Posted in Politics - General

The sunsetting of a “Sunrise Legacy”

Three “K”s defined my childhood.  To be specific, I used to famously refer to them as my three favorite “க”s. Given Tamil’s unique ability (or handicap) to handle multiple sounds from the Ka (Ka, Kha, Ga, Gha) family, through a single letter, it’s a coincidence that my three favorite “க”s were also three favorite “K”s.

Kamal Haasan.
Kapil Dev.


Out of the above three, my liking for both Kamal Haasan and Kapil Dev came truly out of my following their work in their fields. Not surprising given that Cricket and Movies were very much an integral part of my childhood. But as for my liking for Karunanidhi ….I guess it was largely circumstantial. Technically, he was the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu when I was born, but that didn’t really mean much. By the time, I was old enough to know who he was, and when I really got introduced to him, a phenomenon called MGR had already arrived in the Tamil Nadu political scene and the force of that phenomenon was indomitable. So much so that by the time, Karunanidhi became the CM of Tamil Nadu again, it was literally after MGR’s death. So Karunanidhi was actually the fierce opposition leader during these formative years of mine, when I developed a liking for him. Looking back, I do not know why this man appealed to my boyhood political interests. But he did. And growing up in a small town in Tamil Nadu in the 1970s meant, you had only three political choices – MGR or Karunanidhi or None (no interest in politics).

My father had a huge collection of tapes with Karunanidhi’s speeches. These were mostly speeches from his political rallies. But much I loved listening to his speeches even as a young boy. A young boy whose knowledge of politics didn’t extend beyond being able to identify party names, symbols, and their flag colors. Looking back, I could recall how his speeches acted as the background score for my many cricket evenings or many indoor game days, that I used to play with my brother, as my father was completely absorbed by perhaps the last best orators to have come out of the Tamil Nadu political scene. If you do not understand Tamil and if you haven’t followed at least a couple of Karunanidhi speeches, you have no idea what you are missing. I cannot in any honesty equate his oratorial skills and his wit, elan, and mastery of the language, with any other politician from any part of the world.

Muthuvel Karunandhi aka M.K. Karunanidhi, better known as Kalaignar Karunanidhi was not just an orator par excellence. He was a literary stalwart. A playwright. A movie screenwriter. A true lover of the language, who pushed for Tamil Renaissance. He started as a journalist/editor at the age of 16, publishing his own handwritten magazine. One of the first essays he wrote at the age of 17, that made the Tamil literary world look at him was on “Widow Remarriage”, a true rebel of a thought in those days, leave alone what it meant for a 17 year old to pen a very well coherent argument in favor of  letting a widowed woman lead a free life, by quashing centuries old  traditions and superstitions.

He concluded thus in that essay.

“ஆகவே,செந்தமிழ்ச்செல்வா! மங்கையர்தான் நம் நாட்டின் பொக்கிஷம் என்பதை மறவேதே! அவர்கள் வாழ்வைக் கெடுக்காதே! மறுமணத்தை மறுத்து அவர்கள் இளமையைப் பலியிடாதே!”.

Loose Translation:

“My Dear son of the rich Tamil soil,
Hence, please note that women are the only treasure of this country. 
Do not ruin their lives. 
Do not kill their youthhood by denying them their right to remarry!!”

Now, political opponents of the 21 century, especially those who seemed to have gained all their political knowledge through WhatsApp forwards and twitter, have a very narrow view of Kalaignar Karunanidhi. They know Kalaignar merely as this senile politician who sided with P. Chidambaram and encouraged his daughter to collude with a few prominent names in Delhi to make the most out of the now infamous 2G scam. This post is not about that shady side of Karunanidhi’s legacy and in my opinion, this doesn’t even begin to define Karunanidhi, the leader, the politician, the administrator, and the literary star he was. That shady sub-plot of his long career is a blotch, no doubt, but his contribution to Tamil Nadu is so huge that I would call you an ignorant student of Indian politics, if you insist on talking only about that to define him. Besides, I am writing this blog post only to highlight how his legacy impacted Tamil Nadu and in the process, attempting to outline my own understanding of his legacy.

When Karunanidhi first became the chief minister of TN in 1969, he had a strong Tamil identity platform to step on, well laid out by his mentor C.N. Annadurai. In combination with Anna’s platform and Periyar’s rational movement ideologies, Karunanidhi was able to create his own and unique voice in the TN political scene. A very different one from Kamaraj’s and a much stronger one than Anna’s.

In a long political career that followed, Karunanidhi established himself arguably as the most efficient administrator that Tamil Nadu has ever seen till now. He was efficient because his leadership style involved long deliberations, and not relying on instincts. He was ok to waver on his platform, if people around him felt that something was not the best decision. He was very different from MGR in that MGR ran a populist administration, very successfully. On the other hand,  Karunanidhi tried to mix populism with his Dravidian ideologies while drafting his policies, keeping the need for Tamil Nadu to stand independent in his mind. Independent from the barrage of attacks coming from the “Hindi Nationalist” leaders from the center. His Tamil identity took front seat at all times.

Here is Karunanidhi after MGR’s death. Even an eulogy of a political rival sounded like a poetry when he spoke.

J. Jayalaitha, who became his arch nemesis for almost the next three decades or so after the death of MGR, proved to be a bigger challenge for Kalaignar to tackle, than what he may have anticipated in 1987 immediately after MGR’s death. Strangely, many political pundits dismissed Jayalaitha’s political stamina then, because she was sort of viewed as a misfit to the Dravidian movement as conceptualized by the likes of Anna and Karunanidhi. She was a movie star, who rode on her charisma and ego. Her close association with MGR helped her launch her career.

Everyone in Tamil Nadu was surprised to see that in no time, what an ambitious leader she turned out to be. So, Kalaignar was completely unprepared to handle someone like Jaya. He was used to handling  someone like MGR, a peer, a respectable colleague, and someone who grew in his era of Dravidian movement. But Jaya didn’t have any of that background. She was a convent educated woman, who grew up in a tight shell with very little exposure to the real world. The battle was on. And these two established a sort of political rivalry for 20 odd years that probably no other Indian state may have seen and/or may ever see.

Till June 2001. When the world got to see how revengeful and vindictive Jayalalitha could be.

The midnight arrest of Karunanidhi, an ex-chief minster, along with two central cabinet ministers, in somewhat of an inhuman way was, notwithstanding the circumstances that led to the charges, completely authoritarian by any democratic standards. This incident definitely redefined the rivalry between KK and JJ.  Since then, Jayalaitha continued to win more elections than Karunanidhi as long as she was alive. But purely in terms of the manner in which Karunanidhi continued to keep his political statesmanlike aura around him intact, all the way till he became physically immobile in 2016 or so, it was remarkable that only a handful of world..yes world…political leaders could have even dreamt of having.

Karunanidhi was a master politician. Not only at the local and state level, but most importantly in knowing how to work with the center. Barring once or twice, Karunanidhi always managed to come out as a winner in his negotiations with the ruling party in the center. This, in spite of his staunch anti-Hindi stance was something to be admired. Even though Jayalalitha showed how she could get her way with the center using more aggressive tactics, she didn’t earn the same kind of diplomatic respect that Karunanidhi earned over a period of time. Contrary to what people may believe, Karunanidhi was one of the least vindictive leaders I have seen in Tamil Nadu politics. I am not saying this with any bias. This was simply the case. Some people may call his non-vindictive style, political opportunism, but I think he understood the value of keeping his political enemies close enough so that he could make them his friends when the time came, which it often did.

As many superfluous and heartfelt tributes flood the pages of print, pixels of TV & internet, and  every footstep & decibel of stage, his critics, of whom there is no dearth, will hurl insults on his lifestyle that openly included living with two wives, one of whom, he sometimes referred to as the “mother of my daughter”. The truth though, is that not many could have had the courage and the openness with which he embraced living with two families, leave alone breaking the societal taboo associated with it all.

With a potential leadership battle awaiting to disrupt the stability of the party, Karunanidhi’s legacy alone may not be enough to anchor the political future of DMK.
Five decades of party leadership is a unique feat that no other political leader in India could claim to have achieved.

All roads end somewhere. And this is where Karunanidhi’s ends.

When the sun rises tomorrow without the last of the pillars that held Tamil Nadu upright till now, Karunanidhi’s legacy would have become that of the past.
A legacy like none other’s.

And many will continue to hear echoes of him saying என் உயிரினும் மேலான அன்பு உடன்பிறப்புக்களே.” in his unique scratchy voice.

எப்போதும் சிரித்திடும் முகம் –
எதிர்ப்புகளை எரித்திடும் நெஞ்சம்!

இளமை இளமை இதயமோ
இமயத்தின் வலிமை! வலிமை!

தமிழர் வாழும் நிலமெலாம் அவர்தம் மனையெலாம்
தன்புகழ் செதுக்கிய செல்வா – எங்கு சென்றாய்?

Loose Translation of the above lines:

An ever smiling face
A chest to withstand adversities

Young at heart
With a strength of the mightiest of the mountains

Where is that man who carved his fame in
Every household and every land inhabited by Tamilians..?
Where did you go?

(Above lines are Karunanidhi’s. Written after the death of Tamilselvan. How apt that I get to use these lines now!)

Posted in Poem, Thamizh (தமிழ்)

ஜல்லிக்கட்டு உரையாடல்

வீர விளையாட்டு எனநீர் கூவினால்
வீம்புக்காக வீரம் ஏனய்யா என்பம் நாம்

துள்ளி வரும் நீண்ட கால்களை இடை மறித்து
சுழன்று வரும் வாலை அடக்கிப் பிடித்து
திரண்ட திமிரை அணைத்து, கொம்பிலுள்ள பரிசினைப் பறித்து
காளையை அடகித்தான், உம் ஆண்மையை காட்டுவோம் என்கிறீரே

விழுப்புண்களுக்காக வீரியமாக உடல் வருத்தி
ஏழேழு தலைமுறை கலாச்சாரத்தைக் காக்க
நீர் படும்பாடு புரிகிறதய்யா
எம்பாட்டையும் தான் கொஞ்சம் கேள்வீரோ?

மிருகவதையை தடுக்கவும் மிருக மேம்பாட்டிற்காகவும் உழைப்பவர் யாம்
கலாச்சார சம்பிரதாய சிறப்பறிவோம் யாம்
இவையனைத்தும் பரிணாம வளர்ச்சிக்குட்பட்ட தென்பதையுமறிவோம்
அதை நீறறிவீரோ என்றறியோம்

உங்கள் மாடுகளையும் காளைகளையும் தெய்வமாக மதிப்பீராமே
பின் ஏன் அதைச்சீண்டி கோபமேற்றுகிறீர்கள் உங்கள் வீம்பு வீரத்திற்காக?
அதைச் சீண்டுவதற்காக சிலபலர் செய்யும் சேட்டைகள்
மிருக வதையில்லை என்றும்மால் கூற முடியுமா?

இங்கங்கு சிலபலர் செய்யும் சேட்டைகள் மிருகவதையே
அதை மறுக்கவில்லை மறைக்கவுமில்லை அன்பரே
எங்கள் வீரத்தை எம்மவரிடம் காட்ட உங்கள் அனுமதி தேவையில்லை
என்பதையாமறிவோம் அதை நீறறிவீரோ என்றறியோம்

தேசமெங்கும் வெவ்வேறிடத்தில் பற்பல பரிமாணங்களில்
நடக்கும் மிருகவதைகளைக் காட்டிலுமா இது மிகையென வினவுகிறம் யாம்
காளைகளைச் சீண்டுகிறோம் என்றெங்களடையாளத்தில்
ஒரு பகுதியைச் சீண்டுவது நியாயமா?

மிருகவதையைக் குறைக்க உம்மிடம் பேசத்தயாரய்யா யாம்
எல்லா மிருகவதைகளயும் சமசீர் தராசில் வைத்துப் பின்னர் எம்மிடம் பேசத்தயாரா நீர்?

[இவ்வுரையாடல் தொடரின் பலரும் மகிழ்ச்சி அடைவர்…]

பொங்கல் நல்வாழ்த்துக்கள்!

–English Translation–

A Jallikkattu Conversation

If you argue that it’s a display of bravery,
Then we would question the need for such false bravado..

You say that you would announce your masculinity to the world..
By tripping his long legs, By catching his swinging tail,
By embracing his dark hump,
By snatching the prize that’s tied to his horns,
And by bringing the raging bull under your control.

We understand that
All the rigor that your bodies go through for these war wounds
Are to preserve those century old traditions.
Now, will you step into my shoes and see it from my end?

I work hard for animal welfare and to prevent cruelty towards animals.
I understand culture, heritage and traditions,
I also understand that these things have always evolved and changed with times,
I hope you understand that.

We hear that you worship these bulls and cows,
Then why do you provoke them and flare up their anger?
Just so that you could exhibit your false bravado?
Do you agree what a few people do in order to
Instigate these bulls and cows amount to animal cruelty?

Yes. What a few do here and there certainly amount to animal cruelty.
We don’t deny it nor do we want to hide it, my friend.
At the same time, we know we don’t need your permission
To display our bravado amongst ourselves. I hope you understand that.

There are various animal cruelties of different magnitudes taking place
Around the country, every day.
We wonder why ours is being targeted when there are worse cruelties around.
In the name of preventing animal cruelty by pointing out these bull provocations,
Is it fair on your part to provoke us by banishing an important symbol of our culture?

We are ready to discuss and negotiate the animal cruelties that happen in our sport.
Are you ready to place all animal cruelties that happen in the country on the same weighing scale? If yes, then please come to the negotiation table.

Posted in Politics - General

The Woman, The Mark, The Legacy

And in the end, she couldn’t write a colorful ending to her own story, in her own terms, just how she would have liked.

J Jayalalitha (1948-2016)
                                                J Jayalalithaa (1948-2016)

Was 1981.

We were attending a cousin’s wedding in Madurai if I remember correctly and I was 8 years old. The wedding entourage from the bride’s side, including my family, were all put up in a series of tiled roof cottages, not too far off from the Madurai Meenakshi Temple.

The Fifth World Tamil Conference was happening in Madurai. A quick google search tells me that it was between Jan 4 and Jan 10. Our stay in Madurai had to be in that date range, because, more than the huge hoardings bearing the sign “உலகத் தமிழ் மாநாடு” along with the larger than life size images of MG Ramachandran (MGR) the then Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, what I remember distinctly more, was the generous placements of larger than life images of this one popular movie star, who was officially not a politician back then. She was a star, someone who had built a great on-screen chemistry with MGR as a co-star, playing mostly as his love interest, thus earning the goodwill of thousands of fans of MGR, the politician’s, but then, she was not even a registered member of AIADMK. Her role in the conference was that of an entertainer. Jayalaithaa and her troupe performed a stage musical drama called “Mathura Nayaki” on Jan 9.

And I was in awe of the swarms of people stretching kilometers, making a beeline to enter the open air stadium, where the conference was being held and I have strong memories of those tall floodlight arena under the dark sky. Amidst all that, somehow those huge billboards, with her images splashed all over, almost on par with MGR’s images, made a huge impact on me as an eight year old. Because, till then politics in Tamil Nadu to me, meant only MGR and M.K. Karunanidhi.

Was 1987.

Dec 24. I was in Nagercoil spending my Christmas break with my cousins when we heard the news. MGR, the man of the poor, the leader of the masses, the single most charismatic leader that Tamil Nadu had ever seen and the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu had died. We had known this day was coming for a long time. Almost for 3 years.

By then, Jayalalithaa had already announced her arrival into politics in style. MGR appointed her as the Propaganda Secretary of AIADMK in 1983 (கொ. ப. செ.), a title not so familiar in the political circles back then. Soon, she contested in a by-election in the Tiruchendur constituency (an hour from Tirunelveli, where I was then) and became a member of the Tamil Nadu legislative assembly. She became a Rajya Sabha member in 1984.

She either must have exhibited an extreme sense of acumen for the world of politics that was there for everyone to notice and MGR was the first one to tap into it or MGR must have really had the vision of making her a successor in line, because he saw the potential of grooming someone like her in the political world. Don’t know which was closer to being true, perhaps both.

Now, let’s take a step back and remember, that the Tamil movie industry was not the friendliest places for a female actor back then, that too for someone like Jayalalithaa, who didn’t have a ‘male’ personal guardian or someone as a pillar of support from her family, as long as she was acting. So, to make a mark as a lead actor, without compromising on your values and to have your personality stand out as a female actor, must have taken some fortitude on Jayalalitha’s part. Of course, her fluency in English and fair knowledge of a couple of other languages must have given her an edge to stay clear of the competition, but at the end of the day, it took her strong personality to swim through the male dominated world.

Politics in the 1980s, in the post Annadurai era, when the Dravidian movement was at its peak, was a very interesting place to be in. For the uninitiated, let me say this..Unlike politics in the western hemisphere, politics in India cannot be placed on a linear spectrum ranging from “Liberal” to “Conservative” in traditional Left to Right terms. Not now. And definitely not in the 1980s. And especially, politics in Tamil Nadu, since Indian Independence, has always been very different. So, in that context, Jayalalithaa’s entry into politics was phenomenal. Just as it should have been. Just because she was a woman.

Call it the innate nature of Tamilians to accept a popular movie star as a capable politician without any questions.
Call it the love and adulation for MGR that the people had which translated into love and adulation for his lady love on screen.
Call it the simple admiration for someone MGR picked as his protege in politics.
Call it whatever you want.
The fact remains that Tamilians had the maturity, knowingly or unknowingly, to break the glass ceiling — just…like…that. And she did it with their help. And how!!

Barring the drama that ensued between Dec 24, 1987 and the time in 1989 when she was elected as the opposition party leader, she had complete control of her party and the party cadres throughout her career till Sep 22, 2016 when she was admitted to the hospital.

The reason why the politician in her shone was because she shaped her career herself after 1989. She was on a mission. She had a target and she worked towards it ruthlessly. Yes, she trampled on many people and sentiments in the process. But that was her. Comparisons ranged from Imelda Marcos (for her obsession with materials and for her authoritarian leadership style) to Margaret Thatcher (for being a strong willed woman like an Iron lady). But the truth is that she was not like any of them. She was one of a kind. She was a charismatic, intelligent and a focused leader with tons of fortitude. Fans and Detractors would agree that the most extraordinary thing about her was that she was a very refined and a sophisticated absolutist who managed to do all that she did in a democracy. As she famously said once, Indian states are nothing but glorified municipalities, she stood up for Tamil Nadu’s state rights at every moment she could. She was one of those few Chief Ministers in the country who stood up to the centre irrespective of the ruling party in the centre.

Unlike the Dravidian politicians of that era and specifically the Dravidian leaders such as EV Ramasamy (Periyar), Annadurai, MGR and Karunanidhi, to name a few, who went onto either become Chief Ministers of the state or ended up having an influential role in the state, Jayalalithaa didn’t have a similar background. She was born in an “upper caste” family and she was brought up in an upper middle class background. She didn’t experience the struggles that the other Dravidian leaders experienced in their early lives and she didn’t even grow up in Tamil Nadu for that matter, where the Dravidian ideologies were flourishing. So, there is a lot that can be pondered about the “Dravidianism” in her.

But she understood the essence of the Dravidian movement — which was to stand up for the poor and the “lower caste” people of the society. Keep fighting for them. Keep fighting for their welfare. If Tamil Nadu’s healthcare is a pride of the state, If Tamil Nadu’s educational record is still considered high when compared to other states in India, if Tamil Nadu is still on top of child immunization rates in the country and if Tamil Nadu still figures in the top 5 states when it comes to social welfare spending percentage (mainly education and healthcare), then you can pretty much attribute it all to the Dravidian parties’ policies, in particular Jayalalithaa’s. Now add to that, the innumerable welfare programs that were introduced for poor and women in particular, including the “Amma Unavagam” (a chain of restaurants run by the government with an aim to serve healthy, clean food for a nominal price for all customers), you know why she was revered the way she was.

To paraphrase something she said in an interview, her life could be divided into three phases. The first phase, influenced and shaped by her mother, the second, influenced and shaped by MGR and the final phase, one that was completely self made. It was during this phase, she, as an active learner and observer, took it upon herself to stand up to her critics quite comfortably, while she methodically executed what she wanted to do quite mercilessly.

Notwithstanding all the corruption charges, the disproportionate wealth assets lawsuites, etc., it is irrefutable that the legacy she has left behind simply through her achievements is huge. A legacy far larger than anything that movie star image which helped her take that first step into politics could have helped her. Step by step, she created a brand new path for herself, which many women can follow now.

Thousands and Millions will ride on her legacy for years to come. I guess very few in politics can stake that claim anywhere in the world.

And for someone like me, who grew up in the shadow of Jayalalithaa’s rise in politics and managed to see her till the end, there is no better way to say what her passing away means to me, than to simply refer to it as a void that will never get filled.