who are not able to approach Jaya feel that all the hurdles are because of Sasikala. They feel Sasikala is behind everything. One will never come to know what the truth is.

The standard portrayal of Jaya is that of a reclusive person who can be vindictive, who is not exactly open to criticism. Did you find her different in person compared to her depiction by the media and in the political circles?
She is not different. She became a dictator because she had to be in the male world, challenging the male world. All women who come to power in a male-dominated field start becoming more and more aggressive. She is by nature vindictive. She arrested Karunanidhi as soon as she came to power because he arrested her, his government arrested her.

Jayalalithaa as a politician has shown exceptional aversion to news about her health in the press? Her reaction to such news has been legal action...
All these leaders, from MGR to Karunanidhi, were intolerant of criticism. MGR was very careful to see that nothing came out about his health problems. He was also secretive, they are all like that. They feel insecure and that is why they don’t like any forms of criticism. They want to project themselves as all powerful immortals.

While Jayalalithaa had taken over the mantle from MG Ramachandran after his demise, her political method appears to take after her mentor in some ways but with a few departures. In your observation of the two leaders, where does Jayalalithaa differ from MGR and which character traits has she absorbed?
Jayalalithaa is ruthless, more ruthless than MGR. She is very unforgiving. MGR was like that, but she is more. People tremble before her. She has the party in her grip with such an iron hand because people know they don’t exist without her. In MGR’s period, there were quite a number of stalwarts and he moved with them in a friendly way. Jaya has no friends except for Sasikala. In the political arena, she is all by herself. She is stricter and more aggressive than MGR was. The charisma is a common trait. She made people believe that she was the chosen heir of MGR. She did copy the populist actions that MGR did, smiling at people, shaking their hands, etc. She would appeal to the emotions of people. Otherwise she had her own style. She did not have to copy MGR, though she did acquire the legacy of MGR.

Have you observed Jaya as a single-woman navigating the ruthlessly male-dominated political landscape in India? I mean, how would you compare her political journey as compared to a Mayawati or a Mamata Banerjee, or even an Indira Gandhi?
Jayalalithaa came from a film background. For a woman to be a film actress was looked down upon by the general public. She came from a Brahmin family. It is amazing how she became the head of the Dravidian party. It is a conventional society in the South and very sexist. Mamata doesn’t have to face that kind of an atmosphere in Bengal. She could speak freely to men and have discussion with her ministers in the open which Jayalalithaa can’t do. In Tamil Nadu, it will be taken amiss. If you take Indira Gandhi, both of them were courageous but they are totally different. Indira Gandhi had a pedigree support but Jayalalithaa came with no political pedigree to boast of. She came up on her own whereas Indira Gandhi was made the Prime Minister. You can’t compare the two.

You have made some observations about how Indira admired Jayalalithaa when she was an MP. Can you elaborate?
Jayalalithaa was fresh, pretty, sophisticated and spoke impeccable English. Her maiden speech in the Parliament was well appreciated by the likes of Khushwant Singh. Even Indira Gandhi was impressed by her presence in Parliament and the way she stood up for issues.

DISCLAIMER: The opinions expressed in this interview are the personal opinions of the interviewee, and News18.com does not warrant its accuracy. The facts and opinions expressed in the interview do not reflect the views of News18.com and are solely attributable to the interviewee. News18.com does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.

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