At the end of the Gandhi Mandapam road in Chennai, at the point where the road meets the Kotturpuram bridge over the Adyar river, is the Vinayaka temple. Locals say this was one of Amma’s favourites in the city. Her motorcade would often stop on its way back from Raj Bhavan or the airport towards Poes Garden at the exact point where Amma, seated in the passenger seat of her SUV, could get a glimpse of the deity.
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The temple was closed on Tuesday, and on the notice that talks of the closure, someone drew a pair of eyes with tears streaming down! Mourning for Amma, or ruling Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa, who lost a 75-day battle against illness and breathed her last on the night of December 5th, marking the end of an iconic political journey and plunging the state into gloom.
It is remarkable to note the voluntary shutting down of all shops, businesses and other small establishments, many of which may not have been under the purview of the notification declaring a holiday. The state government announced a three-day holiday for all educational institutions and a seven-day state mourning, during which no official entertainment shall be held.
The usually bustling Gandhi Mandapam road wore a deserted look. At midday, one could count a single car, one van and three scooters. It was almost impossible to recognise this for the road that it is on any other day, weekday or not. A very busy construction site at the corner of two important roads – where work goes on even during the night, much to nearby residents’ annoyance – is empty.
Most other neighbourhoods have a similar tale to tell, the roads empty and peaceful. Shakthi Girish, founder of Galatta.com and a resident of Anna Nagar, says that every single shop in the area is shut. “I’ve heard that the police themselves politely asked shop owners yesterday (Monday) to shut down and go home for their own safety. We do have a few low-income areas around the neighbourhood, as well as some sensitive areas like TP Chathram. But police personnel have ensured a fairly peaceful environment. Some people zoomed around on bikes and other vehicles but nothing untoward, really.”
In a state where it has been customary to express grief upon the demise of celebrities through raw emotion and even mindless violence, the restraint and pensive quiet in the city is also stark. Vincent D Souza, Editor and Publisher of Mylapore Times newspaper had been going around the city since the morning, to study local reactions and mourning. He too noted the calm and said, “There was violence, a lot of it, on the streets when MG Ramachandran died. Yet there has been no extremes in Jayalalithaa’s case. Makes me wonder – aren’t we in the age of spectacle rather than emotions?”
Nevertheless in some quarters, the sadness was tinged by a slight worry that the local cadres could run amok and misbehave under the guise of mourning their leader’s death. This was reflected in the actions of the owners of a well-known cafe, situated near the Kotturpuram bridge. Its glass facade was covered in bright yellow tarpaulin, just in case some mourners got a little out of control. The security guy said that this was just a ‘safety measure’!
The suspension of normal life
D’ Souza feels that it is difficult to say whether the virtual shutdown in the city was a spontaneous show of respect or whether a part of it was triggered by the fear that violence could erupt and goons might take over. “Some people must have recalled the spate of incidents following MGR’s death as well as some other events that took a violent turn. TV can fan some extreme ideas too. It must have looked odd to the world to see panic shopping yesterday in the city,” he mused.
True that, for there have even been instances of citizens who, having important flights to catch on Tuesday, spent the night in hotels close to the airport on the night of the 5th, fearing violence and unrest.
Suma Jacob, a senior citizen living in Kotturpuram, said that while she feels an ineffable sense of loss, she is also concerned about people who may be inconvenienced by the closure of medical clinics and pharmacies. Suma had gone to collect her medical test results, and found the place closed. On her way, she noted garbage piling up in places as the conservancy workers in the area had not shown up.
AID India volunteer Selva Ganapathy drove from Royapettah to Adyar and found all shops shut including petrol pumps. He then drove to the airport and offered to pick up a few passengers who had arrived and were looking for help. There were very few pre-paid taxis and other services even less.
Selva said, “Private taxis were asking for Rs 1500 for a drop to the city. The Chennai metro was functioning though. I picked up a few people and dropped one of them at Nungambakkam. The roads were safe and nowhere could I spot any people standing together in groups.”
Some disruptions are likely to continue over the week to come when the state is officially in mourning. After the 2015 floods, for the second year in a row, the organising committee of The Wipro Chennai Marathon have had to make the tough but necessary decision to postpone the event.
Deepa Bharatkumar, Race Director of the Wipro Chennai Marathon says, “The decision was originally taken as a mark of consideration for our Chief Minister’s critical health, but now we Chennai Runners join the state and people of Tamil Nadu in mourning her passing away. The month of December always celebrates the soul and spirit of Chennai – this year too, this spirit is put to the test, but our runners and patrons have thrown their wholehearted support behind us as we plan to reschedule Chennai city’s largest event.”
Schools and colleges will remain closed for three days. While parents of school kids seem resigned to the holidays, it has created some anxiety among college students, several of whom have examinations coming up.
Remembering Amma’s many contributions
But the various disruptions notwithstanding, the tributes came straight from the heart.
A group of women, who had come to condole the death of a relative, also stopped by at the temporary pandal set up in the neighbourhood to pay respects to the late Amma. Asked if they were planning to go pay their last homage at Marina, where the final rites were to be conducted, they said that it could get dangerous with thousands thronging the place. One of them asked with a doleful look, ‘Why did she have to die so young? Don’t many people live long lives these days even with ailments like heart attack and diabetes? She was doing so much for us, and now she is gone.’
That is a sentiment which seems to resonate time and again among the really common man in Chennai today. Kumari, who works as a cook, admired Jayalalitha, because she says ‘she always had the interest of poor women like me at heart, and did a lot for us.’ There is an Amma canteen and an Amma water booth near her place, which bear testimony to what Kumari says.
“Her cradle baby scheme has been a huge hit and has helped a lot of people from rural areas,” says Janaki Raman from Thiruvanmiyur.
“Amma is the one who curbed hooliganism in the state to a very large extent. The schemes she brought have aided women and have empowered them significantly. She has been a saviour in many ways and her loss is irreplaceable to us,” mourns Mani from Selaiyur.
Amma, the leader
What is noteworthy is that the admiration for Amma and her leadership style seems to cut across party loyalties and political ideology.
Shakthi Girish confirms this when she says, “I may not agree with a lot of CM Jayalalithaa’s political methods and decisions, but she is on top of my list of iconic women of India. I’ve met her once (as an NCC Cadet), when I knew even less of politics and was awed by her clarity of speech, her intellect and her stunning charisma. Today, I cannot think of a single Indian woman politician who has the guts and formidable personality of J. Jayalalithaa. As a woman, I’m proud of her rise to god-like power in a dangerous, misogynist environment.”
Ramesh Kumar, who works as a driver in the city, is a supporter of the rival party DMK himself, but is quick to admit that it is a huge loss for Tamil Nadu, as Jayalalithaa was a rare leader indeed. ‘Avangala madhiri varaadhu’ – there won’t be another one like her!
Amma’s brashness and what many saw as her ‘arrogance’ have earned her as many admirers as critics. “The quality of boldness is what impressed me whenever I heard of her. No one had to advise her when it came to decision making, she had the capability and the confidence to decide on her own. Almost all the schemes she introduced are unique and I don’t think anyone else could ever have introduced such things in our state,” feels Karthik, a resident of Rajakilpakkam.
“Chennai will remember her as a no-nonsense leader, one with grace and one even male leaders were wary of. Many women admired JJ. The tone on social media posts give us an indication of that today – the tributes from educated, metro women who are otherwise ‘silent’ participants in political developments,” says D Souza.
The best tribute to Amma perhaps came from an institution that she herself created: the Amma canteen. As Kiruba Shankar, Chennai-based entrepreneur pointed out, on a day when most shops and establishments remained closed, the canteen continued to feed the hungry. Her legacy lives on.
Bhavani A P also contributed to the report.