Friday the 13th. I was destined to spend it at No 81, Veda Nilayam, Poes Garden, Chennai. J Jayalalithaa was my assignment. I got there at about 6.15 in the morning, way ahead of time for my 7 AM live. The OB and cameraperson were nowhere in sight. I saw most of the other national channels already set up, walkthroughs underway. Security was strict. Barricades were already up. All for Amma.
The first two hours outside the AIADMK supremo’s residence passed by uneventfully. I was like, wow not bad this is actually easy. I got a couple of phone calls asking me if there was a crowd. There were just policemen and us media persons. The scene was calm and quiet. Amma also must have been meditating inside.
At about 9 AM was when the first bomb was dropped. Not quite literally. But a hefty, dark-skinned man, in vella veshti and vella satta (white dhoti and white shirt) brought an entourage with him. One holding a couple of boxes of sweets, another holding a couple of boxes of crackers. And he himself holding a massive garland with tulsi leaves and pink flowers.
The celebrations started.
As I did live after live, the crackers only got louder. There was a point where I had inhaled most of the smoke and coughed my lungs out, with watery eyes. There were women lunging for me, trying to make the most of being on television. The men too wanted their five seconds of fame. They were dancing, singing, shouting slogans. It was utter chaos. I don’t know what was happening.
The typical Tamizh thapangoothu (tapori) was on. The supporters broke into song and lyric about Stalin and Azhagari. All negative of course. And similar lyrics in praise of their Puzhaichi Thalaivi (revolutionary leader).
There was no place to stand. Every cracker that came out was not less than a 5000 wala. They were lit right at your feet. It was c..r..a..z..y. I almost had my hair, clothes and myself burnt. The results so far showed Jaya leading. It was a surprise for all. Security was beefed some more outside Veda Nilayam. Body guards and some more body guards. It was a fortress with a lot of people.
Tamizh film personalities started coming in. One of the first was Gundu Kalyanam. Then came others like Senthil, a film villain whose name I don’t recall, and other on screen supporting actors. Bouquets and bouquets of flowers went inside Jaya’s house. She had clearly already won in their minds. For us in the media, there was no place to even stand. Even the walls were all filled up.
At about half past noon, we were told we could get inside Veda Nilayam – a possible peek at the lady herself and maybe even a sound byte. As exciting as it was to be able to get in finally, it was the getting in that was tough. The security guards had their own rules. No tripod, no cable, blah blah. The scorching Chennai heat didn’t do any good either. It was a stampede at the gate. We were pulled and pushed. Pulled and pushed. And finally managed to find our way into the house. In the melee however, I quite unsurprisingly managed to lose the mircrophone. The logo was easy to find. The mic was gone. But some Good Samaritan handed it to me about 30 seconds later, to my surprise. How he managed to get hold of it in that madness, I don’t know!
A few minutes later Amma came out of her palatial abode, out on to her balcony on the first floor. She strutted her stuff and waved to the cheering crowds. Maroon saree, covering her entire frame. She was smiling as she flashed the victory sign.
It only added to the madness! The crowds went berserk. I didn’t manage to give the live output as the cable didn’t reach inside her residence. Got into a bit of a fight because of that, but manageable.
The point is – sitting in air-conditioned studios, one would not even be able to fathom the enormity of what was happening on ground. I mean, I had never seen anything like it until that day. It was worse than a mob. Everyone wanted to have their two minutes of fame, everyone wanted to scream and shout in joy, everyone wanted to get a glance of Amma. It was survival of the fittest in the literal sense.
We managed to get out of the house in a bit and were told that she would address the media a little later. We dreaded trying to go outside. It was again a task in itself.
At about 3 in the afternoon, we had get back inside. This time, the live cables had to come in with us. I asked the OB van engineer to pass it on to me from under the gates. That’s what most ended up doing. The press conference happened at the door entrance to her house. Mics in place, cameras rolling, J Jayalaithaa came out and spoke to the media for about 15 minutes.
It was over and we handed up hanging around the house for the next few hours. The cops and security guys didn’t seem to mind. We sat on the lawn, each one silently hoping to get an ‘exclusive’ with the new Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu.
Managed to see a few more actors in the process – Vijay and his dad, Kasthuri, and many more. There were even bureaucrats who were lining up to meet the madam with bouquets in hand. Everyone was hoping to save their skin with this power transfer I guess.
While my colleague told me that it was close to impossible to get a byte from Amma, I was given strict orders from Delhi to keep trying. So I sat on J Jayalalithaa’s lawn and waited. There were no signs of it happening, but everyone stayed back. For many, it was a once in a lifetime opportunity to do walkthroughs and piece to cameras (TV jargon) right inside her residence. So they made the most of it.
I hadn’t eaten a morsel after my breakfast that morning. And there was no water either. One of the body guards told me to go to the water pipe in the garden and drink from it. Which I did! After it was filled into bottles.
Close to 7 pm, they had had enough of us. We were finally asked to leave and we did.
I ended up waiting outside till close to 10 pm, what with the insane lives (many of which didn’t end up happening).
All in all, it is an experience I will never forget. Even if I want to! It all started off as a one-day thing. But it was the longest day ever! With phone battery failing, live cables not reaching, losing the mic, burning hair with crackers, choking because of the smoke – it was adventurous no doubt!
As they say, if you can cover TN elections, any other job in the life of a scribe is a cakewalk. This one day proved it to me!