FAR FROM the cameras that beamed live images of J Jayalalithaa’s final journey Tuesday, the strains of a mournful song wafted through the air at Ayuragram, a village in Villupuram, near the highway from Trichy to Chennai. They came from a bus stand on the fringe of an SC colony, camouflaged by a giant cutout of the departed leader and temporarily converted to a mourning centre. Inside, three elderly women held a microphone and sang paeans to Jayalalithaa’s populist schemes as a group of younger women huddled together on the floor, wailing.
It was quiet, almost as if the highway had fallen silent to mourn the death of Amma — the only traffic was that of cars and SUVs carrying AIADMK flags, ferrying party cadre to Chennai, 180 km away.
At villages along the highway, temporary shelters had appeared overnight to pay tributes to Jayalalithaa. At some places, percussion bands played in front of photographs of Amma; at others, people sat under giant posters and watched the live broadcast of the funeral from Marina Beach.
“There will never be another Jayalalithaa. There cannot be another like her. She gave us power. Her death is the equivalent of us losing power. MGR gave us a lot but Jayalalithaa gave us twice as much,’’ said Muthulakshmi, a 58-year-old farm worker in Villupuram.
“She gave our children jobs in the police force, in the electricity board, without us having to pay bribes. She gave our children free laptops, cycles to go to school and free rice to ensure we don’t go hungry even for a single day. She made us feel empowered,’’ she said.
The women of Ayuragram were effusive in their praise of Jayalalithaa, the men remained silent on the sidelines.
“This morning, all the children lit candles in their homes because they had got free supplies of stationery, books and uniforms in the school, thanks to Amma,’’ said Sharadamma, a 45-year-old resident.
The mourning at this village had been “sponsored” by local community leader M Shekhar, who is linked to the AIADMK. “The bigger leaders were not interested in funding this since Amma is gone and there is no one really to impress in Chennai now,” said Shekhar.
“The death of Amma is a big loss for all sections of society, especially for us. With our meagre earnings, we could not have afforded many of the things that she gave us through her schemes. She gave sheep and goats, mixies and grinders, plenty of rice,’’ he said.
At other villages, the traditional way of mourning saw youths, many with tonsured heads, dancing in front Jayalalithaa’s posters to the drummers’ beats.
“I would not have tonsured my head if my own mother had died but I did it for Amma. She was like a mother to all of us,’’ said Robert S, a 24-year-old at Thiruvan Mavattu village in Villupuram.
On the road to Chennai, old-timers across villages said that the mourning has been relatively subdued in the hinterland compared to the time when Jayalalithaa’s mentor MGR passed away in 1987.
The reasons they listed included the uncertainty over the future of AIADMK, the lack of hard currency for organising events at every nook and corner following the demonetisation move and the prolonged two-month hospitalisation of Jayalalithaa.
“With the death of Jayalalithaa, we have lost one of the last mass leaders in Tamil Nadu politics. She brought together castes and philosophies and next to MGR, she was a leader for all. There is no one of her capacity in the party now. Panneerselvam (the new Chief Minister) is an able administrator but not a mass leader,’’ said Essakutty Muthu, an advocate and AIADMK worker from Thoothukudi.