“We can’t let our Amma go” Stories of how people in Chennai reacted as they lost their beloved Amma.

By Nachiket Deuskar

Chennai, December 08: As sun set over Chennai on the evening of December 06th, Puratchi Thalaivi Jayaram Jayalalithaa’s reigns came to an end. Fondly called “Amma” (mother in Tamil) by her supporters, she had passed away a day earlier at the Apollo Hospital after more than 70 days of illness. She had suffered from a cardiac arrest days before. Gathered outside the MG Ramachandran memorial at Chennai’s iconic Marina Beach were thousands of people. Seated inside the memorial compound were some of the most important people in the country.

Earlier in the day, the President, the Prime Minister and Chief Ministers of nine states paid homage to Amma’s mortal remains that lay in state outside Rajaji Hall from where her political career had begun after the death of her mentor MG Ramachandran’s 1987.

She ruled over the state and her party- the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) with an iron fist, instilling discipline and deep rooted loyalty among its members. That was seen in the party workers and supporters who turned out in large numbers at her funeral.

Saying that people mourned, would be an understatement.

On September 22, she was admitted to the Apollo hospital at Greams Road after she suffered from infection and acute dehydration. Her party workers thronged to the hospital to pray for her health. However, only after October 12, did most people realise that magnitude of the situation when her official duties were handed over to O. Panneerselvam. What aggravated the scare among her supporters was the fact that the hospital did not give out sufficient information about her health. The silence on part of the hospital, the Tamil Nadu government and AIADMK worsened the condition. Some people were seen crying outside the hospital, while others fasted for her wellbeing. These scenes were repeated across the state of Tamil Nadu.

Over the next month and a half, her condition apparently improved. She was moved to the normal ward and doctors said that she would be “allowed to go home soon”. However, that never happened.

On December 04, news broke that she had suffered from a cardiac arrest. She was put on life support. Yet again, thousands of AIADMK supporters and people who followed Amma, took to the streets. Over the next day, they offered prayers in temples, and sat outside the hospital with hope that their ‘revolutionary leader’ will recover.

The massive cardiac arrest had made her critical and worsened her health.

A man shows a Jayalalithaa photo outside Apollo Hospital in Chennai.

The crowd became desperate as the sun sank beyond the horizon. It was fuelled by the government’s silence, rumours of senior ministers secretly meeting inside the hospital and few news organizations declaring that she had passed away. The crowd went into a tizzy. Many men and women broke down. One could see people sitting wherever they could only to sob out loud.

Reports flew in of local media organizations having been attacked. Fear seeped into the arteries of the city. Offices relieved their employees early and people rushed home. By six thirty in the evening, when one would expect the streets of Chennai to be choked with rush hour traffic, the city was virtually empty. There weren’t buses on the road, autos refused to ply. Only a handful of people were seen on the Mass Rapid Transit System (MRTS) of the Suburban Railway. People still remembered what had happened when MG Ramachandran had died. There had been widespread violence then.

Crowd gathered at the Rajaji Hall where her body lay in state for the day.

That night, the city was silent but no one slept.

“Veda Nilayam, Poes Garden” is one of the most powerful addresses in Tamil Nadu. It is a plush locality in the heart of Chennai which was home to J Jayalalithaa for decades. AIADMK members and her supporters started gathering there.

An AIADMK member on the condition of anonymity said bluntly, “Madam (referring to Jayalalithaa) will be brought here. We all are expecting her.”

In fact, the party had sent its members to various locations since evening, he said.

From Barry lane off Cathedral road to Poes Garden, groups of weeping supporters- men and women occupied footpaths of the narrow streets leading to Veda Nilayam.

Chintadripet MRTS station saw more passengers than usual.

An old lady who had benefitted from a scheme launched by Jayalalithaa said, “She did so much for us. Now, she’s ailing. We are here for our Amma.”

Another lady next to her nodded and said, “Amma has in a sense given birth to all of us. We can’t let her our Amma go.”

The morning after her death was announced, people thronged to Rajaji Hall near Mount Road to pay their respects to their leader who now lay in state. For many others, it was their last chance to see the “iron lady of Tamil Nadu”. Trains that ran almost empty the previous night were now flooded with AIADMK members, supporters and also people who were heading in one direction. The train would get empty at Chepauk station on the MRTS line.

One could see elderly men weep quietly in that crowd.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi's convoy heading towards Rajaji Hall

People gathered outside Rajaji Hall were seen cheering as famous personalities came in to pay their last respects. At the MGR Memorial too, a large crowd was awaiting the arrival of their leader. Very little sorrow or grief was seen. People, lot of them who had come there out of curiosity were pumped up knowing that they were witnessing something historic.

However, as the gun carriage drew closer, there were echoes of people crying and sobbing in pain.

As the 21-gun salute and the lowering of the casket were shown on the screens outside, people could not control their emotions.

Rapid Action Force was deployed to control the crowd. Several people carried AIADMK flags and images of J Jayalalithaa.

Over the next few days thousands of people poured into the MGR Memorial wanting to pay their respects. Several others came there out of curiosity. The Chennai Corporation had organised free food and water for all those who came in.

Several people were seen shaving off their heads as a mark of respect.

For many, the unbearable grief hasn’t ceased yet.

The state is now slowly crawling back to normalcy in its day-to-day life. However, the void that Jayalalithaa’s death has left in the political fabric of the state and the country will take ages to be filled even as "Chinnamma" (small mother in Tamil) waits for her turn.

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Nachiket Deuskar

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