The decades-spanning story of how novelist-journalist Vaasanthi came to write the not-a-biography-but-a-portrait of one of our most complex, controversial political figures. Baradwaj Rangan has the details
When Vaasanthi speaks, there are no ‘um-s', no ‘ah-s'. Entire sentences, entire paragraph-ready constructions tumble forth without the scantest hesitation, leaving the gently disquieting impression that she is reading off a teleprompter inside her head, a cybernetic creature from the imagination of her late contemporary, Sujatha. And then, gradually, the trace of a human blemish reveals itself — the rolling of ‘r's that comes and goes, like a fresh-off-the-boat Indian in Indianapolis still in the process of perfecting the vocal inflections of his new neighbourhood.
Vaasanthi, herself, has lived in a distractingly large number of new neighbourhoods — from Tumkur, Karnataka, where she was born, to the states of Northeast India, and even Nepal. But her story begins in Bangalore, where she began to read and revere authors such as Jane Austen and Jayakanthan, Dickens and Dumas. “But,” she says, “I never imagined I'd be a writer one day.”
Vaasanthi's first story came about unintentionally, based on a widowed great-aunt who became the target of malicious household gossip. She sent it to Anandha Vikatan, and because she did not want anyone at home to trace this outpouring back to her, she camouflaged her given name, Pankajam, with a pseudonym. “I don't know how I arrived at Vaasanthi. It was something different, not the usual Vasanthi. Oru kaal kooda,” she laughs, still delighted after all these years by this neological novelty.
Vaasanthi's early novels were about women. They were also about her surroundings, which kept changing as her husband who was with the CPWD, kept receiving transfer orders to Mizoram, Arunachal Pradesh and Meghalaya. Then came Delhi. “The women I met, the writers, were all so politically motivated. That is how I started writing political novels.”
It was in Delhi, in 1984, that Vaasanthi met Jayalalithaa. “She had come there as a member of the Rajya Sabha and there was a lot of talk about her. Her maiden speech was much appreciated. Khushwant Singh praised her as a beauty with brains, and when Khushwant Singh says something all of Delhi listens.” One of the listeners was the editor of the Hindi magazine Kadambini, who asked Vaasanthi to do an interview.
Vaasanthi estimates the interview went on for one-and-a-half hours — all the time, the interviewee kept her own tape recorder in front of her. “It looked as if she regarded reporters as antagonists. I felt she was a little haughty and unfriendly.” Today, however, Vaasanthi tempers this evaluation with empathy. “Maybe that was a kind of a posture, to show that she could not be taken for a ride.”
That was the last Vaasanthi saw of Jayalalithaa. Many years later, in 1993, after Vaasanthi came to Chennai and became the editor of the Tamil edition of India Today, she wrote Jayalalithaa several letters requesting a meeting. “I tried for 10 years but there was no reply at all.”
But even if there was no speaking to her, there was a lot of writing about her. “I was in Chennai during both her regimes. I've been very critical about her.” There was also the other kind of writing, fiction, which took Vaasanthi to David Davidar, head of Penguin India at the time, and this led to the well-received Cut-outs, Caste And Cine Stars: The World Of Tamil Politics.
A few years later, Penguin asked her to write a book about someone who played a supporting part in Cut-outs, Caste And Cine Stars — only this time she'd be a heroine. “I was very hesitant to write about Jayalalithaa,” Vaasanthi says, of a biographical book that would chart Ammu's transition to Amma. “First of all, it's impossible to get an interview with her. She is also a very enigmatic person. There's not much known about her even though she has, in many of her interviews, said that her life is an open book.”
The book took two years to write. It had to be finished by May 2011, in time for the elections in Tamil Nadu. But the elections were advanced, and now — entirely unintentionally, though this may turn out to be the kind of stroke of fortune every publisher dreams about — the book's release is shrouded in a smog of suspense: Will this be the chronicle of a comeback queen?
They are not calling it a biography, because it's not an authorised biography. “I call it a portrait.” Jayalalithaa - A Portrait begins with memories and ends with what justified Vaasanthi's attempt to write, and she is very happy with the way she's finished it. “She may think it is all wrong or partly right, but it is a balanced view of her drawbacks, her strengths, her extraordinary courage, and how she single-handedly fights, still, in a male-dominated society. She's a very colourful woman. Without her, there would be no colour at all in the politics of Tamil Nadu.”