Politics consumed Jayalalithaa so comprehensively that the human side in her remained invisible most of the time. Yet, behind the imperious autocrat the world saw, she was all human, all woman. She yearned for friendships but could not find any that sustained her interest for a reasonable length of time. She yearned for a normal family life but became so disillusioned that she talked about the virtues of not having it. She had everything at her disposal but could not find the enriching relationships she cherished. She was truly lonely.
This was clear from the way she talked, the way she relaxed, even the way she flashed knowing smiles on the rare occasions she felt free to open up. Such occasions were rare because the iniquities she had suffered had made her suspicious of others, especially of politicians and journalists. Criticism had the effect of making her more obstinate. She herself said once that no one could get anything out of her by threatening her or by being harsh which “only makes me more stubborn, inflexible, unbending, determined”. She would cooperate only if someone were “nice to me, pamper me, cajole me, talk to me kindly, softly”.
When a television interviewer shot questions at her in his usual lordly manner, she initially tried to go along, then walked off the set saying, as politely as she could, “I must say it wasn’t a pleasure talking to you. Namaste”. On the other hand, she revealed her inner self with disarming frankness when she appeared in Simi Garewal’s Rendezvous series.
She even sang a few lines from a popular Hindi film song in response to Simi’s prompting. That was one interview she ended with a patently sincere, “It was a pleasure talking to you”. It was a pleasure for the viewers too, as the programme was aired more than once in the wake of Jayalalithaa’s passing.
In public life, hostilities from rivals and competitors either drive people away or harden them into fighters. Women of grit became fighters, the outstanding examples being Indira Gandhi, Imelda Marcos of the Philippines and Eva Peron of Argentina. Each of them vanquished their tormentors and emerged victorious, becoming eccentrically autocratic in the process and yet winning popular applause. The hostilities Jayalalithaa faced were extraordinarily severe; she had been kicked off a gun carriage and physically assaulted inside the legislative assembly. Instead of scaring her away, the threats and humiliations put iron into her soul. Eventually she could recall with pride how hers had been a “tempestuous life” and how she was always “propelled by fate”.
Fate was often unkind to her. A girl who stood first in all her school examinations could not go to college because it had become economically necessary to join films. A successful leading lady partnering the legendary MGR beginning with Aayirathil Oruvan (one in a thousand men), she was pushed into politics by him and then left to fend for herself. Like Indira, she could trust only her personal staff and, unlike Indira, she had no children to lean on and groom. Fate turned her into a self-supporting mechanism, making her own rules and declaring, “I don’t take any nonsense from anyone”. Obedient to her mother and then to MGR, she turned around to make the world obedient to her. And she was detached enough to observe: “I am surprised at the way I have changed”.
In her fundamental commitments there were no changes. She kept women’s issue on top of her priorities. She launched programmes to give free education to girls, entrepreneurship training to a lakh of women, to provide cradles where families who did not want girls could leave their babies. She launched all-women police stations. She also started the Amma brand of products—from meals to medicines, salt to cement. She won a niche in the hearts of ordinary people as no leader had done.
Was she happy within? For a person who peppered her speeches with quotations from Tennyson and lesser known American authors, she must have regretted the limitations time imposed on her reading. For one who had a crush, as she said, on cricketer Nari Contractor and actor Shammi Kapoor, she must have felt forlorn when there was no one to admire or love. But she won her battles. When M Karunanidhi who had persecuted her in humiliating ways found it necessary to say that her fame would live forever, it was the ultimate recognition of the greatness Jayalalithaa had achieved against all odds.