Tamil Nadu's political mothership

The book faithfully follows the chronological journey of Jayalalithaa’s chequered political career
Charismatic and controversial, J Jayalalithaa, the late chief minister of Tamil Nadu, broke news regularly during her public life as both an actress and politician. The Indian subcontinent had led the unequal feminism march and thrown up more female prime ministers and chief ministers before other parts of the First World. Each one of them — whether it is Indira Gandhi, Benazir Bhutto, Chandrika Kumaratunga, Khaleda Zia or Sheikh Hasina — had the path to their entry into politics smoothened by a parent or spouse.

Six-time chief minister of Tamil Nadu,Jayalalithaa was unusual because her political journey did not involve a relative, nor did she start out as a professional politician or even activist. She was a professional film star who was ushered into politics by her former colleague and mentor, matinee idol and chief minister, M G Ramachandran. To interpret the relationship in Shakespearean terms he was the grizzled, besotted Caesar to her ingenue but whiplash-smart Cleopatra. 

Jayalalithaa was truly a lone empress loved fiercely by her party followers and loathed by her political adversaries. And irony of ironies, while political figures with family support have had to contend with accusations of ushering in feudal and dynastic rule, the lack of a family of her own and the borrowed “family” of dubious friends who ruled Jayalalithaa’s home offered an example of the toxic exploitation and vicious control that is part of the circle of those in supreme power. In fact, the courts showed that Jayalalithaa’s prison sentences were linked directly to the corrupt practices in which her friends were deeply involved.

The Lone Empress: A Portrait of Jayalalithaa

Author: Vaasanthi

Publisher: Penguin

Pages: 377

Price: Rs 599
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.

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