The internment of Fidel Castro’s ashes took place in Cuba early on Sunday 4 December. Today it is the turn of one of Tamil Nadu’s most enigmatic political leaders to have her own state funeral. A few short hours after Castro’s ashes where interred, Tamil Nadu’s Chief Minister, J Jayalalithaa, began her final journey – one that had, in many ways, started a few months earlier when she was admitted to the Apollo Hospital in Chennai on 22 September. Following some 70+ days in hospital, and during the evening of Sunday 4 December, she suffered a cardiac arrest from which she never recovered. She finally breathed her last around 11:30pm local time Monday 5 December (GMT + 5.5 hours).
Today, unlike in Cuba where there was over a week of national mourning before the state burial, the citizens of Tamil Nadu are being granted only a few short hours to pay their last respects, to get a final glimpse of a woman who has been hailed as a formidable Indian politician. As I write, several news channels continue their unabated coverage of her lying in state as fellow politicians, super-star actors and other dignitaries flock to Rajaji Hall in central Chennai to bear witness to her passing.
Curiously, or not, only a few days ago Mr D and I had speculated about the fact that she was still in hospital. So on Sunday evening, having watched one of my favourite kinds of TV shows (dance contest Jodi on Vijay TV) I decided to flick to one of my preferred news channels. Along with BBC World News, I enjoy the style of reporting on CNN News 18, which provides Indian news primarily in English. I wasn’t entirely surprised when I saw that the Breaking News bulletin was that the long-hospitalised politician had suffered a cardiac arrest and was on crucial life-support, her situation grave. Because Mr D and I had only a few days earlier mentioned Jayalalithaa in passing I thought he’d be interested. But by the time I climbed into bed next to him he was already in the land of snores.
The next morning, up too early and bleary-eyed even as I made the requisite coffee, I decide to wake up slowly with a few moments of flicking through the latest news. I again selected CNN News 18. Again unsurprisingly, their top story was about Jayalalithaa who was still on life support and about to undergo surgery. The reporter was asking experts to opine about Jayalalithaa’s chances of survival given her various other health issues that would likely complicate the problem of a cardiac arrest.
Throughout the day I kept returning to the news, both CNN News 18 and BBC World News. As the reporting became more fervent, Mr D and I came to the conclusion that she was probably already dead or soon would be. Either way Mr D postulated that news of her death would not officially be announced until later that night.
As the hours passed and more officials rushed to be at Jayalalithaa’s bedside the reporters continued to speculate about how events would likely unfold. Certainly, CNN News 18 seemed to have sent some of its top reporters to Chennai. Even to an innocent eye, activity was already under way to prepare for what was to come. Likewise, Mr D and I decided to make our own preparations. Already in need of a kitchen and fridge restock, Mr D suggested we get enough supplies to cover us for an extra few days.
We left late afternoon yesterday for a quick but unhurried shopping trip to one of the small supermarkets we frequently go to. While there we happily filled a small shopping trolley then strolled to the check out. As my bags filled I noticed several of the staff dash about. Then as Mr D paid, the manager flicked the lights on and off. I didn’t immediately understand why – until I saw some of the female staff, out of their regulation green jackets, hurry out the store and up the steps to the street. The lights remained dimmed. With our bags packed, we left the store. At the top of the steps the door was held open for us by the doorman who was making sure no-one else entered. We had, once again in the last few weeks, been very lucky with our timing.
Riding home, satisfyingly laden down with full bags, we were witness to an extra level of fervour in the regular evening traffic – there was something akin to a rising panic in the way people seemed to be rushing to complete their business for the day, to return home, to close doors to any potential mayhem should Jayalalithaa be announced dead before nightfall. But for Mr D and I, back home, we had a quite night; enjoyed supper, each other and down-time after a full day.
This morning, unable to resist checking the news again, CNN News 18 was showing images of Jayalalithaa’s body at the top of a set of steps covered in red carpet at the front of the grand-looking Rajaji Hall in Chennai. She lay in a coffin, her face exposed, her body draped in a national flag. Next to her people where bunched up, others flowing past her, touching her feet, laying flowers. Seated on either side of the red-carpeted steps were row upon row of mostly white-clothed men.
Several feet in front of the building a growing number of mourners were being funnelled through a police-lined series of barricades, all wanting a last glimpse of their beloved leader. Throughout the day the flow of people became a crush as more and more followers pushed from behind, eager to see Jayalalithaa one last time in the short window of opportunity open to them.
While Mr D had correctly predicted that news of her death would not be announced until most people were asleep, what I hadn’t considered, even though I know quick burials are the norm in India, was that she would be cremated so soon, that she would only be lying in state for a very short time. Given the numbers of people, not just in Chennai or close enough to reach the city, but the thousands of mourners across the state, I would have thought bucking that death tradition to allow for a longer period of lying in state would have been more effective. But then, doing things quickly means the passion and fervour, the dramatic effect if you will, is heightened. Certainly, a rapid progression from death to near frenzy-like activity for a few hours has the feel of a Kollywood blockbuster – something the late J would have been familiar with and possibly, for this last appearance, something she would have expected, perhaps even relished. After all, she led her party by having a strong personality and cultivating the Amma monicker. Many a household in Tamil Nadu will have some item or other that bears a sticker of her face on it. Even in this district that prefers her opposing party, families own such things. I have to confess I do too – a gifted item via Mr D of course.
So the #RIPAmma tag is just that. Tamil Nadu’s Amma is dead. Soon she will be taken to Marina Beach, that long sweep of sand along the Bay of Bengal, to the memorial site of her mentor in both movies and politics, M.G. Ramachandran, where her body will be cremated and then interred.
I’m guessing her death brings to a close a significant era in Tamil Nadu politics of the last 60 years or so. From what I can gather, her presence at the head of her political party (The All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam [AIADMK] ) was a relatively seamless follow-on from her predecessor and mentor.
Now, with her death, comes the opportunity for a new political era to emerge in Tamil Nadu when the men and women of the party will have to reshape the persona of their politics for themselves. They cannot, in any sane vision of political progression, imagine they can fill her shoes. Not yet anyway. All they can do, I imagine, is ensure her wishes are carried out, that the party fulfils on some of its election promises and ensures her legacy is not lost as they carry out business during the remainder of their term of office. No doubt, next election, the opposing party will be in power. Such is the game of politics.
In the meantime loss and grief abound. Even mine. I have absolutely no attachment to the now-dead heroine of movies and politics that Jayalalithaa was to so many in Tamil Nadu, but the collective consciousness of grief is evident. This morning I did shed a tear, not for her per se, but because the heart’s connection commanded it. I cry easily, freely, mostly unashamedly – even as I did earlier today. Jayalalithaa was definitely not a perfect politician, such a thing not being possible. But curiously, even if only in the background, she has been a steady presence throughout my entire experience of being in India on and off since 2008. I was in town when she helicoptered in for a rally during her 2009 election campaign. I didn’t see her, but, staying only about one km from the site of the rally, I certainly heard her arrival. Following her departure a loud furore was unleashed by her passionate supporters.
And life goes on. She succeeded in politics in a way that maintained her identity as a woman, something that, when I think of another female political leader also known as the Iron Lady, one Margaret Thatcher, I do not think the same can be said. Where Thatcher presented herself as more macho than anyone in her party, Jayalalithaa had been called Amma, mother. A tough-love mother perhaps, hence the Iron Lady term, but mother nonetheless. In Cuba they were, and probably still are, grieving the loss of a father figure. Today in Tamil Nadu, as well as further afield, people are grieving the loss of a mother. Perhaps we can all share in the empathy of knowing what that is, what it might be like, and offer up a moment of appreciation that a woman who shouldered her duties as best she could, sometimes badly, still managed to positively touch the lives of so many. Today they feel her loss keenly. Today a state mourns. During the tomorrows yet to come we may see more strong women take her lead and ensure they become even better advocates for female empowerment, a direction that will undoubtedly serve us all.