I fail to recall a numbness as halting as this. A roster of the tallest icons of this age have risen and lapsed in my lifetime. Yet, as the sun sank to the cries of the barrel this evening, one could sense that it marked not the end of the day, but the closing of an era.
Mine is a generation — of the early 90s — that was born in a decisively new India. The economic reforms of 1991 were inaugurated in a moment that had just witnessed the tragic demolition of the Babri Masjid (on this very day, 24 years ago), the resurfacing of the Mandal Commission Report and the shameful events surrounding the Shah Bano case. With Her social psyche busted and brought to a boil, India steamed into the globalising world, romanced the order of the internet and the times as one knew it were changing forever.
In the midst of this flux, to a Madrasi boy like me, only Amul and ‘Amma’ appeared as constant to the public eye. The story of the latter settled in my political imagination like little else did.
J. Jayalalithaa was sworn-in for the first time as Chief Minister of my home state, Tamil Nadu, in 1991; just a few months later, I was born. She took over at a time when the parochialism and misogyny of Indian politics was so deep-rooted that the winds of change that were trickling in at the time were a mere whisper in the hallways of power. Her battles against assault, chauvinism and indignity are legendary. More legendary is the fact that she lived on controversy. The adjectives often surrounding her were pugnacious and combative. She was famous for ridicule and invective debate, for witticisms and a fine sense of pleasure in having the last laugh. Her obstinacy was exhausting to her opponents and made New Delhi view her with the highest sense of caution. She had all it took to essentially leave a Tyrannosaurus Rex with a complex.
However, as I sat by my desk this evening, reeling back from last night’s news, I wondered why Jayalalithaa’s passing affected me so much. A cursory look at her life revealed that every success came her way with a corresponding setback. Whether by her opponents, by male chauvinism, by jealous plotters and, most often, by the justice system for her own wrongdoings, Jayalalithaa nurtured a permanent love-affair with adversity. What shines through her story, however, is the incredible resilience with which she fought-back and emerged from every hardship. There was nothing stopping her.
In a society where a woman — leave alone a decisive one — is reduced and minimised, Jayalalithaa’s was a story of defiance and thrill. I have and continue to disagree with her and her politics strongly and on many levels. However, this evening, as she lay her head down for the last time, I joined millions in my home state to share in the grief that we have, indeed, lost an icon.