Not for the first time, Tamil Nadu has had a meltdown. This state is no stranger to explosive emotional responses. Whether it is the death of a beloved politician or a milestone in the life of a movie star, we have witnessed the most extreme responses when a well-loved public figure dies. Indeed this is quite unique to the state. While Jayalalithaa was on her death-bed, people gathered together and frenziedly prayed for her. What accounts for such mass frenzy? Was Amma really so caring and loving? Or is this a state that is still unashamed about its emotionality? While women predominated, it is not exclusive to women. This open display of abundant and excessive emotion is culturally linked with the feminine and has been frowned upon in masculinist cultures, yet Tamil Nadu seems to have escaped from this cultural dominance of suppressed emotions.
Jayalalithaa is not the first one to elicit this robust response - MGR posthumously and Rajinikanth to mention just two - have evoked similar hysteria. There was undoubtedly a certain something about her that allowed her to become a powerful symbol in the collective mind of the state. While media does not reveal a great variety of photographs, she was always smiling enigmatically, managing to radiate charisma. Physically she embodied what must be a virtue for a politician: her beauty never announcing itself, but working unconsciously. Clearly there was a shrewd capacity to re-invent.
After a successful stint as a movie star, her mentor MG Ramachandran (MGR) made her appropriately enough, minister for propaganda. Obviously she learnt the ropes with dexterity. Looking back, there was a complete inaccessibility of her personal life. Despite all the gossip about and the rivalry with MGR’s wife, after his death, she quietly took control. In a conservative state, she won against MGR’s wife. For all who were watching, here was a woman who is in-charge of her emotions and her life. She was never reviled for the apparently unconventional personal choices.
In fact, a little like Queen Elizabeth, she went about ruthlessly fortifying her stranglehold: Never letting slip an unplanned word. She could be aloof and high-handed and unreliable, and for all that, she was trounced. But she fought her way back. This time round she cultivated compassion. This was a larger-than-life mother, one who provided food and basic care to her children. And this is where she got it right. She seemed to get the unconscious fantasy of millions of Tamils: to have a mother who would provide selflessly for her children. The fact that Jayalalithaa had no family of her own, helped fuel this fantasy.
Her voters were mostly women. If we add this up, we see a feminised culture. It might even be possible to argue that while mainstream politics leaves little room for this fantasy of someone who cares selflessly, it is something most of us keep hungering for, even as we repudiate this by professing cynicism. It seems that cynicism has not eroded this fantasy in Tamil Nadu where it is still possible to dream of a munificent mother who is laid to rest next to father.
Nilofer Kaul is a Delhi based psychoanalyst. The views are personal.