A Phenoix Put To Rest: Jayalalitha

I will say this – I may not be too familiar with the politics that goes on in India, but I am familiar with the names.

For years, the name Jayalalitha has been echoed throughout my household, and to hear her passing is indeed a great loss to not only India, but every person who has fought for independence, equality, and righteousness amongst all walks of life.

She was a person not to be trifled with. At 16, when she starred opposite M.G.R. in Ayirathil Oruvan, the entire cast and team would stand up as she walked in.  Yes, she was charming, a talented multifaceted actor trained in various dance forms, but the traits that were overlooked for a woman of her time – wittiness, her knowledge of books and the world, and her intelligence. The claimed affair she had with M.G.R. was not the only reason that drew her into politics – but the fact that she herself knew she had potential. When MGR died, she sat conspicuously at his head for an entire two days, relegating his wife Janaki to a sidelined spot. Janaki’s aids tried to push her away, in fact pinched her, stepped on her feet, but she refused to budge. When she got on to the carriage for the final procession, she was visibly pushed off it in front of all television cameras. This effrontery was what would help her survive all those years of politics that would follow. The entire party split into two after M.G.R’s death, but four years later united under HER leadership to form one formidable opposition.

Even through all this rejection, she rose only stronger than ever like a phoenix rising from the flames; a renewal of life, but to her, it mean the renewal of a nation.

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She is indeed my inspiration. Jayalalitha was a woman who defied all odds. She started a career as an actress, who by definition and pre-conceived conceptions, cannot be taken seriously. She was a light-skinned Brahmin woman trying to ascent to power in a party that thrived due to its Dravidian anti-class rhetoric.

To put into context: she was not only walking the path of thorns but she did it while in an oxygen-less chamber while her arms and legs were tied. But that’s not all; people knew her as the person who silenced opposition and creates sycophants who fall at her feet to worship for all she has done. People may see this as if she were trying to embody a holy-figure, but this was the only way she could command, consolidate and hold onto an elusive power. If she was any more cordial than this, she could have been a hostess.

n 1989, when she opposed Karunanidhi’s presentation of the budget, she was almost disrobed in the assembly. This was in addition to being the recipient of lewd comments and hair pulling. This is probably the highest documented insult that a woman has ever faced in a state Assembly. Yet she persisted. She came out of that incident more guarded than ever before. She wrapped herself in layers of clothing and stopped wearing any jewelry at all.She succeeded at ‘desexualizing’ herself and branded herself as ‘amma’ (mother), the only known way to gain respect in that highly testosterone filled environment. One thing to keep in mind that Jayalalitha embodied was the fact that a woman doesn’t have to be the house-wife, or the pretty little lady as arm candy to a man, they can be rulers and they will be. The iron lady was unmarried, and childless, but that doesn’t mean she wasn’t compassionate. All of India and it’s people were her children hence why she was known as “Amma” to all.

And with four and a half years of her term left, I don’t believe there is a single leader that can fill her void. It will be several years, even decades, before another woman can even remotely achieve what she did in a state like Tamilnadu. In a few generations, all that will matter is that there is a woman’s statue as well, and that statue is not a mere woman who was venerated because she was a perfect wife, but of a woman who was a true and powerful leader of her own merit and her own making.

 

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