Jayalalithaa had a knack of creating fear: Amma’s biographer Vaasanthi
Veteran journalist Vaasanthi is harried. Jayalalithaa’s unofficial biographer is being mobbed on the opening day of the Jaipur Literature Festival as people flock to her with queries and conjectures about the enigma that was the former Tamil Nadu chief minister. In an interview with HT, she talks about Amma’s dictatorial tendencies and how she was hounded when her book Jayalalithaa: A Portrait was due for release.
Q. What was your first impression of Jayalalithaa when you met her in 1984?
A. I first met her when she joined Parliament. She wore simple attire for a film star. What struck me was her air of confidence and arrogance. She was sure of her answers, almost challenging me. She thought every question was adversarial.
Q. You speak of her distrust of media and journalists. Was it unique to her or did you see this in other Tamil Nadu politicians?
A. It was only her. She behaved like an autocrat. Her word was law. She didn’t allow anyone else to speak. All dictators behave like that.
Q. What do you think of her place as a strong woman in male-dominated politics?
A. She realised that projecting a strong exterior was the only way to transform herself and survive in a male dominated world. She liked men prostrating before her. She became as aggressive as the male.
Q. Tamil Nadu politics is known for its anti-caste Dravidian politics? Did she face challenges as a Brahmin leader?
A. Opposition parties called her papati – a derogatory word for a Brahmin woman. But her cadre and party people respected her more because she was a higher caste. That is the unfortunate mentality, they had some kind of involuntary respect.
Q. What was your experience when you tried to write a book on Jayalalithaa?
A. When I moved to Chennai as editor of India Today south, I sent her a fax every day for 10 years for an interview but never heard back from her. But when Outlook magazine carried a cover story about my upcoming book on her, she got angry and went to court to get an injunction.
I hadn’t got her permission – but it wasn’t required. If I had taken permission, she would restrict me. She didn’t want her past to be written about.
Q. Did you receive any threats?
A. The injunction itself was enough of a threat. Her party men were threatening me, they were abusing me on Jaya TV as a liar. I was scared to go to Chennai. It was a traumatizing period for me. She had a knack of creating fear.
Q. In your book, you explain that MG Ramachandran and Jayalalithaa had a rapprochement after a 10-year rift. During this time, she fell in love with someone else and almost married him as well. Why did the relationship rekindle?
A. Jayalalithaa saw that MGR was the only person who could give her a strong career in politics. She had no other option. She couldn’t study further, her acting career was failing at 38. She saw he had become very popular with his noon meal scheme. We shouldn’t believe her when she says MGR forced her into politics. After all, she was an actress.
Q. How do you see Sasikala?
A. Sasikala is a nobody, she came only to help Jayalalithaa in household work. Jayalalithaa was very intelligent, she spoke impeccable English, knew six languages, she was versatile. There’s no comparison between Jaya and Sasikala. Sasikala can have no lasting impact. She may win some votes because of her proximity with Jayalalithaa.
But she has no vote-catching charisma. Only those MLAs and MPs who have received favours from Sasikala support her, not even the cadre. She won’t be there after four-and-a-half years. Deepa Jayakumar will also not have any such impact.
Q. In your book, Cut Outs, Caste and Cine Stars, you talk about the cult status of film stars in Tamil Nadu politics. Do you think that era has ended?
A. Yes, no film star has that stature. There was a time when cinema had strong influence on people. Nowadays you have TV and other things. Cinema isn’t the only thing to hold their attention. Dravidian ideology has also weakened. People are concerned about better lives and jobs, not ideology.
Q. You think the BJP has a chance in Tamil Nadu?
A. No, no chance at least for a few years. Even though Dravidian ideology has weakened, the feeling is strong that Tamils are a different ethnic community. The BJP is looked as a Brahmin, upper class and north Indian party.
Q. About Jallikattu and the controversy, why is it so emotive?
A. Because it is looked upon as a Tamil issue. Tamil Nadu has a suspicion of the north, that they don’t understand Tamil Nadu. Jallikattu is seen as an identity.
Q. One last question. Vaasanthi is a pseudonym. What is the story?
A. I wanted something different. My first short story was about something that happened in the house. My name was Pankajam and I didn’t want my family to find out. So I chose Vaasanthi. It was different from the usual Vasanthi.
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