“I was born as a son of a leader!”

I was physically and emotionally charged as I uttered the words, “I, Muthuvel Karunanidhi Stalin . . .”, while taking the oath of office. My nerves tightened and a new energy gushed through my body. After uttering these words, I lifted my head to look at the faces in the auditorium and glimpsed a face that glittered like the rising sun.

It was my father’s face. My fingers were not willing to write ‘my father’s face’. I have never addressed him as such. I could only see in my mind’s eye the face of my leader Kalaignar, who created me from himself. He was not in front of me when I uttered, “I, Muthuvel Karunanidhi Stalin . . .” But I felt that he was amidst us to hear what I said. I felt that he had heard me. As a child, when my mother sang lullabies and taught me to say “Appa”, he was not around. I am sure I must have looked for him.

Instead, he was in Tiruchi Jail as a leader – he was not just a father, after all. He was arrested within five months of my birth. I was born as a son of a leader. Hence, instead of calling him “Appa”, “Thalaivar” became my endearing word for him.

When I was born, Thalaivar was 29 and he was the secretary for ideology propagation of the great movement called the DMK. In those days, that post was called propaganda secretary. He travelled extensively throughout Tamil Nadu. He spoke in the major towns and was asked to preside over party conferences. When the DMK’s Tirunelveli district inaugural conference was held in Kovilpatti, he was the chair of the conference. Thalaivar, in his presidential address, did not restrict himself to the inauguration of a district unit; he deliberated on the growth of the party by stressing on issues that needed emphasis and the issues that should be avoided.

Perarignar Anna and Sollinselvar EVK Sampath were on the stage. There was criticism from the stage itself on whether it was right for a 29-year-old youth to offer advice to Anna. Anna resolved the issue by proposing a solution that was acceptable to both factions. I am recollecting this fact here to reiterate that Kalaignar was a born leader. He carried the Tamil flag and was at the forefront of a struggle even in his school days. He took part in another struggle just hours before his wedding. He led struggles before staging his plays.

After getting elected as member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA), he did not worry about his post but continued in this spirit and went to prison for it. He did not give up his fighting spirit even as the chief minister. After completing five terms as the chief minster, he did not give up the idea of struggle. When the state government denied him his final resting place next to Anna, he fought from his deathbed. As a child, through his incarceration, he evocatively taught me that I was the son of a leader who battled relentlessly.

In 1951, the DMK held its state conference in Chennai and Thalaivar’s speech, proposing Anna’s name to chair the conference, is worth recollecting. He explained how some of the key Tamil concepts have only three letters. Life in Tamil is called vazhvu, which consists of three letters; the character that is required to lead life is a three-lettered word panbu; the love that is born out of panbu is another three-lettered word anbu; the desire that is derived from this love is also a three-lettered word kadhal; the courage that flows from this desire is a three-lettered word veeram, the courage that takes us to the battlefield is a three-lettered word kalam; the victory we enjoy in the battlefield is a three-lettered word vettri and Anna, the one who leads us to victory, is also a three-lettered word.

When Kalaignar proposed that Anna should preside over the conference, his Tamil reverberated across the length and the breadth of the state. This was an indication of his leadership qualities. At the same time, as an artiste, his words resounded on film screens. His defining film Parasakthi was released the year before I was born. His dialogues did not just create one “Gunasekaran”, the character in the film played by Sivaji Ganesan, a person I revere. His dialogues created many “Gunasekarans” in each and every village and town in Tamil Nadu. Across the state, people converted their homes into mock courts and enacted the powerful court scenes from the film.

Parasakthi was the sixth film written by Thalaivar. He was earlier in the world of theatre. He was keen to write plays and to act only in the plays he wrote. Shanta or Palaniappan was his first play. It was later enacted as Nachukoppai (Toxic Cup). Kalaignar played the character of Sivaguru in this play. He was brutally attacked while staging the play at Pondicherry. His next play was Thookumedai (Gallows). Kalaignar acted as Pandian in the play. His fiery dialogue in these plays drew the attention of the film industry.

Kalaignar’s debut as a film writer was in 1946 with the film Rajakumari. This was followed by Abhimanyu in 1948. The initial success led to a flood of writing offers. In 1950, he wrote for two films, Maruthanattu Elavarasi and Mantri Kumari, and in 1951, he wrote Manamagal. His family, which was shuttling between Thiruvarur and Salem, shifted to Chennai, and in the same year he also bought a Vauxhall car. The 1952 film Parasakthi ushered in a new trend in its wake. The interest of audiences shifted from the actors to knowing more about screenwriters. Even as he became more and more popular, there was also a concerted attack on Kalaignar. The weekly, Dinamani Kathir, carried a ridiculous and scathing piece titled “Parabramam”.

Kalaignar countered the viciousness by staging a play also titled Parabramam. In that same year, he authored two more films – Devaki and Panam. In the year I was born, 1953, Kalaignar wrote three films – Thirumbi Par, Naam, and Manohara. In the decade that followed, Kalaignar defined Tamil cinema through his powerful pen. Year after year, there were films authored by Kalaignar that adorned the screen – Malaikallan, Ammaiappan, Rajarani, Rangoon Radha, Pudumaipithan, Pudaiyal, Kuravanji, Ellarum Innattu Mannar, Arasilangkumari, Thayilla Pillai, Eruvar Ullam, Kanchi Thalaivan, Poompuhar, Poo Maalai and Avan Pithana. This is one facet of Kalaignar.

There was another facet to him. It was Murasoli, his oldest child. Even when Thalaivar was 90, he looked after that child with special love, care and dedication. In 1942, he began Murasoli in Thiruvarur as a flyer. It was Kalaignar’s personal writing workshop. The publication was stalled for some time due to lack of resources. When he began earning money, Kalaignar restarted the publication. Perarignar Anna’s Dravida Nadu and Kalaignar’s Murasoli were the two eyes of the DMK. It was a time when almost every influential DMK leader ran a publication committed to the movement and its ideology. In that spirit, Murasoli was read across Tamil Nadu. The publication became a drain on his earnings from cinema. But Kalaginar was indefatigable in sustaining Murasoli.

On one side was the party. On the other side were the demands of the film world. To add to his multifarious commitments, he was also the publisher and editor of a publication. At the peak of this three-way commitment, Kalaignar was invited to take part in the party’s three-pronged agitation. I was born amidst this agitation.

On March 1, 1953, I was born at Marudanayagam Hospital on Giri Road in Theyagaraya Nagar in Chennai. Thalaivar named his eldest son, Muthu, after my grandfather Muthuvelar. He named his second son Alagiri. This was his way to celebrate the memory of fiery orator Alagiri, a fearless campaigner for the movement. I was his third child, followed by my sister Selvi and my youngest brother, Tamizharasu.

Thalaivar wanted to name me Ayyadurai. He wanted my name to have “Ayya” from Ayya Thanthai Periyar and “Durai” from Perarignar Annadurai. However, it was the time Joseph Stalin, the Iron Man who gave shape to the modern Soviet Union and who successfully led the war against the Nazi regime, died. There was a condolence meeting for Joseph Stalin at Marina Beach in Chennai. At that meeting, Kalaignar declared that he was naming his son Stalin. I was named in a public meeting in which thousands of people participated.

When I was a young boy, poet Karunanandam told me that the word Stalin actually meant “man of steel”. Karunanandam was an evocative poet who served as Periyar’s secretary and became the deputy director of information when the party came to power. As a child, I swallowed a hook. It was sharp and open-ended. The entire family was scared. Through a combination of medicine and fruits, they managed to get it out of my system. At that time, poet Karunanandam remarked that like Stalin, I too was an iron man. The scar I got in my young days may have given me the courage to stay steely despite the many hooks that have ruptured me. Now for the account of my first travel outside Chennai, towards Tiruchi, which has been the fortress of the resistors . . . that too towards a jail.

Excerpted with permission from One Among You: The Autobiography of MK Stalin, translated from the Tamil by AS Panneerselvan, Penguin India.