The Queen book review: Many loopholes in this fictional story about Jayalalithaa
Her embalmed corpse is ashen and her once-stern face is puffy as her body, wrapped in the tricolour, lies in a glass case. Like swarms of bees, immense crowds in the throes of sorrow surround the Queen. This was how the Tamil people paid tribute to J Jayalalithaa -- their ‘Amma’ ( mother) -- a rare politician who, even after her death, commands deep reverence among her supporters.
Still, the actor who once danced in frilly outfits in Tamil movies, the woman who hardened over time, and the six-time chief minister remains an enigma.
Jayalalithaa’s remarkable life (and her death) has inspired literature and art. She lives on through stories and biographies, and her life is fodder for The Queen by Anita Sivakumaran.
The novel ignores Jayalalithaa’s last months spent in the hospital and focuses on her political resurgence, which was nearly as certain as the tidal waves crashing on Chennai’s Marina Beach. The Queen opens with Kalai’s coming-of-age story and her dream of becoming a doctor. Fate mapped out another route for her. Her mother pulls her into the film industry and she warms up to dancing alongside superstar PKB. That’s r really MGR/MG Ramachandran. The impressionable girl eventually follows her mentor into politics but outgrows him as the masses and governments convene at her feet. Even a whirlwind of scandals and corruption cases against her isn’t enough to bring her down, at least not permanently.
But here’s the thing about reading The Queen: there’s almost nothing we aren’t already aware of. We know about Jayalalithaa’s extraordinary rise to power. We know about the wedding of her adopted son that temporarily halted her rise to the top. We know of her struggle against patriarchy. We know her trust lay in her closest friend VK Sasikala, named ‘Selvi’ in the novel. So what really is the purpose of this book if it’s just a fictional mirror to Jaya’s life?
The Queen is also selective. A pious dedication to Jayalalithaa, it celebrates and makes excuses for her many follies. There are few instances where it questions Kalai’s complacency. It charts her humiliation after the monstrous men in the state assembly disrobe her. But mostly, it rushes through her downs and makes an attempt to soften the Iron Lady’s persona. The Queen sketches the faces behind Kalai/Jayalalithaa’s success, her demeanor, and her final realization that she is special. She is, after all, resilient and able to overcome all obstacles as she is crowned Amma again, and again.
Still, the story seems to deliberately miss Kalai’s excesses. It forgets to mention that the court admonished Tamil Nadu on the number of defamation/slander cases against Jayalalithaa’s critics. Like a teenager under the influence of bad company, the novel shifts the blame for Kalai’s ostentatious material possessions onto Selvi as if a chief minister, who knowingly created an empire, would not know where the money came from!
Perhaps, the final straw is that The Queen seems fractured and bewildered with itself as it glances desultorily over a momentous life.
Most unpardonably, the novel would make no sense to a reader who doesn’t already know about Jayalalithaa.