The non-stop rain adds to the effects. Already much tension has built up on the Kerala side of the border ever since the news broke. Everyone seems to anticipate excessive public anger, provoked particularly by the ruling Dravida party that showed neither grace nor tact, attributes the Dravidian legend in focus wielded lethally.
At the border, Tamil Nadu police stop us. “No vehicle with a Kerala number plate can go. Someone might pelt stones.”
Why specifically Kerala? And that is when it suddenly dawns that you are entering the grieving zone from the hometown of Kalaignar’s best friend-turned-worst enemy. The late M G Ramachandran was from these parts. It is thirty one years since the actor-politician died and scores are still waiting to be settled for his non-Tamil origin? The police say that on a day like this, any old thing can get played up. After a little persuasion, they finally agree to let us “into the first mile to source whatever and quickly take the first U-turn”.
Into the first several miles, one finds nothing, not a soul to talk to. Only more rain and the highway, mostly deserted but for the occasional speeding SUV with the headlights on. The first sign of mourning is a wayside portrait of Kalaignar, garlanded, and standing in splendid isolation.
Mounted and sheltered from rain most elegantly, it is a far cry from the customary overwhelming kitsch. A portrait with minimal photo-shopping, blown up just enough for eye-level viewing. It is put together with much dexterity, mostly from recycled stuff that includes a flex banner that promotes a 3G WiFi.
You keep seeing more such adequately decorated portraits as you get into the town of Pollachi. All look abandoned and stand silently in the rain. Strange because the image and the voice are seldom far in Tamil politics. Those mammoth wayside box speakers, lined up to serially blare rhyme and reason, are missing. Not even the odd curvy one tied to the pole.
It is not as though the big screen writer who rewrote Tamil politics is reduced to a ‘still’ by the wayside. There is immense regard. The few you run into, mostly DMK loyalists, have no doubt that there will be no leader like him any time soon. Stalin? “He is fine but Kalaignar is peerless.” They are all going home for lunch and will stay back, glued to TV to watch what is happening in Chennai.
Almost every DMK functionary from here you try to meet has already left for Chennai for the interment, down to municipal councillors. Clearly, the party does not want to localise this event too much. The seasoned cadre-based outfit knows how to do measured mobilising. Its next big test, post-Kalaignar, is the 2019 Lok Sabha polls.
The police were wrong. Kalaignar is no mere son of the soil. World Tamil leader is how he is described by the few posters you see with some text. The emphasis is on language that flows, not terrain that binds.