Sunil Sethi

Journalist in Delhi

Jaya’s bitter success and succession

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Though Jayalalithaa’s longstanding companion Sasikala commands an immense fortune and many AIADMK MLAs, does she have her grit and charisma to succeed? Here is my account of the extraordinary Jayalalithaa I knew—and didn’t. Did anyone?

Failure, said the English novelist Graham Greene, is only a dress rehearsal for success. The aphorism fits the life, struggle and death of AIADMK’s chief and five-time chief minister of Tamil Nadu nicely. Jayalalithaa’s iconic cult as a protective deity of the poor has soared since she was laid to rest on Marina Beach on December 6 but in the slush pile of fulsome tributes her long periods of rejection, humiliation and, in the end, utter isolation also lie buried.


I first met Jayalalitha – she had not yet appended a second “a” to her name – in early 1985 at a particularly low point in her career. Her patron M G Ramachandran had somewhat miraculously been resurrected after a severely debilitating illness. The city of Chennai (then Madras) was in the grip of vicious palace intrigue. Although a Rajya Sabha backbencher (where she spent time gossiping with Khushwant Singh, much taken by her cuddly charm and sharp intelligence) her political ambitions were crushed in the bitter battle for succession. A powerful faction led by V R Nedunchezhiyan and R M Veerappan had propped up MGR’s wife, the unknown V N Janaki, as the rightful heir. Jayalalithaa was the butt of scurrilous attacks and insults all over town. Information minister Veerappan called her a “fourth rate lady” and told me it was his “moral duty to destroy her evil force.” In a heavy trafficking of lurid pejoratives Jaya-baiters chimed in with DMK leaders to call her “a luxury taxi”, “a passenger train” and a battered “town bus”. An abyss yawned: refused to see her in response to interviews she had given, going so far as to question the legitimacy of his marriage to Janaki.


The MGR-Jayalalithaa association is one of the stranger, tormented liaisons of the twilight zone where film and political lives coalesce. As her fiercely possessive co-star and political partner, he was equally fascinated and suspicious of her. But, she was never his ordained successor. He whimsically played ducks and drakes but it was a running theme of her life.


An insecure childhood, a pushy mother steering her towards Bollywood (in 1966 she gave a bharatanatyam performance at the Filmfare awards, introduced as “Jayalalitha of South”) were exacerbated by failed romantic relationships. I reported that to she embodied “The Other”. “She had class: Fair-skinned and fluent in English, her worldly sophistication and articulate style… counter-pointed [his] lack of background and education… Her flashing eyes, large rolling hips and venomous barbs delivered in spitfire English… invigorated him out of his xenophobic cocoon. That being a Brahmin she was upper caste as well only heightened her appeal to a man who personified the anti-Brahmin struggle.” But her transition from scintillating screen goddess to captivating political campaigner in the 1984 elections also carried an incipient threat. Veerappan complained that “she attempted a virtual takeover of the party.” This she successfully did, tenaciously clambering to the top after MGR’s death in 1987.


It was at hurriedly convened, poorly attended press meets at Tamil Nadu House at Chanakyapuri in New Delhi that she singled me out. One of Jayalalithaa’s attributes was a phenomenal, almost photographic, memory. She went through reams of newsprint, her ears pricking at the mere mention of her name on TV. She had an actor’s dulcet voice, and a movie star’s measured ability to swiftly place distance between her and interlocutors. By turns imperious and warm-hearted she was, I discovered, a person of voracious appetites — devouring books, good food and movie gossip in great giggly gulps.


Probably from boredom, it was on a Delhi-Chennai flight that she summoned me to sit beside her in the front row. This was before she adopted the uniform of voluminous capes and plain saris to hide her obesity. She dressed tastefully in south Indian cottons and silks with discreet diamond jewellery. We spoke of everything but politics. She was well-versed in the Eng. Lit. canon of Dickens and Austen, but had also read, for example, Oscar Wilde’s famous epistolary tract from jail, De Profundis. She expressed a weakness for the romantic fiction of Georgette Heyer and admired actors such as Dustin Hoffman and Robert de Niro. Dilip Kumar’s early performances simply made her melt. When I mentioned that an architect I knew had redesigned her kitchen in Poes Gardens she promptly invited me for tea, piling my plate with delicacies in her fragrant garden. Later, in her vast mountain retreat in the Niligiris she created hothouses to flood Bengaluru’s flower market with exotic blooms. She also said that having failed in most relationships she aspired to be a mother-figure, a universal Amma, to feed the poor.


I never met her companion V N — who, ironically, bears the initials of her old nemesis Janaki. There is inherent déjà vu to the question: Though Ms commands an immense fortune and many MLAs, does she have Jayalalithaa’s grit and charisma to succeed?

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