The year was 1982 and I was a rookie reporter out on one of my first assignments. Jayalalithaa (then spelt with a single ‘a’) had been invited to meet the press at the Chennai (then Madras) Press Club. A couple of days earlier Chennai dailies had featured a photograph prominently on their front pages: it was of Jayalalithaa and M G Ramachandran sitting together and watching the Asian Games. The Chief Reporter of the daily I was interning at had asked me to attend the Press Club meet. He also told me to ask Jayalalithaa a specific question: What did she feel about the photograph of her and M G Ramachandran featured on the front pages of the newspapers?
I was excited about the assignment and, when I got the chance to ask a question, naively reeled off the one my Chief had ‘planted’ on me. I don’t remember the answer Jayalalithaa gave, but the question or the answer to it set off a flurry of ancillary questions from other hacks at the venue, which prompted the moderator to intervene and say, ‘She is our guest and I request you all to give her the respect due to a guest,’ or words to that effect.
The next morning, when I entered the newsroom, spread across the tables were several vernacular dailies, each with screaming headlines gloating over how a young reporter had taken on Jayalalithaa. The Chief welcomed me with a huge grin and an exuberant ‘Bravo!’ But a senior correspondent was on the phone explaining to someone on the other side, ‘She’s just an intern, very new to the job, you know …’ She looked at me anxiously and asked, ‘Whatever made you ask her such a question?’ I had obviously stirred up a hornet’s nest! When I explained that it was the Chief’s idea, the correspondent looked daggers at him. He guffawed, mightily amused. I was flummoxed. My senior then advised me to be more circumspect.
When I reached home that night, my mother was excited and agitated: she had been attending calls all day enquiring if there was someone at home who was working in a newspaper and asking to talk to that person!
As televisions beamed Jayalalithaa’s final journey yesterday, I was reminded of the intangible fear and the very tangible hatred that seemed to hang about in the newsroom that day in 1982. But yesterday there was only mass adulation on display including of the rich, the powerful and the famous. Rigid political divisions dissolved in a universal admiration of her indomitable spirit. Even the media embraced her.
Fear and hate were no longer relevant as the entity that provoked those emotions was no more; but love was absent: there was no family, no friend, none she could call her own: As in life, so in death, Jayalalithaa was towering but alone.