Even as she assumed mythical forms as a female matriarch to the over 60 million Tamils , Jayalalithaa was revered as a goddess of protection to her followers and an agent of punishment to her foes. Jayalalithaa’s life is an extraordinary study in personal ethics and social pressure; it is a twisted feminist fable of exploitation and vengeance and the vicious alchemy of power, politics and corruption. And the many secrets that surrounded her gave much grist to the whisper galleries and paparazzi and as a weapon for insult by her predominantly male chauvinist detractors. If there was drama in the real world, on the stage in Tamil Nadu, with its culture of hyperbole and high- octane theatrics, Jayalalithaa was centre stage playing the lead to her audience.
The Lone Empress: A Portrait of Jayalalithaa by veteran journalist and novelist Vaasanthi is a clear-eyed portrayal of an extraordinary woman, a compelling read by those who want to recapitulate the times and turbulence of Jayalalithaa’s political career. The author had been a prominent editor of a news magazine in Chennai at the same time as the gargantuan cut-outs of the chief minister made their appearance all over Chennai and the grisly treatment of the press by her government became notorious. Her ground-level knowledge shows in her meticulous details of political activities of the time.
Following Jayalalithaa’s death on December 5, 2016, several publishers were quick to leverage the shock and interest around her passing to release books
on the life and times of one of India’s most controversial female public figures. Ms Vaasanthi’s first book Amma was released within a few months after Jayalalithaa’s passing. This second one, The Lone Empress had been a detailed and researched book on which she began work in 2009. The author writes that it caused her much agony that a pre-release interview in a magazine sensationalised the book and in 2011, Jayalalithaa, very much in the seat of power, worked the courts and brought a stay order against its release. The book has finally now made its way to the readers in an updated version after Jayalalithaa’s death.
The feisty chief minister needn’t have acted in haste. Ms Vaasanthi’s portrait is a balanced one employing the journalistic approach to gathering facts and referencing published news without sensationalism. The author shows empathy for Jayalalithaa as a female artiste fighting for her own place in the gender-skewed male-dominated movie industry through her early years. Authorial compassion is also evident to the antagonistic resistance and public humiliations Jayalalithaa endured as a politician.
Ms Vaasanthi has avoided speculation and theorising on many of Jayalalithaa’s unpredictable political moves but laid bare the facts. She has extensively interviewed people connected with Jayalalithaa’s early years in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu to narrate her tragic family circumstances, her many talents and the dignity with which she conducted herself in school.
The book faithfully follows the chronological journey of Jayalalithaa’s chequered political career, the fractious episodes with national politicians, her acerbic war with her bete noir, M Karunanidhi and the murky world of her home that had turned into an impregnable fortress after the entry of her friend, Sasikala
and her family. Ms Vaasanthi’s book is an important record of one of India’s most enigmatic and polemic female leaders who has left an indelible mark on Indian politics.