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When Jaya asked me to meet her

Last updated on: December 07, 2016 15:01 IST

'She leaned forward and asked what I'd want -- and I said, "your blessings".'
'She smiled and replied, "You already have that, but tell me how I can help you".'
Commonwealth gold medalist and Arjuna Awardee Roopa Unnikrishnan recalls how Jayalalithaa took her breath away.

J Jayalalithaa with Roopa Unnikrishnan and her mother 

 

"You don't need to do that," she said with a hint of a laugh in her eyes. I'd just looked rather dubiously at her feet, which all the people around her would bend down to touch.

It was a traditional act of respect for an elder, now seen at key events like when a newly married couple looks to get the blessings of the family's elders.

In the years before I got to meet her, a convention had emerged. You'd see all kinds of political players make the swan dive at the feet of Amma, or J Jayalalithaa the chief minister of Tamil Nadu.

And I have to tell you, every time I saw one of those photographs, my heart sang.

Because the other photo I remembered was one where the very same bunch of deplorables had tried to disrobe her when she had taken up her seat in the state legislative assembly as the Leader of the Opposition.

My meeting with Amma came about as she was looking at the plans for hosting the South Asian Federation Games in Chennai. She bemoaned the fact that Tamil Nadu didn't have a sportsperson of note, beyond the tennis and cricket stars.

Her then advisor and the state chief secretary, Mr N Haribhasker, was an old family friend, and he reminded her about me.

By then, I'd represented India in rifle shooting at World Cups, the Asian Games and the Commonwealth Games.

I had a series of medals, including multiple records and gold and silver medals at previous South Asian Games and Asian Shooting Championships.

I also just been elected to the Rhodes Scholarship at Oxford University.

As soon as she realised I was a Chennai girl, she asked that I visit her. Haribhasker uncle called home, and asked that I be ready for a visit the next day.

My dad, mother and I sat dazed for a second, and then I stepped back and thought of the year of sport-shooting ahead.

I spent days in third class compartments on trains getting to and from shooting camps in New Delhi. I'd drained my father's resources buying supplies for training and competitions, and so I pulled together an annual budget.

So there we were, my dad having dropped me and my mother off at the gates of the secretariat.

Haribhasker uncle ushered us in, past a series of doors and through corridors, till we got to a freezing, simple holding room.

Just as my toes turned to icicles, we were ushered in to her presence. I thought through all the advice I'd received from friends and family overnight. 'You need to do the pranamam (touching her feet)' they'd said.

I'd gulped and wondered if I could get by without it... and that's when she said in her pristine, convent-educated tones. "You don't need to do that" and hugged me.

We sat across each other. I was a little tongue tied, but told her about all the excitement of rifle shooting.

How it's more like yoga than the crazy Annie Oakley movies, but exciting nonetheless.

How it was close to impossible to focus on sport in India -- where the limited supply of jobs, and the stultifying bureacracy all around, and let's admit it, corruption in sports -- made it like swimming through treacle.

She leaned forward and asked what I'd want -- and I said, "your blessings."

She smiled and replied, "You already have that, but tell me how I can help you."

I slid my typed up page to her. "Just help me be better," I remember saying, "and I'll keep making Tamil Nadu proud."

She waved at her secretary --- "Make sure she has funds for a new set of equipment, rifle, ammo and jacket, and make sure she and her mother have air tickets whenever they need to get to a shooting event."

And then she gave me a scroll that declared me the Magalir Magal -- 'Daughter of the People.' I continued to be dazed.

I reflect back every so often to that day. I'm not sure why I wasn't more evocative, or why I didn't ask for a home (many people did things like that).

I think I was just in awe.

In a city, state and country where every day brought all kinds of belittling moments for women, here was a stalwart leader who had stared down her detractors and wrestled power and held it with grace.

Even as accusations abounded, here was strengths made manifest -- I couldn't help but be inspired.

The moment when male leaders tried to disrobe her in the hallowed legislative assembly hall, reminded me of the multiple transgressions as people pinched and prodded you as you got on the public bus, or as you tried to get a run in on the beach.

You were never safe -- but here was a beacon that told you that you could take the power back.

She will be missed sorely.

She will not be easily replaced.

Hers is a complicated legacy that will still be a bright North Star to generations of Indian women.

Commonwealth gold medalist, Arjuna Awardee and Rhodes Scholar, Roopa Unnikrishnan is a strategy and innovation consultant in New York City.

IMAGE: Roopa Unnikrishnan, right, and her mother with J Jayalalithaa.


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Roopa Unnikrishnan
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