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India

Spotlight: The Cult Of Amma

Tea harvest in the rain in Assam
Celebrating Jayalalithaa's victory last May in state elections.
Sruthi Gottipati

-Farewell-

Foreigners who visit Tamil Nadu, a southern state in India that's home to stunning Hindu temples and a robust economy, would often puzzle over the matronly woman draped in a sari watching over them from posters and billboards seemingly splashed on every street. There's even a statue of her in blood. She was born with the name Jayalalithaa, although it's unlikely anyone would have called her that to her face. The state's House speaker even ruled earlier this year, unlawfully, that she couldn't be referred to by her name in the legislative assembly. (Here's a list of epithets that can be used instead. Think "Great Revolutionary Leader.") Supporters, of whom there are millions, would just call her Amma, meaning Mother, a term in keeping with her extraordinary power.

Jayalalithaa, Tamil Nadu's top leader, died on Monday from a massive cardiac arrest at age 68 leaving supporters bereft, with some threatening suicide. Even before her death, when she was in poor health, at least one supporter had reportedly "died of shock."

Visitors are often surprised to learn that Amma was once an actress, having started out in the movies at age 16. Groomed by her onscreen partner "MGR," another wildly popular actor-turned-politician, Jayalalithaa fought her way to the top of power after his death, and spent the next decades alternating as chief minister with a rival political party, which also drew its head from the world of Tamil cinema.

Yes, actors in southern India are treated like the Gods they sometimes portray in movies, often becoming the receptacles of astonishing political power and sycophancy. It's not unusual to see Jayalalithaa's fans, including, and perhaps especially, grown men, crouch down and touch her feet with their foreheads. When she was jailed for corruption, Jayalalithaa's supporters threatened to lie down on the street in front of oncoming buses. Since the news came last night, the howls of grief and over-the-top vows of self-inflicted harm have continued unabated. Thousands of police have been deployed to avoid a repeat of the kind of riots MGR's death had once provoked.

Jayalalithaa, who built her political party around the cult of her personality, left behind no clear successors. Tamil Nadu, home to 78 million people (larger than France or the UK) and carmakers from around the world, holds national sway. After her death, the state's finance minister O Panneerselvam was quietly sworn in as chief minister. During a stint as temporary head of government while she was hospitalized, he had refused to sit in her chair instead placing a picture of her there during state cabinet meetings. He clearly knew who's boss in Tamil Nadu.

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Society

Parenthood And The Pressure Of Always Having To Be Doing Better

As a father myself, I'm now better able to understand the pressures my own dad faced. It's helped me face my own internal demands to constantly be more productive and do better.

Photo of a father with a son on his shoulders

Father and son in the streets of Madrid, Spain

Ignacio Pereyra*

-Essay-

When I was a child — I must have been around eight or so — whenever we headed with my mom and grandma to my aunt's country house in Don Torcuato, outside of Buenos Aires, there was the joy of summer plans. Spending the day outdoors, playing soccer in the field, being in the swimming pool and eating delicious food.

But when I focus on the moment, something like a painful thorn appears in the background: from the back window of the car I see my dad standing on the sidewalk waving us goodbye. Sometimes he would stay at home. “I have to work” was the line he used.

Maybe one of my older siblings would also stay behind with him, but I'm sure there were no children left around because we were all enthusiastic about going to my aunt’s. For a long time in his life, for my old man, those summer days must have been the closest he came to being alone, in silence (which he liked so much) and in calm, considering that he was the father of seven. But I can only see this and say it out loud today.

Over the years, the scene repeated itself: the destination changed — it could be a birthday or a family reunion. The thorn was no longer invisible but began to be uncomfortable as, being older, my interpretation of the events changed. When words were absent, I started to guess what might be happening — and we know how random guessing can be.

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