In the long tumultuous political life of J Jayalalithaa, No 81, Poes Garden harboured many secrets and stories. It was a house named after her mother, from where she fashioned her own transformation from film star to beloved “Amma”, and whose doors she eventually shut to most friends and family. Since the death of Tamil Nadu’s former chief minister in 2016, the house was been caught in a tug-of-war that ended with the government acquiring it to turn it into a memorial.
The government has put out an inventory of moveable and immoveable property in the house. What can this list of objects and possessions tell us about the enigmatic and often-ruthless politician? One could read the 4 kilos of gold, 610 kg of silver and 10,000 garments as evidence of a life of excesses and disproportionate acquisition by a politician who did go to prison on charges of corruption. But how would that square with the ferocity with which she deglamourised herself as a politician and heir to MGR? Among her possessions were 8,376 books, a collection which is not usually talked up as much as her silk saris, jewellery and shoes. But that would not surprise those who knew Jayalalithaa as an eclectic reader — from Periyar to Agatha Christie, and Annadurai to Thirukkural.
Any woman politician who succeeds in India has to lock away large chunks of herself from public view. Jayalalithaa, a Brahmin who took over a party based on Dravidian ideology, a woman who never forgave the public assault on her in the Tamil Nadu assembly, and a film star who forged an agenda of women’s welfare, knew the art of living on the cusp of competing expectations. If the walls of Poes Garden could speak, they would tell that fascinating story.
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