There is no glass ceiling in Tamilnadu, I read, because Jayalalithaa broke it. A chief minister who braved it all to serve the people, to gain and use power for the interests of those who loved and worshipped her as their saviour.
An inspiration, I read, to young women across the nation, the Iron Lady. A lady made of grit so hard and strong, it is said to be made of iron. A reticence, through her political career, that often shone as a dignified silence, even perceived as arrogance.
And she sacrificed her personal life to serve the people, I read. She had no personal life. No family, no next of kin, no spouse, no love, nobody to save anything she owned for, any of herself for. She said so herself, my co-workers tell each other during our tea break today. She said that her personal life is a failure, and that she lived only to serve the people.
I come away, I am laden with a weight in my heart, a heaviness that squashes any hope I feel about shattered glass ceilings or abilities of steel grit. I ponder for hours, the repetitive violin music from Jayalalithaa's farewell playing in my head, visuals from her Sumathi en Sundari haunting my mind's eye. Why am I sad?
I was fond of Jayalalithaa as a political leader, but I disagreed with her as a citizen, many times. Maybe it was the populism, maybe it was a perceived culture of political bullying of citizens normalised on a daily basis, maybe it was that my city now bore one name, one sign that defined it more than other things. I was not sure which of these it was the most.
With the news of her extended hospitalisation coupled with a silence from the government that peeved any rational contention, my fondness for Jayalalithaa had almost watered down to a mild concern, tending to apathy.
Yet, when fake news of her death leaked on the evening of December 5th, I felt a lump rise in my throat. My eyes were wet, cheeks were hot, as if with shame, and my stomach churned into emptiness. My voice broke as I told my mother, that they have announced it, that Jayalalithaa was no more.
Many of us spent the next day watching people say goodbye to her, a cathartic endeavour that made me wish that I could hold her hand, and tell her how I felt.
But tell her what? That I was sorry? What was I so sorry about? I spent the better part of my last two years in Chennai disagreeing with the political leadership of my state, feeling disappointed in her political style, and wondering if I must use my democratic duty more wisely the next time. But now, all I wanted to say to her, was that I was sorry. I realised, as the emptiness in my stomach gave way to a pathetic blow, I realised, that it was not sadness that I felt. It was despair. It was, above all things, guilt.
Should it be more plain to see that Jayalalitha's personal life was the price that she paid to break this glass ceiling? Should it be more evident that it was a price, not just a sacrifice, that it was a barter. Did she have to lose her identity as a youthful lady, a sexual being, one with wants and needs, one with loves, joys and yearning. Did she have to prove herself worthy of respect as a woman who had nothing to take, just everything to give? What glass ceiling did we help her shatter, when we only accepted her authority and leadership as Amma, only one whom we could venerate and fear, not one that we could appreciate or respect?
Are we not seeing this as a failure of our society as a whole, a society that failed to protect or nurture a talented actor, an ambitious young lady?
Do we grovel, now? Do we re-watch pieces of her life that she shared with us, clinging to her humanity, grasping for straws as her personality peeks out in moments of kindness? What a shame we are. A disgrace. These are the gender politics of Jayalalithaa. We failed to protect and nurture a woman, a woman with ambition, a woman who qualified herself for the job she wished to perform, a woman who gave up herself to be accepted, a woman who succumbed to a life lived alone, a life unfulfilled. Did we overcompensate for our sexist indiscretion by lauding her for an audacity that would have been condoned as par for course, or maybe some times, condemned as irresponsible, in a male counterpart? Do we make claims of shattered glass ceilings and women who forged iron hearts to stand up in a man's world so that we can forgive ourselves?
If what we have cried about these last two days was not guilt, maybe there is no redemption for us as a society, maybe this is what we deserve.