The key to intelligent living is the ability to overcome the temptation to please others.
Whether it was her meteoric rise to stardom or handsomely surviving in the male-dominated steamy cauldron of Dravidian politics or facing the slew of criminal charges against her or dealing with the victories and defeats in elections or just coping with her sense of loneliness, no matter what it was or who it was, Jayalalithaa was remarkable only because she was always herself.
I remember Jayalalithaa once telling this to NDTV’s Jennifer Arul: “My mother pushed me into films, my mentor MGR pushed me into politics. But for these two instances, I may have wanted my Life to be very different.” Even so, despite the contexts and circumstances that she was placed in, the one thing that made her charismatic – and perhaps, therefore, enigmatic – was her ability to be herself.
During the elections in 1991, which she won leading to her first term in power, I was assigned the task of covering her campaign. I was then working with India Today. Despite several attempts, she refused to grant me an interview. I was persistent though and befriended her personal staff at Poes Garden. They would alert me of her meeting schedules and so I would position myself outside the gate to her residence – in those days, it was just a few police constables and some of us hacks who hung around there; security measures were not so stringent then. For days on end, she would look at me dismissively and drive on each time she left her home. But I persisted. I traveled to her constituency, Bargur, in northern Tamil Nadu, and camped outside the Traveler’s Bungalow for the days that she campaigned there. I made sure she saw me each time she stepped out for a meeting. But no, she would not relent. Then one day I sent her a fax message enlisting the number of times I had tried to reach her and said that I was keen, as a young journalist, to meet and interview the lady who would be the next Chief Minister. That message worked. Later that day when she was driving out of her Poes Garden home, she asked her driver to stop at the gate where I was standing. She rolled down her window glass and told me: “See, I have nothing against you. I admire your perseverance. But I refuse to talk to India Today until Mr.X (my boss, who then was part of India Today’s editorial board and who had done a story on her around that time that she found objectionable) apologizes to me.” I was young, hardly 25, and very aggressive, I guess, back then. So I piped up, “But why are you punishing me for what you hold against my boss?” Pat came her reply, politely, firmly, with a straight face: “Because I don’t need you guys. You need me. Tell Mr.X to reach out and apologize and I will surely meet you.”
Here was a lady who was then wanting to be Chief Minister – it was to be her first time. She would have surely wanted to be in the good books of India’s # 1 newsmagazine India Today. But she refused to give up fighting the good fight – especially if it came to demanding that she be respected as a woman, if it was a question of her dignity. This is the way, for the rest of her Life, Jayalalithaa remained herself – unwilling to ever bend to social, political or gender-related pressures.
And this can be the learning we may want to take away from her Life. From the time we are born – family, friends, society – everyone wants us to be the way they are. And somehow we grow up pandering to this social conditioning. We view each of our actions in the prism of our mind’s eye always as how we will be perceived by others. In that effort to meet the expectations of those around us, we cease to live the Life we must or want to or are capable of. When we are not living the Life that we are comfortable living, under the circumstances in which we find ourselves, we are not happy. We are not peaceful.
Undoubtedly, Life will place us in contexts we never imagined for ourselves. In each situation, there will be a temptation to please people, society and do what others want us to do. But if we can overcome that tendency and just be ourselves, we will have lived remarkably!
PS: This post has been edited. The name of my boss has been dropped and I refer to him now as Mr.X.