DMK leader and Tamil Nadu Chief Minister MK Stalin’s autobiography, One Among You, reminded me of Carl Jung’s classic lines on human existence: “The sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light in the darkness of mere being.”
The first chapter begins with Stalin announcing, “I was born as a son of a leader”. He recalls his oath-taking ceremony while taking up the office of Chief Minister. He now had control over what can be a repressive state apparatus, if history is anything to go by.
This is significant, since in his book he plays the extended role of a political activist and propounder of the Dravidian ideology in civil society. This volume of the autobiography starts with his childhood and ends with his arrest during the Emergency.
The autobiography sheds light on his being named “Stalin” at a time when everyone had strong opinions of his more famous namesake. He was rejected by a well-known school on the grounds of his name – his father M Karunanidhi was willing to change his son’s school but not his name. This is how strongly the principles of political conviction were embedded in the family. Indeed, the reader cannot separate the trajectories of the DMK and of Stalin’s own life and family in the course of this book.
In the years covered in this volume, Stalin navigates the contours of his life and learns the ropes of politics under the shade of formidable personalities who were a regular fixture in his life. I was also impressed by his recognition of the symbolic order of women, which created the foundations as well as the superstructure of the Dravidian movement. When reading this memoir, the men and the party almost appear offshoots, albeit tangible ones. The chapter on his grandmother Anjugam, who calls him, “...Talin…”, is a particularly inspiring one.
The Dravidian movement
The chapter titled “While Seated on a Saloon Chair” introduced me to the history of salons that were instrumental in the French Revolution. They acted as agencies for the liberation for women too. It is interesting to draw parallels between French salons as spaces for the propagation of the ideas of liberty, equality and fraternity, and Dravidian saloons as spaces for propagating Dravidian ideology. Stalin’s detailing of the what led to the strengthening of the institution of the DMK points to his keen observation, retention, and cognitive skills. Today’s Stalin clearly isn’t an armchair activist, but someone who has had a long history of on-ground action
in the process, the reader also gets a clearer picture of the ethos and objectives of the Dravidian movement, which can be articulated in the words of CN Annadurai aka Perarignar Anna: “Self-rule in the state and collective rule at centre.” This clarity is of immense importance, as the manufactured narratives from geographical and political north India often portray the Dravidian movement as secessionist in nature. But the etymological and epistemological tenets presented in this text provide clarity on Tamilian consciousness being an assertion of federal autonomy with linguistic cultural “differences”, and not a secessionist one. It avows its principles aggressively to resist the imposition of a Hindi-led uniformity under garb of good governance.
Stalin’s vivid portrayal of the role that Murasoli – the newspaper started by his father – theatre, and cinema played to add to the ideological apparatus of Dravidian consciousness, which included the “lumpenproletariat” as well as the “subaltern”, is noteworthy. He appears to take upon himself the responsibility of creating an egalitarian societal sphere.
His foray into politics, the realisation of his true calling, and internalising the values of the DMK made me reflect on James Baldwin’s views of an artist. For Baldwin, a true artist enlightens the public sphere by breaking society’s self-protective delusions. For me, Stalin’s individual acts of resistance and moral courage conform to this definition.
The translation by AS Panneerselvan is unobtrusive and smooth. Reading his biography of Stalin’s father, Karunanidhi: A Life, alongside Stalin’s memoir is a useful way to better understand the father-son duo. The writing is simple and without any jargon making it enjoyable for scholars and laypersons alike. One Among You is a useful route to understanding the equations between the individual, the state, civil society, and Dravidian identity, leading to the rise of a powerful political movement and its leaders.
One Among You: The Autobiography of MK Stalin, translated from the Tamil by AS Panneerselvan, Penguin India.