When Amma faced betrayal

Jayalalithaa realised early that there was a stigma attached to the profession. No one respected an actress, no matter how hard she worked or how successful she was. Sandhya and her children lived on Sivagnanam street in Thiyagaraya Nagar.

When Jayalalithaa was thirteen, a girl who lived two houses away befriended her. She too was a student at Church Park Convent, two years her senior, and little Ammu was proud of this friendship because seniors usually maintained a distance from the juniors. Jayalalithaa was happy to have some company in the evenings after she came back from school. The two girls liked to go up to the terrace to chat.

Jayalalithaa was not aware that her friend came up there so often only to silently communicate from the terrace with her boyfriend, the son of a Jain businessman. The boy would stand on his terrace two houses away at the end of the road. Jayalalithaa, noticing her friend’s antics, asked her one day what was going on. The girl confessed that she was in love with the boy and asked her not to disclose this to her parents. She also requested Jayalalithaa to signal to the boy on the days she was not able to visit.

Jayalalithaa was thrilled to be privy to such a secret, and to be the go-between in this romance. The girl did not come the next day. When the boy did not see her he signalled Jayalalithaa asking where she was. Jayalalithaa signalled back that she had not come.

The milk vendor who supplied milk to the lane saw this dumb charade that day and then again the next day. She hurried to the girl’s house and warned her parents not to send their daughter to an actress’s house – the actress’s daughter was clearly a flirt and would spoil their daughter’s reputation.

The girl stopped coming and Jayalalithaa, unaware of what had happened, went to her house to find out why. She was shocked when the girl refused to let her in because of what the milk seller had said. “She has said that you introduced me to that boy and spoilt me.”

The girl’s mother, scowling and looking at Jayalalithaa accusingly, was standing behind her. Jayalalithaa wanted to protest, but then realised that the girl didn’t have the guts to tell her mother the truth and instead was ready to make her the scapegoat.

Jayalalithaa was both shocked and deeply hurt. She wrote in her memoirs: “I realised what the word ‘betrayal’ really meant. I tried to help that girl in all innocence. I thought even to stand before her was a disgrace for me. I ran to my house, sat on the terrace all by myself and wept for a couple of hours. It was a humiliating experience. I never told my mother about this.”

Sandhya had initially never considered a film career for her daughter. But she did want her daughter to become a good dancer. As soon as Ammu came back from Bangalore to Chennai, she was put under the tutelage of KJ Sarasa, a reputed dance teacher in those days. Jayalalithaa, who later blossomed into a good dancer, was not keen to learn dance.

But Sarasa was a very patient and persuasive teacher and trained her well enough for her to have her arangetram when she was barely twelve years old, in May 1960. A number of film dignitaries turned up to see Sandhya’s daughter’s debut performance, including leading actors, actresses and producers. Sivaji Ganesan, the most talented actor of that time, presided over the function. He praised Jayalalithaa’s performance and said she was as lovely as a golden statue. “I wish that she blossoms into a very popular film star.” Jayalalithaa and Sandhya were happy with his words but did not take them seriously. Both were determined that Jayalalithaa should not join the film world. Nor could Sivaji have imagined that this chit of a girl with “laddoo cheeks” would one day act with him as his heroine.

Excerpted with permission from Amma: Jayalalithaa’s Journey from Movie Star to Political Queen, Vaasanthi, Juggernaut Books App.

Where Didi sprang from

To understand Mamata, one has to step away from Nabanna, the offices of her secretaries, the lines of people who wait for her each day. One has to go to Harish Chandra Street, in Kalighat.

Mamata was very young when her parents brought her from their village to Kalighat.

The Adi Ganga is believed to have flowed behind their house once upon a time. The area served as a port, with sailors mooring their ships there, laden with commodities from foreign lands. Apparently, that is why a large community of sex workers settled alongside the Kalighat temple. Many traders used to perform pujas at the temple before setting off abroad on business. This was the environment in which Harish Chatterjee Street came into being.

Most chief ministers of Bengal, from Bidhan Roy to Siddhartha Ray, and even the Communist Jyoti Basu, were all from the state’s urban elite. But not Mamata Banerjee. She grew up in a lower middle-class home in south Calcutta. An ordinary woman from an ordinary family who began her public life in a cotton sari and hawai chappals. Even today the cotton sari and hawai chappals are an integral part of her brand, her image.

When her father died early at the age of forty-one, he left the family in great financial hardship. Mamata, then only fifteen years old, became the force of the family, holding them together in the small house in Kalighat. Her roots are there and she has kept them, still living in her humble family home.

Had she wanted to, she could have moved out into a grand residence befitting a chief minister. After all, she has had new bungalows made for the state’s chief secretary and the chief of police. But it is impossible for her to live anywhere except in her small room in Kalighat.

Her bedroom holds a high bed, a plastic chair, a number of books and music CDs, pictures of several gods and goddesses, and a shawl from Ajmer Sharif on which the religious figurines rest, including one of Jesus Christ and one of the Buddha. An attached bathroom has been built but it is tiny. The bedroom has no window. There is a temple just outside where passers-by start ringing the bell at four in the morning, rousing her from sleep at dawn. Mamata’s mother used to occupy the adjoining room, which contains another tall bed. Mamata now uses it as her drawing room.

The Mamata myth would have shattered had she moved to a luxurious house from this one, just as it would have if she had swapped her hawai chappals for shiny black sandals, or dressed in red silk instead of light cotton, or used sunglasses like all other women political leaders, or put on lipstick.

This I’m-one-of-you image is particularly effective in the political culture of West Bengal. Mamata’s predecessor Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee used to live in a tiny flat in Ballygunge in south Kolkata, which he still occupies. Bureaucrats had proposed constructing a new bungalow for him, citing security as a reason. But whenever I brought up the question of changing residence, Buddha Babu would flare up. In politics, perception is important, sometimes more than reality. Subrata Mukherjee had once told me that few people in politics actually live up to the image of ascetic frugality they would like to project. But Mamata can because frugality comes naturally to her.

Kalighat and her upbringing are thus at the heart of her extraordinary political charisma. Mamata has always represented the poor people, the aam janta. When Calcutta was the capital of British India, and even during the nineteenth century renaissance, there were two distinct societies in Bengal. Raja Rammohan Roy, Prince Dwarakanath Tagore, Rabindranath Tagore and other important architects of the renaissance were all representatives of aristocratic society. But the Santhal rebellion, the Tebhaga movement and the Indigo revolution is the parallel history of Bengal.

Living as she does in south Kolkata, Mamata has tried to attract the anti-Communist section of urban society with her energy and fighting spirit. At the same time, she has toured every district indefatigably, sending the same message – I am one of you. As a result, deprived and marginalised people from the lower strata of society have always identified with Mamata – in the same way that Dalits from Uttar Pradesh identify with Mayawati.

Now the same Mamata walks the corridors of power, the same Mamata is cloistered in an air-conditioned chamber on the fourteenth floor of Nabanna. She regularly spends an hour on the treadmill at home every morning. And in the evening, no sooner does the sun set than she starts walking on the terrace adjoining her chamber at Nabanna, having constant conversations on her mobile phone. Issuing instructions. Sometimes losing her temper, sometimes expressing her happiness. Always aware that she is the beginning and the end of the party named the Trinamool Congress. Just as the credit goes to her for all the accomplishments and successes of the party, so too does the responsibility of every allegation, be it of corruption or of running extortion syndicates.

And that is why Mamata is always alone, even in a crowd.

Excerpted with permission from Didi: The Bengal Tigress, Jayanta Ghosal, Juggernaut Books App.