The Secret of being Amma

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Sandwiched between the Spiritual Mother of Kerala and the anointed Saint of Kolkata is the ‘Amma’ of Tamilnadu, Jayalalithaa, who despite being neither particularly spiritual, nor saintly, could especially in the popularity stakes give every other Amma a good run for her money. It was midnight when the news broke of the Tamilnadu Chief Minister’s hospitalisation. The chest beating frenzy that followed had to be seen to be believed. Within seconds hundreds of party workers and supporters of the All India Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam had gathered outside the Apollo Hospital in Central . And the rumour mills went into an overdrive. She had had a stroke/she was paralysed/ she was dying, etc. and when dehydration with fever was announced, it was almost anti-climactic. But the state administration was taking no chances. Sreelata profiles the magic and mystery of the ‘Amma’ and what keeps her enigma alive in Tamilnadu. Here’s an in-depth report, exclusively in Different Truths.

‘A Rose by any other name would smell just as sweet,’ said the Bard some five centuries ago. So if we were to go by the ‘what’s in a name’ analogy ‘Mother’ in German-‘mutter’ or Japanese-‘Haha’ or even the Hungarian-‘Anya’ would mean exactly the same wouldn’t it? So would our very own Maataji, Aayi, Ammi, etc. But then there is another which while similar has a certain added connotation or shall we say a kind of halo around it, which makes it perhaps the Mother of all Mothers. And it is certainly not of the Immaculate Conception kind or even that of the  Party President. Even though it ultimately boils down to the same thing ‘Amma’ means different things to different people in India.

In Kerala ‘Amma’ before Tamilnadu appropriated it, is synonymous with the hugging saint otherwise known as . Unschooled and untutored, she commands a following unparalleled in recent history. She travels the expounding her take on what needs to be done to ‘cleanse’ ones’ mind of all impurities to achieve spiritual growth and love. With a number of charitable institutions, hospitals and orphanages run by volunteers, she attracts the bright and the best of young to help her cause. When asked to what extent her ‘hugs’ helps cure the ills of the . She is reported to have said ‘I don’t say I can do it 100 percent. Attempting to change the world [completely] is like trying to straighten the curly tail of a dog. But society takes birth from people. So by affecting individuals, you can make changes in society and, through it, in the world. You cannot change it, but you can make changes. The fight in individual minds is responsible for the wars. So if you can touch people, you can touch the world’. Considering the growing crowds that gather to seek her blessings in the form of those hugs this ‘Amma’ is par for the course.

By blood I am Albanian. By citizenship, an Indian. By faith, I am Catholic. As to my calling, I belong to the world. As to my heart, I belong entirely to the heart of Jesus. And to the poor and downtrodden I am their ‘Amma’. founded the Missionaries of Charity, which consists of more than 5000 sisters active in more than 100 countries serving the poor. They run soup kitchens and homes for the terminal ill poor and the dying, schools and orphanages and mobile clinics. Chastity, poverty, obedience, and to give “wholehearted free service to the poorest of the poor” are the vows they live by. Having been elevated to by the Vatican recently, this Mother has gone far beyond the realm of humankind.

And now sandwiched between the Spiritual Mother of Kerala and the anointed Saint of Kolkata is the ‘Amma’ of Tamilnadu, Jayalalithaa, who despite being neither particularly spiritual nor saintly could especially in the popularity stakes give every other Amma a good run for her money. It was midnight when the news broke of the Tamilnadu Chief Minister’s hospitalisation. The chest beating frenzy that followed had to be seen to be believed. Within seconds hundreds of party workers and supporters of the All India Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam had gathered outside the Apollo Hospital in Central Chennai. And the rumour mills went into an overdrive. She had had a stroke/she was paralysed/ she was dying, etc. and when dehydration with fever was announced, it was almost anti-climactic. But the state administration was taking no chances. Cordoning off the entire area the cops were on high alert. Four days later they are still all there around the hospital along with scores of media personnel tensely awaiting every medical bulletin. Though this kind of fierce devotion and fanatical loyalty is typical to the Tamils, to hear them say on the verge of hysteria how much more dear she is to them than their own birth-mothers is taking sycophancy to new heights.

What could be the mystery behind the pull of this particular Amma? If one admirer is to be believed it is currently the attraction of all the freebies she has been dishing out. Evidently, Brand Amma has taken the wow out of the PR business to an all-time high. There are Amma canteens, Amma water, Amma salt, even Amma mobiles and pharmacies and yes Amma Veggies-you name it, she provides it and all at really subsidised rates. Though physically shrouded in secrecy – she is rarely seen in public – her presence is everywhere. Young girls to be married? Amma organises mass weddings. Marriage Mandaps? Amma Marriage halls are just round the corner. Need trousseau and mangalsutras? Amma provides them. Want to see a movie? Amma cinemas are coming up. Need mobility? Amma cycles available at knock down prices. Grinders, fans, cement, call centres, laptops, idilis (at a rupee an idli) or seeds the ‘Amma’ touch is there.

Then having cultivated a careful ‘you can see me but you can’t touch me’ hauteur she is ruthless with her detractors and lady bountiful with her faithful. Astute and politically savvy, she has today even the Centre dancing to her tunes. Didn’t the Modi government go calling the other day? And let’s not talk about the Cauvery water issue. She keeps it on a boil every time she comes to power probably to emphasise the point that despite being born in Karnataka, she is all for the Tamil people. Did the Sashikala relationship-mess or her stint in jail for the disproportionate assets case dent her popularity? Oh no. If it did anything at all it only enhanced her standing and won her more sympathy.

As for governance, barring the flood episode last year Jayalalithaa has whipped Tamilnadu around like nobody else. Getting her bureaucracy to deliver and leaving her opposition licking their wounds she perhaps appears as a ‘harbinger’ of action to Tamilnadu. A person who delivers, whatever the odds. Do her freebies reach the people? Mostly, despite the corruption and unlike the rest of the country, they do. Today, if there is a state in India akin to a welfare state it is Tamilnadu. But can it be sustained and for how long? Well, that remains to be seen. So if anything should happen to Amma God forbid, the bubble might just burst and everything could just go belly up. Mystery et al. Till then Amma Jayalalithaa rules and her cloak of unassailability remains intact.

©Sreelata Menon

Pix from Net.

Sreelata Menon

Sreelata Menon

When computers hit the scene, life changed for Sreelata Menon. A Masters in History (Mumbai University) she was with the Onlooker and world Trade Magazines before teaching History to undergraduates and doing a stint in an advertising agency. A web content writer, she wrote blogs on freelance writing, and current happenings for online and print publications. Author of ‘Freelance Writing for the Newbie Writer’ her books also include Guru Nanak and Indira Gandhi for Penguin-Puffin.
Sreelata Menon

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