It’s noticeable that the makkal or people of Tamil Nadu, nearly 80 million Indians, feel things deeply and some show it in ways that confound other Indians. And as long as the north’s notion of history remains exclusively Delhi-centric, Dakshin Bharat, especially Tamil Nadu, may remain culturally alien to ‘non-Madrasis’.
The occasional voluntary self-immolation by Tamilian men is cultural, something that Kurds, Tibetans and Tamil Nadu’s old cultural cousins, the Buddhist countries of South East Asia, are also known for — whereas, excepting Kumarila Bhatta in atonement at Prayag in the age of Adi Sankara and Rajeev Goswami in 1989 in protest against the Mandal Commission, other men are known to have burned, not themselves, but generations of women in sati.
When poor Tamilians wept for ‘Amma’ and performed the propitiatory rural ritual of mansoru, eating food off the bare ground, it was genuine, not rent-a-crowd as it is for many politicians. However, there’s another non-negotiable rule in several Tamil communities called adakkam or public self-restraint. Amma personified that other side of Tamil Nadu. She never lost her sangfroid but coped and prevailed.
So did the hair-tearing makkal when an improperly drained Chennai went underwater, although it was her administration’s fault. It was mass decency on an epic scale. We saw it again last week, at Amma’s funeral. Many people foretold riots. But though poor mourners wailed uninhibitedly on camera, that’s basically all they did.
The streets emptied quietly. The teeming thousands at the funeral did not riot. The procession was well-organised. The Opposition behaved well. The AIADMK did not whip up public sentiment. Be it the politicians, the police or the people of whichever party, they held fast.
The city’s oldest newspaper fed policemen at its canteen. Other practical Chennaiites formed volunteer groups to take water, cakes and snacks to as many police personnel as they could. WhatsApp messages flew through town asking citizens to offer drinking water and the use of toilets to the constabulary, who stood like a rock for three days with very little sleep. The makkal did not callously say ‘it’s their job’ but actively appreciated their police.
It may suffer from the national plagues of caste politics and corruption but Tamil Nadu repeatedly rises to the occasion. It was the first state to compensate its Sikhs for their financial losses of 1984. Amitabh Bachchan tweeted that Amma was the only chief minister to celebrate a hundred years of Indian cinema from all regions. Rajasthanis, Gujaratis and Sikhs have long lived there, and increasingly, Biharis. They learn Tamil just as South Indians settled in the north learn Hindi. A Bihari told me he migrated there because ‘Yahan sukoon hai’ (There’s contentment here).
Tamil Nadu is a microcosm of the national stage in yet another way, governed for decades by either a dynasty or a personality. But his family has not brought glory to M Karunanidhi, while Amma, the last towering personality, is gone. How will the makkal cope? Will the AIADMK implode, or grow up overnight? As we saw, amazing things can happen if people operate a collective sense of decency.
The views expressed are personal