Stepping into Jayalalithaa’s Shoes, and Quaking
In the last six years, the Tamil Nadu government filed 216 defamation cases against writers, journalists, politicians, political parties, and even an MTV VJ, for staining the honour of Chief Minister Jayalalithaa. One could claim, with good reason, that the actress turned politician turned ‘Amma’ of the Tamil people was among the most litigious public figures on the planet.
In 2011, I wrote the first draft of a novel, The Queen, based on her life. What on earth did I think I was doing?
At the time, I’d been working on a collection of poems and had just begun my PhD. One day in early June, I woke up with The Queen’s entire narrative arc, everything, in my head. There it was, complete. What’s a writer to do at such a moment? I had to write it down.
Although The Queen is a work of fiction – and huge parts of it, including all of the characters, are ultimately constructs of my imagination – nonetheless, it follows Jayalalithaa’s story closely. As a Tamil myself, images of her have presided over my entire life – in the form of giant cutouts, fifty feet high on buildings, and all over the media. Her voice was as familiar to me as my own mother’s. Jayalalithaa’s inner life, however, remained mysterious. Of course, I wanted to understand what she thought about. What her motivations might have been. What made her tick. I am a novelist, and if fiction aims at truth more than facts, it was the truth I was after.
More than this, however: for me, Jayalalithaa’s story is like the tales from mythology we all grow up with. She herself is a kind of mythical figure. Her rise in cinema as well as politics have both been utterly dramatic. Who could forget her sub-Draupadi moment in the Tamil Nadu Assembly (get the parallel?), which transformed her into a woman of steel? Once the capes and bullet-proof vests came in, she could eat Superman and Duryodhana for breakfast. When you added the huge moustachioed macho men falling and weeping at her feet, my goodness, she was Durga and Kali brought to life. How could I not write about such a woman? This was her life as inspiration, as much as it was any search for the ‘truth’ of her.
I finished a first draft in three months.
No sooner had I finished, however, than I came across the news that an unauthorised biography in English, Jayalalithaa: A Portrait, had to be withdrawn from publication after Jayalalithaa sued. The author, Vaasanthi, protested that she’d not written anything untrue, nothing defamatory, or certainly intending to be defamatory. It didn’t seem to matter. The book was withdrawn. I sat there at my desk staring at the 200 pages of my draft. Jayalalithaa, I realised, did not allow anyone to write anything about her, full stop.
It is one thing to write fearlessly; another thing to publish fearlessly. Anyway, I had other projects on the burner. At the time, I didn’t really have the energy for a fight. So I confess I shoved The Queen in a drawer and forgot about it for four years.
Then, last year, through a series of unlikely circumstances, the book threatened to see the light. Almost before I’d thought about it, a publication deal loomed. Suddenly I was forced seriously to consider the potential fallout.
Well, publish or perish, goes the adage. I liked to consider myself a fearless writer, but I also knew that Salman Rushdie profoundly regretted writing Satanic Verses. I knew about Vaasanthi’s biography, squashed even before publication. I knew about Wendy Doniger’s marvellous The Hindus: an Alternative History getting pulped in India. And, even as my publishers were making me their offer, I read about Benazir Bhutto’s husband, Asif Zardari, in the process of suing a publisher for libel.
Meanwhile, Great Britain, my new home, is also arguably the world’s favourite place for people seeking libel action. British libel laws are draconian. I watched the fallout every day in the news. In the UK, if someone sues you for libel, it is on you to prove your innocence. And how can you prove something so abstract as intention?
Just to add to the mix, Jayalalithaa, I learned, had appointed a special defamation lawyer whose sole job it was to sue people on her behalf.
Would my novel lose me my home? Would I see my two children out on the street? I had to try to think through everything, to really make sure we planned for the consequences, while making sure no compromise was made on the story’s integrity. I’d had no experience about such things. I’d never considered having to ever think about such things. I could rename this article How I Nearly Became a Limited Company.
So, after all this, I was absolutely shocked when Jayalalithaa died, two months before the book came out, even as we were gearing up for trouble. The threat of libel appeared to have receded. I was left to consider again the essence of the story itself.
Jayalalithaa died just a couple of days after my beloved mother-in-law, Coral, who had been a famous actress and a ‘saviour’ of neglected children in the UK. It was an astonishing irony, and one so personal for me, that BBC Radio 4’s weekly obit slot, ‘The Last Word,’ had to move my mother-in-law’s obituary to make space for Jayalalithaa’s. Coral had read the first draft of my book and loved it. She’d believed Jayalalithaa would want to be friends with me if she read The Queen. Not likely, I told her.
Coral was confusing Kalai Arasi with the real Jayalalithaa. And who knew what Jayalalithaa was really like? Not me. I had merely tried to write a ‘true fiction’ inspired by her life, such as we know it out here beyond the periphery of her personal world.
Ultimately, Kalai Arasi is more me. At least, she is the version of me I thought would be able to wear Jayalalithaa’s shoes or sandals with aplomb, with a degree of integrity, self-analysis and ironical humour, all of which I hope make up Kalai Arasi’s point of view. Jayalalithaa, you might say, was the Muse. Those qualities in Kalai Arasi – inspired by my imagined Jayalalithaa – make her, I hope, a heroine you can sympathise with. At least, empathise with. And that, surely, is integrity enough for a writer of fiction.