My grandmother’s Jayalalithaa

My view of Jayalalithaa has always been colored by how my grandmother (87 years) and her generation viewed her. They were strong women, dominant, no-nonsense and efficient. And in Jayalalithaa, they found a kinship, a public face for their kind of ‘feminism’. A feminism without the language of the modern version or the weight of glass ceilings; a feminism that worked around the idea of having a voice in public, and being recognized as individuals who could think, act and command.

This was around the 70’s and 80’s. Tamil cinema, was skirting around ideas of women power under the expert guidance of K. Balachander. Movies with strong, independent, often single women with loud laughs and devil-may-care attitudes were being released. They were still, however, considered by many to be “too arty, and unrealistic”. It didn’t help that most of these movies ended ambiguously with the main actor sacrificing her ambitions, or her personal life for familial peace. For women, like my grandmother, it felt like a cop-out. They didn’t appreciate the idea, that ambition and/or happiness should take second place. They wanted to see women who defied these social mores, and stepped out, and took control. Women like themselves, no-nonsense, practical, and not afraid to speak their mind in a room full of men.

Enter Jayalalithaa. She stood out, in a sea of men. She was no one’s wife, no one’s daughter, no one’s mother. They didn’t care she was a “heroine”, or care for the gossip around her relationships. They saw a woman politician. She stood out, as a protegé, and possible successor to the legacy that was built by very powerful men.

My first introduction to Jayalalithaa was through my grandmother’s anger. It was 1989, and Jayalalithaa had just walked out of the assembly, hair & clothes disheveled, emotional but standing and vowing to fight the system that wouldn’t guarantee the safety of a woman in an assembly hall. My grandmother was livid. She would, in later years point out that incident again and again when she wanted to talk to us about being modern women. She believed that women needed to be educated, argumentative, strong, and in control of their own lives and destiny. Jayalalithaa’s speeches and interviews were standard, learning material. Arguments against her at home were often dismissed, as misogynistic. I’ve during my years of growing up with my grandmother, had the privilege of learning and expanding my vocabulary of curse words, a lot of them directed at men who referred to Jayalaithaa as domineering, or opportunistic, or a woman who didn’t understand boundaries.

Jayalalithaa’s Hard Talk interview with Karan Thapar was shown as examples of what a woman who knows herself and knows her subject can do. Every assembly victory of hers was followed by phone calls of what women power was capable of, and the infamous 1999 toppling of the central government was cheered, because she showed the union government, how powerful a state can be, and that too, one run by a woman. She showed herself to have the audacity, intelligence, and political chutzpah, a first for a woman from Tamil Nadu.

Jayalalithaa was in many ways my grandmother’s lodestone. She was an example of a woman, who moved beyond her regional, caste identities and carved an identity, that was hers alone. Through her years of being a politician, she retained that mantle of feminism. It wasn’t talked about in those terms, but it was understood. Her death, for people like my grandmother is about the demise of a woman who defied men, developed a state & its identity & above all defined feminism for an entire generation.

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