An Unusual Kind of Sorrow

Madhavankutty Pillai has no specialisations whatsoever. He is among the last of the generalists. And also Open chief of bureau, Mumbai  
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On the shades of grief in Tamil politics

A FEW PARTICULAR, and peculiar if you will, elements of the political character of the Tamil people are evident in their relationship to their leaders, some of it not on display in the instance of Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa’s demise. Like the propensity towards wanton violence in the face of grief, as if there always needs to be human accountability even to acts of nature like deaths. This is against both external targets (buses, for some reason) and themselves (suicides). It is a familiar enough phenomenon and also why we saw the drama over declaring the death of Jayalalithaa played out so long.

As a result, the question of when she died will go into history as something of a mystery. Was it the previous evening when she had a heart attack and the body kept running through a machine? Or the next evening, when news channels declared her dead? Or was it around midnight, when the official declaration came? Whenever that might have been, what is clear is that someone has been clever in managing the fallout of her death, in reading how the violence would play out and then pre-empting it by giving the crowd so much time to swallow the idea that she was dead, without being certain about it, that their tempers had abated. They did make an attempt once to vandalise property outside Apollo Hospital where she was being treated since September, but it didn’t gather momentum. Otherwise, emotional swings in Tamil Nadu rise and fall together and there is no telling how the violence would spread.

The reason that the Tamilian gets violent is something even he probably doesn’t know. Give him a suitable moment, a film star or a political leader or a mix of the two, which is often the case, then it is as if he has been injected with a gene of barbaric frenzy. There are anomalies even to this. For instance, this gene is not in much evidence when the politician is out of power. People will crawl with iron spokes cleaved through their tongues to prostate (and get a dressing down) before Jayalalithaa, but once she is no longer Chief Minister, such exhibitions cease. Consider how, barring the recent win that saw her majority come down substantially, Jayalalithaa has found her party getting super-majorities and just as suddenly the next time being decimated at the polls into nothingness. So the question: what if she had died while not in power? Would she be still remembered and revered as a creator of an era, the Mother of every Tamil?

In an NDTV interview back in 1999, when she was out of power in Tamil Nadu—in the last few years when she felt the need to speak to the media—to a question on whether she would quit politics, her answer was that she has always wanted to. Why? To be alone, away from people. What a perfectly reasonably desire in a politician adulated like divinity and then cast away every so often.