A grief observed

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Jayalalithaa’s legendary composure in the face of adversity was reflected in how the Tamil Nadu capital took her demise. Solemnity quelled disquiet on the day Chennai laid to rest a stateswoman who belonged to the city as much as it belonged to her.

Jayalalithaa, with her restrained tenacity, came to infuse and represent the spirit of Chennai and its citizens. | B. Jothi Ramalingam

‘Never paid too much attention to her but feeling the void now! Don’t know why! Inexplicable!’ This message came on WhatsApp from a friend who isn’t normally given to hyperbole. Exactly, I thought. I passed it on to a couple of other friends after hesitating briefly, but they messaged back in agreement as well. A little while later, the friend, who grasped the unreality of the day, changed her DP to a picture of the late Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J. Jayalalithaa, glowing in benign soft focus with her easily recognisable half-smile. It didn’t look odd. It felt perfectly right.


Although the State has been bracing for bad news as the late CM’s health turned critical over several weeks, and dreading the violence that might have followed had agitated supporters decided to vent their grief, when she passed away in the last half hour of December 5, it was after an evening saturated with hysteria as some TV channels wrongly and irresponsibly announced her death, leading the city to shut down in panic.


Later still though, after fresh rumours hinted that she might be on the mend, the spent crowd keeping vigil on her melted into the desolate night, perhaps resigned by then to these ups, downs and maybes. So when the news of her death came finally, officially and irrefutably, it was received with a hushed shock rather than a rousing dirge. J. Jayalalithaa had passed away. It was somehow hard to believe that this woman, a fighter who gave new dimensions to the meaning of tenacity, wasn’t going to find a way back.


The following morning, the city fell silent. Birdsong could be heard, as could be the rustle of leaves on the windy December day. There was inevitability, fatalism and mourning in the air. Those of us who made our way to work found the city like we had never seen it before. Shops stayed closed, vehicles ceased to ply, policemen stood at watchful distances, never out of earshot. Hardly a handful of people were about in the broad light of early afternoon. The arterial roads were so emptied of traffic that any vehicles daring to make their way somewhere must have felt like they were part of a VIP cavalcade.


Many of us opted for MRTS trains; their monstrously neglected stations were suddenly appreciated for the dependable commute they offered. Trains ran late but nobody minded for they seemed to be keeping pace with the decelerated city, even offering a lingering vantage from the elevated tracks as Chennai prepared for the biggest funeral since the passing of Jayalalithaa's iconic mentor, M.G. Ramachandran.


It was hardly a normal day, but the sort of hooliganism that causes disruption of normal life was completely absent. Had someone sought medical assistance or supplies, or tried to reach the airport or railway station, I doubt that they would have been questioned or heckled. People appeared to be standing around, chatting, and simply waiting. Citizens could grieve peacefully. It felt like the sort of historic day we may never expect to see again in our lifetimes. If restraint is an art, Chennai owned it on this day.




Larger than life over most of her years in public service, J. Jayalalithaa’s last journey was organised, muted and swift. The cortège was decorated simply, the sea of humanity that followed kept decorum, celebrities did not share her place in the sun and the military honours were impeccably sombre as she was lowered into her grave. In a State given to voluble expressions of grief, tears were kept in check.


That her cabinet would genuflect to her in embarrassingly sycophantic demonstrations of loyalty is not so much a subject of feminist studies (or politics) in the city she called her home as it is an acceptance of her omnipresence, acquired over the many years of her authoritative ascent and near-mythic reign at the top. Her unflappable grace under fire had to be admired, if not visibly then secretly. ‘Brand Amma’, as she came to be called by economically-minded analysts, was everywhere in the Tamil Nadu capital — on affordable bottles of packaged water in a metropolis that swelters tropically through three-quarters of the year, in the scores of highly subsidised Amma Unavagam canteens that dispensed appreciably decent food, and even in the cutely named ‘Small Bus’ network that winds its way through Chennai’s smaller roads (possibly her only initiative to not feature her almost-mandatory visage, instead painted with a play on her party’s symbol of paired leaves).


An unsaid fear of being answerable to her appeared to dictate those who governed in her absence and managed her health over the last weeks, dire though the prognosis seemed. The importance of his patient could not have escaped Dr. Richard Beale, the London-based intensivist who flew down more than once to advise the team of doctors administering to her care, his car mobbed by the media as he entered or left the hospital, the prayerful throngs in attendance a testimony to the legend of his terribly frail charge. If Apollo Hospitals on Greams Road, where she was treated, is never going to be the same again, how can we expect it of 36, Poes Garden, where she lived?


It is therefore but natural that Chennai expected to kneel when Jaya, as she was often known colloquially, left her earthly moorings. But in the end, the contours of an event, the happening of which was a cause for so much apprehension, dissolved into a quiet sigh of acceptance. Fear was replaced with regret, and vituperation with ungrudging admiration even from her sworn opponents. They will all be back, we can be sure, the insinuations, suspicions and cynicism over her substantial estate, her personality traits and her political legacy. But death does us all a favour in blunting scepticism when we pay obeisance to mortality.

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