On Wednesday, 8.30 am Tamilmagan Hussein, state secretary of MGR Mantram or the MGR Fans Association, has just finished a prayer session along with about 30 AIADMK workers, mostly women. They sit cramped on the road, behind police barricades that form an enclosure on the footpath lining Greams Road in Chennai. They have been praying for the speedy recovery of their ‘Amma’, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister and AIADMK supremo J Jayalalithaa, who is undergoing treatment for “fever and dehydration” in a room on the second floor of Chennai’s Apollo Hospital.
On their left, outside the gates of the hospital, a police constable clad in a grey safari suit directs patients and visitors to stand in a queue before entering the hospital. Only patients and people authorised to meet Jayalalithaa — ministers and senior leaders of the party — are being allowed in.
With security tightened, the road outside is deserted, except for two police cars with blue beacons that are stationed at the entrance. These belong to the CM’s security convoy, with footboards on either side for commandos to stand on.
Sitting inside their road-side enclosure, which is now thick with the smoke from incense sticks, the women workers of the AIADMK stand up every time they see a senior leader, their only source of information on Amma’s health. “Amma nalla irukkaanga (Amma is fine),” these leaders often tell them, hurriedly walking past their enclosure.
“They all say she is improving and that she is fine. We trust these messages because we can’t bear to see Amma in pain,” says Jayadevi, a 26-year-old who introduces herself as the deputy president of the AIADMK’s South Chennai-North Youth Brigade. She says her late father, Nedunzhezhiyan, was one of the many designated ‘orators’ of the party and that it was Jayalalithaa who named her.
Jayadevi says she has probably seen Jayalalithaa once, when she was three or four months old. “My father and grandmother met her once,” she says, beaming.
Since the morning of September 23, the day Jayalalithaa’s hospitalisation was announced after she was rushed to Apollo the previous night, Jayadevi has been a regular visitor to the hospital. “I reach here around 8 am and leave around 10 pm,” says Jayadevi, fiddling with her long gold chain that has a locket inset with Jayalalithaa’s photo. Before coming to the hospital in the morning, she goes to the Amman temple near Valluvarkottam lake area every day and lights 21 lamps for Jayalalithaa.
Around 10 am, a white SUV bearing the party flag of the AIADMK makes its way to the parking area, trailed by Jayalalithaa’s Toyota Prado, a gleaming black hulk that moves slowly. “Isn’t that Senthil Balaji?” asks a woman worker, jumping to her feet and craning her neck to look at the SUV. Balaji, a former AIADMK minister and a Jayalalithaa confidant who tonsured his head and carried fire-pots for ‘Amma’ when she was imprisoned in 2014, has since fallen out of favour with the party chief. For the next few minutes, the women discuss Balaji and his fall from grace. “Who will let him in?” says Chellammal, a party worker who lives in a slum on the lane that connects Poes Garden road to Gemini flyover. She says she and other women from her slum regularly line up on the road outside Jayalalithaa’s Poes Garden residence every morning and wave as her convoy drives out of the gate.
By noon, the chatter inside the enclosure has died down as the women wait for news of their leader. Ministers P Benjamin and Ma Foi Pandiarajan, and B Valarmathi, a former minister, are among those who drop in for a minute to interact with the women workers. “While Benjamin ayya was kind enough to tell us that Amma was fine, none of us dared to ask Valarmathi madam anything. She looked tense,” says Saradha, an AIADMK worker from Royapettah.
At 2.30 pm, Jayadevi asks some of the elderly women to go and eat their lunch. They head to the roadside eateries nearby. Some of the others come back from lunch and take their space in the enclosure. A few stretch out on the footpath for a quick siesta, the others sit and nod off. Soon, another prayer session begins, this time it is ‘Kala Bhairavar mantra’, a chant in praise of Kala Bhairava, a manifestation of Lord Shiva. “This is a prayer for better times. We hope that good times are ahead for Amma,” says Jayadevi, adding that she plans to go to another temple in Parry’s Corner, a neighbourhood near Chennai port, in the evening.
A security guard, alerted by the conversation with the workers, walks up and demands to see identity cards. “What do we do? We are in a fix. The other day, a woman had come, claiming to be Amma’s niece. There is no one to say who can be allowed inside and who can’t. Finally, we got directions from our higher-ups that she shouldn’t be let in,” he says, referring to Deepa Jayakumar, the 41-year-old daughter of Jayalalithaa’s late brother Jayakumar. “So one has to be very careful. Besides, we don’t want anyone to pass on wrong information to the cadres. That can set off a scare. Anyway, nobody knows what’s happening inside. Some say she is critical, some say she is suffering from serious heart and lung infection, some others say she is fine,” he adds.
It’s now 4 pm. Jayadevi says she is leaving for the temple in Parry’s.
A tea shop owner near the hospital says business has been bad ever since Jayalalithaa was admitted here. The man, who runs one of the seven roadside shops near the hospital, says, “Most of our customers were patients from Bengal and the north. But now, with all this security, people haven’t been coming. These party women camping here are too poor and never come to our shops. Party leaders come in SUVs and luxury cars and they wouldn’t want to drink tea from a roadside shop.”
At 5 pm, Gundu Kalyanam, 53, a Tamil comedian and a ‘star speaker’ of the AIADMK, announces that it’s time for him to visit Kalikambal temple on Thambu Chetty Street to be part of a “special puja for Amma’s recovery”. Kalyanam, who has been sitting inside the enclosure for almost four hours now, looks around and says he is possibly the only one among those present who has met “Amma in person”.
Kalyanam, who has acted in over 1,000 movies in South Indian languages, has met Jayalalithaa several times, thanks to his late father Gundu Karuppaiah, a yesteryear actor who worked with MGR in several of his movies. “We are all praying for her. Anyway, I have nothing else to do other than sitting here till it gets dark. I hope Amma comes back and rules the state for many more years,” he says, wiping away the sweat that has already smudged the vibhuti (ash) and kumkum (vermilion) that he had liberally smeared on his forehead.