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Amma

Before all of this, before they prostrated at her feet, before she wore large, round, dark red bottus with light red namams on her forehead, she was one of us. Before she became Chief Minister, before she became a star, she was our classmate at Sacred Heart Girls Matriculation School in Church Park. ‘We knew her before it all started,’ we still like to say. She was Jaya.

We know the stories. One artist used five litres of his own blood, frozen, to make a life-size sculpture of her head. A police superintendent cut his fingertips off and delivered them to the Ganesh temple, praying, ‘May my sacrifice result in her re-election.’ A martial arts teacher asked his students to drive nails through his hands and feet, made a speech in praise of her, and fainted. When she saw the video, she wrote the teacher a handwritten letter. ‘Please never do that again.’ He touched the letter to his cheek and framed it.

She appeals to the fisherman, the rickshaw driver, the bricklayer. Her devotees are of all types: children, women, men. So many men. They consider her beyond human, a shimmering goddess, their heroine, indestructible.

We know who she became. She was the greatest actress of her time, mistress to the biggest Kollywood star of our era, the heroine of twenty-eight of his movies. When her beloved quit films and became the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, she, not his wife, was his escort to every convention, every gala, every state dinner. He died. She ran for office. She won. Actress, mistress, politician, and Amma to an entire state for nearly as long as we had our children in our homes. But we knew her when we were children ourselves.

Sacred Heart Girls Matriculation School was a pleasant place back then. Sacred Heart was the type of school that fostered equity, beginning with the admissions process. The fees were fair enough, attracting girls from all kinds of families. The nuns who ran the school, wearing pleated white robes and perpetual frowns, were strict but kind, and this pleased our parents. There was a heavy homework load – we read As You Like It and memorized Yeats, solved algebra equations, and learned physics – and assignments were carefully graded; test scores at the school were good, and college admissions all but guaranteed.

It wasn’t all about studying. During our free period we rolled up the sleeves of our uniform shirts and played badminton, and shrieked when our bats missed the shuttlecock. We snickered about our physical education teacher, Prem Sir, who wore sweatpants in spite of the scorching Madras sun, and said, ‘Hands on hips, now side to side,’ as he swayed his body back and forth.

Of course, we were at that age when things were beginning to happen – like when Shalini Iyer got tangled up with DaCosta. Shalini was in Standard X at Sacred Heart, and DaCosta went to the boys’ school down the street. He was an Anglo-Indian with a sharp nose and long, thick eyelashes. Every morning, we watched him cycle by our school, trying to catch a trying to catch a glimpse of Shalini. At lunchtime, she would sneak out to meet him.

Most of us in Standard VI watched this with fascination, but did not have romantic interests of our own quite yet. Two of us, many years later, would pursue love marriages, but at that stage we were in pre-pubescence and had little contact with boys who were not our brothers. The first time Shalini was caught, she was sentenced to lunch in the office for a whole month. When she was caught again, she was expelled. It so happened that Jaya arrived that same day that Shalini was expelled from Sacred Heart. It was a Wednesday in mid-November, just after the start of the Madras Music Festival. A memorable day.

Jaya – the new girl, then – had wide, coffee-coloured eyes. Her school uniform didn’t fit properly, not for lack of quality tailoring, but because she had that sort of body, one with flab and fat that pushed against seams and defied buttons and belts.

Our parents spoke in whispers about Jaya’s family, and the curious among us collected the gossip: Her father died when she was in nursery school, and left all of his money to his second wife. Her mother was a single woman raising a child, an actress by profession. Not a heroine, but a character actress. In every movie, she played the vixen, a villainous creature that lured the hero away from the leading lady.

Actress.

It had all sorts of connotations.

Jaya’s mother worked constantly, and the films paid something, so they had money. Not as much as Srimathi’s parents, who owned a jewellery store, but enough. Still our parents held her in low regard – She had even shown her bare thigh in a film, they said in disgust. During her rare school appearances, there was not a parent or nun or teacher who did not look at Jaya’s mother. They stared openly at her long, cream-colored neck, at her eyes lined with liquid black.

The biggest difference we noticed between Jaya and every other girl in our school, rich or not so rich, was that her family never came to school. When her mother came to our Annual Day celebration, Jaya walked onto the school grounds proudly holding her hand. Backstage, she kept saying how happy she was that her mother had the evening off. But then, halfway through the show, her mother left for a shoot and missed our class skit entirely.

Mostly, Jaya was ferried to and fro by household staff. A driver named Rama dropped her off and picked her up, and a teenage servant girl named Rosie delivered a stainless steel tiffin box every day at noon.

As children, we had none of the preconceived notions that our parents had. We were with Jaya every day, in our classrooms with cold concrete floors and on our sandy playground. We shared our slates with her, and our chalk. We included her in our games. Children are like that. They take care of each other. But children can also be cruel.

Moosarundai Moorthy.

Rotund junk food eater.

Madhavi started calling her that behind her back. ‘All in fun,’ she said. But it stuck. Soon we were all saying it. In truth, Jaya was overfed, not greedy. There is a difference. Every day at lunchtime, the rest of us raced to our tiffin carriers and stuffed whatever our mothers had packed into our mouths. Jaya was not like that. Most of our tiffin carriers had two containers. Hers had four, and she did not begin eating until she carefully took each one out, and spread them before her at the lunch table. She never left a morsel uneaten.

Our teacher that year was Chama Miss. She was neither our favourite teacher at Sacred Heart, nor the most exemplary, but she was the teacher who had the chocolates. Chama Miss was a graduate of Sacred Heart herself. To teach at the same school you attended was considered a failure by us back then, a sign that you were incapable of moving on. She wore block print saris in morose shades of brown and grey, making her rail thin figure look even less feminine than it was. Her curly hair refused to stay in a neat braid, and strands were always bursting free. Often, we caught her quietly eating tiny bars of Dairy Milk when she thought no one was looking, sometimes early in the day, before the morning bell even rang. Rumour had it that her brother was a cacao researcher for Cadbury, at their Kerala R&D plant. Among ourselves, we called her ‘Chocolate Miss,’ a reference to both her tastes and her complexion.

Chama Miss loved Jaya. When called on in class, Jaya never stumbled on her words like the rest of us. Rather, she wrote down what she wanted to say and then spoke slowly and clearly. Even when her answer was incorrect, Chama Miss was impressed. ‘Very good, Jaya. Were you all watching?’ she would say in her high, girlish voice. ‘Think. Wait. Speak.’

One day, Jaya approached us to show off her new marbles during recess. Srimathi, busy gossiping with another girl did not see her and said, ‘Moosarondai Moorthy. Did you see the size of her lunch today?’

The rest of us froze. Srimathi turned to see Jaya walking away, her marbles heavy and visible in her skirt pocket.

Madhavi shouted. ‘Ey, Jaya. Take it as a joke.’

‘Yes,’ we said. ‘We were only joking.’

Madhavi’s twin, Latha, ran after Jaya, but it was too late. She had run into the girls’ bathroom and shut the door behind her. She stopped speaking to us. Chama Miss sat with Jaya every day at lunch after that, and glared at us if we went their way.

We thought we had lost our strange new friend. But a week or so later, things were back to normal. She played and ate lunch with us. We too pretended like nothing had happened.

As she began her acting career, the rest of us were college students, still living with our parents. Eight of us went to Women’s Christian College, and we met for lunch daily under a white silk cotton tree, each of us sitting on one of its thick, exposed roots. It was impossible not to talk about her.

She had graduated first in our class, and was offered a full scholarship to Stella Maris; not one of us received anything close to such an opportunity. But she took a movie offer instead, and did not even attend convocation. She was slender at the waist by then, with luscious hips, the baby fat completely rearranged. She had pimples, but make-up fixed that. As the class of 1966 walked nervously across the stage to collect our diplomas, her image was already on billboards, kilometres of her midriff visible, her lips half-open, her eyes in a sidelong glance towards all the pedestrians of Madras.

Posters of her films were plastered on walls and on wooden signposts. We tuned into Radio Ceylon on our crackly transistor radios in the evenings, so we could listen to her songs as we helped our mothers prepare dinner. We watched her films with our parents, with our friends, whenever we could spare the three rupees.

She was always on Page 3, pictured with her thick, black hair in a long braid, clad in a rose-coloured Mysore silk sari that sold out at Nalli the week after, wearing gold studs with red gem centres that had been imitated by street peddlers within days. Srimathi bought a pair of those imitation earrings. One day at lunch, she pulled them out of her purse to show us. We were surprised, as it was the first we knew of her desire to be like Jaya. She tilted the blue box towards us and we saw the glint of the artificial red gems. She passed the box around but forbid us from touching the earrings. ‘Price?’ we asked. ‘One-hundred rupees,’ she said. We gasped. ‘Tacky design, if you ask me,’ Madhavi said, when it was her turn to look. ‘No, they are lovely,’ Latha insisted, always the sunshine to her twin sister’s spite.

When you know someone like Jaya – know her from back then, when she was pudgy, and wore a uniform, and two plaits tied with white ribbons, just like you – seeing her on the big screen is different for you than it is for anyone else. You imagine that you are her, and that she is you. You know her. You look at her bangs, the curls on her forehead. You watch how she slides her bare arm across the spine of a grand piano while her co-star plays with quick-moving fingers. You watch the way she blinks, slowly. The way she dances under a waterfall and gets drenched. How her nipples protrude through her blouse. You wonder how it is that her hair gets wet, but her makeup stays intact. You watch her lover put his hand on the wet, bare skin of her waist, just above where her sari’s inskirt is tied.

When you get home from the theatre, you snip your hair, try to curl it with your pencil. Then you slide your arm across the windowsill. Your father walks by, gives you a peculiar look and says, ‘God help you.’ He sees the college textbook you have open, its pages unmarked and unread. ‘I hope you pass biology.’

Before you take off your clothes to bathe, you take a mugful of cold water, pour it over yourself and then look down at your body, at your own erect nipples protruding through your sari blouse. Then you add hot water into the bucket so you can take a bath. Only then do you take your clothes off, wring the water out of them. You put your own hand on your own bare skin, right where it curves inward, just above the hip joint. You imagine you are her. You do this and you are young, like Jaya. You do not know that you will do this again much later, when you are old and she is in jail, when your waist is no longer as firm and small and arched as it once was.

We were married off, every one of us, by the age of twenty-three, college degrees secured or not. Almost all of us had children. Radha was unable to conceive; we had our doubts about her husband from the moment we saw him at the wedding. Hema, who loved children, had miscarriage after miscarriage and then went crazy and stopped speaking to us. Eventually she stopped speaking altogether.

We did not gather in those days. There was no time. No time, even, to write or post letters. But we watched her films. Oh, we watched her films. She played us in her films. A woman with a philandering husband, a housewife with children, a housewife without children, a mentally unstable woman, a philandering woman. Other times, she played people we could only imagine: an island princess, an undercover CBI agent.

She lived in a bungalow called Poes Garden, not too far from Sacred Heart. It was a boxy, modern, mystery of a house, with a garden full of green grass, soft and lush, as if she lived in England or America. We ran our fingers through bags of long grain rice, through steel drums filled with dry pigeon peas, and imagined that the sensation of walking barefoot through that grass was something similar, a cool tickle that travelled upwards through the body. We imagined her dressed in shimmery salwars and sheer saris, sipping on frothy drinks with her co-star and lover. Hema, our poor, silent, childless Hema, saw Jaya once at Jafar’s on Mount Road, eating peach Melba with her lover. Hema broke her silence for a moment to call Srimathi. ‘She touched my shoulder,’ Hema said.

We needed to see Jaya that way, glamorous and desirable, and still human. We were in that stage of life and motherhood that is filled with fatigue, unimaginable to the young, forgotten by the old, unknown altogether to those without children. We spent our days washing tiny bottoms, wiping hot, fresh vomit off the floors, pulling wooden combs through knotty hair. Picking lice. Unclogging nostrils. We screamed often. ‘Brush your teeth! Take a bath! Pack your books!’

We poured idli and dosa batter with urgency, desperate to feed our children before we pushed them out the door. We filled water bottles and tied shoelaces. Two o’clock came too soon, and then we had to prepare snacks, and keep milk ready, and make fresh tiffin for the evening. Some of us had help. Some of us had more of it than others. Madhavi married rich. She was the better-looking twin. She had a housekeeper and a cook, but even that was so much work, she said. ‘Management is a full-time job,’ she liked to say.

At night, when our aching backs searched for comfortable positions on our stiff, cotton-stuffed mattresses, we imagined that Jaya’s bedroom was like a suite in a grand Taj hotel. We uttered these thoughts to our husbands in the dead of the night, our sleeping children sandwiched in our bed.

‘Someone must massage her feet with fragrant lotion.’

‘Her tea appears at her bedside.’

‘She has no children who tug on her sari.’

Our husbands, tired and groggy from their long days at work, did not entertain our fantasies, though perhaps they had their own.

‘Sounds nice,’ they said, before turning their bodies away, leaving us wide-eyed and staring at the ceiling.

‘The loneliness must kill her,’ we whispered to ourselves, as the ceiling fans above us swung around and around. With each turn of the fan, we saw her smiling face. Her scheming wink. A mad woman, a secretary, a village belle.

It takes a decade, or maybe two, but eventually, you no longer wish to be her. You no longer want her to be you. You are happy being yourself, or resigned, or too afraid to be anyone but yourself. When you see her on the billboards, or on the television that you now own, you feel sorry for her. You have a daughter and a husband. Or you are a widow, but at least you have a son. Perhaps your husband has a mistress, but at least he spends half his time with you. Or you have no children, and you cannot speak, but you have a small home, and you love the man who lives in it, and he loves you.

Her lover is dead. He never once publicly acknowledged their relationship. At his funeral, when his body was being carried through the streets, she walked alongside his head, a clear insult to his wife, who was at his feet. His nephew told Jaya to move. When she did not, he pushed her, and she fell. We saw it all on live television. Her real life, a tragic film of its own.

She was a star, but she had no idea what it was like to have a sleeping baby’s hand grip her finger for hours at a time. She did not know the feeling of opening the door each afternoon to beautiful children holding brown cloth book bags, their stray hairs sweaty and sticky against their foreheads.

The year that Jaya turned forty – we all turned forty – she became Chief Minister, and had to morph her image from coy actress to shrewd politician. From a pretty woman every man wanted, to a powerful woman they respected. ‘Call me sister,’ she said, in interviews.

She started to wear heavy, green, silk saris and her trademark red bottu. No more embroidered chiffon. No more sheer Georgette. She was often photographed with her palms together in a vannakam, or with her right-hand index and middle fingers raised high above her to indicate two leaves on a stem, the emblem of her party. When we made fun of Srimathi for hanging a picture of Jaya on her wall, as if Jaya was part of her family, she was defensive.

‘She is in charge of our entire state, after all.’

Once again, Jaya’s image was all over Tamil Nadu. On billboards, and across the sides of buildings. But now, when full-bladdered men saw her face in front of theirs, they pulled their pant zips back up and hurried to a different wall.

Jaya travelled around the state in a black Ambassador. A caravan of identical Ambassadors drove ahead of and behind her, so that ill-wishers were kept guessing. When traffic was blocked in Madras, our children peered out of our cars, or the rickshaw, or the city bus, and said, ‘Must be because of Aunty.’ They called her Aunty because we told them to. From the time they were babies, we had pointed her image out to them. That’s our friend, we said. There’s Aunty, we said. Never mind that none of our children had ever seen her in person. Since our school days, nor had we.

Yes, we turned forty as Jaya did. We were her classmates after all, aging at the same pace. We were not famous or powerful, but with our children in high school, our time began to free up. We started our monthly teas, always in Srimathi’s flat in Annanagar because it was centrally located. Her drawing room had enough seating for us all, and she did not mind preparing a few snacks.

It was our only true break and we relished it. We no longer had nappies to deal with, or tantrums of the fist-pounding sort, there was less vomit, but still, life was no vacation. Our work was constant. And yet, when we met for tea, we spoke proudly of our beautiful children, laughed about our silly husbands, and bragged about the details of our quiet but fulfilling lives. And of course, we spoke of Jaya.

Srimathi owned the original records from all of Jaya’s films, and while we played them on her Jensen turntable, one after another, we fretted.

‘Poor girl,’ we said, as we looked at Jaya’s photo, which hung above Srimathi’s television set. ‘What is a life without a family?

‘She must not know what to do with her time in the evenings,’ Srimathi said.

‘She is Chief Minister. She must have many duties,’ Latha said. She lived in Bangalore but she visited Madras sometimes, and joined our teas when she could.

‘She has professional duties, not personal ones. There is a distinction,’ Madhavi said, sharp-tongued as ever.

‘And the weight she is putting on these days.’

‘Predisposed, poor thing. Don’t you remember?’

She was a plump child. We all remembered.

Once we started our Sunday afternoon teas, we continued them with regularity, and relied on them as everything changed around us: Our children grew up, took jobs, married and became young mothers and fathers themselves. During her second term as Chief Minister, Jaya further recast herself, elevating herself to the highest pedestal. ‘Call me Amma,’ she said. Mother. As if to say, ‘You are all my children.’

‘She is really acting in her own movie now,’ Madhavi said.

We read her dramas in the papers. Her brother and his family lived with her for a time, but she alienated them with her eccentric behaviour, at one point adopting a grown man as a son. Rumour was, she decorated a room full of soft toys for this man, as if he were a small boy. Disgusted, her brother and his family left. Eventually, Jaya told the adopted son to leave. We gawked at the picture of him walking out of Poes Garden, his head hanging in shame, his arms full of stuffed bears and bunnies.

‘She can’t seem to keep a friend,’ we said. ‘Does she like being alone?’

‘How is it,’ Latha asked, ‘that in a man’s world, she alone knows how to control men? How does she make them stop and listen?’

After two successful terms, Jaya lost an election. Her rival was her lover’s one-time friend, then enemy, a man who was also from the film industry, a screenwriter. After this bitter loss, she isolated herself completely. Every evening, she retreated into Poes Garden. The windows were always shut. She lost contact with her family. She made a secret trip to America to insert a gastric sleeve, and an unauthorized photo of her on the operating table appeared in a gossip rag.

‘Poor Jaya,’ we said. ‘If only she had stayed in touch. We could help her.’

But when she turned fifty, a surprise: The papers reported that Hema, our childless, silent Hema, and Hema’s husband had moved into Poes Garden to take care of Jaya.

‘They are my dearest friends, and my managers,’ Jaya told the press. By this time, she had a thick, well-built double chin that moved up and down when she spoke. ‘Without them, nothing would get done.’

We had no idea that Hema had been talking to Jaya through the years. We had no idea Hema was talking at all. ‘How did it start,’ we wanted to ask Hema, and more importantly, ‘Is there any of the girl we knew left?’ But we had no way of reaching Hema at Poes Garden.

Then Jaya kicked Hema’s husband out. Immediately, rumours began circulating. There was an article about Jaya and Hema in Starfare. A grainy image of two women with linked hands, cheeks pressed to one another. Childhood friends a little too close, the caption read. But after that, she told Hema to get out too.

‘She cannot seem to keep a friend,’ we said, once again.

When she ran for re-election once more, her supporters did everything they could to help. In Kanchipuram, 2001 men broke coconuts over their heads for Amma. In Tiruppur, 3050 of her followers marched along the Noyyal River with urns of milk on their heads. In Madurai, 634 women lit oil lamps. The numbers were all exact, numbers her astrologer said were auspicious for her.

To buy the votes of the poor, her party created a welfare program, and distributed goods branded with her name and image to millions. Amma salt, Amma sugar, Amma pencil boxes, Amma food processors. Amma subsidized laptops. Free underwear. Free undershirts. Free sanitary napkins.

She won.

Now the papers were full of praise for her work as Chief Minister. Midday meals for the poor at Amma canteens, Amma medical clinics. Our humble Mother. Our Amma. Voice of the party. Saviour of the Ordinary Tamilian. Once a heroine, now a superwoman. She started wearing a shawl around her shoulders, a cape over her green silk saris. The shawls were always green. Always silk. Always heavy. Under the saris, some said, she wore a bulletproof vest.

The time between childhood and old age passes quickly, leaving you feeling like your entire life is a double feature with no intermission. You wake up one day, look in the mirror and wonder who you are, and where everyone is. Your body does not feel old, not yet. But your hair is half-grey. Maybe you dye it. Maybe you let it be. Either way, it is thin now. Your children have left. Your husband is dead. Or, your husband is alive but when you pretend to look away, you no longer catch him admiring you. He is always irritable. He never wants to go on holiday. You meet your friends for tea, and when you do, you see how old they look and finally admit that you too must look like them. They do not empathize with your worries, because they have worse problems, darker secrets (a drinking habit, a husband with a drinking habit, an unfaithful husband, a husband who does not like women, an abusive mother-in-law, an estranged child). ‘You will get through it,’ they say, half-heartedly.

You go home and look in the mirror again. Now you feel it, the oldness of you.

Chama Miss showed us the chocolate in the morning, dozens of bars the size of our heads. It was the last day of school before the Diwali holidays during our Standard VI year, so she brought bars of Cadbury’s for all twenty-six of us. Perhaps her brother, the cacao researcher, had given them to her, we whispered as we eyed the treats. Then Chama Miss put the chocolate bars away, saying she would distribute them at the end of the day.

‘We have work to do,’ she said. She tucked the pallu of her sari in at her hip and clapped her hands. ‘Time for civics. Bring out your books.’

She turned to the board and wrote Ambedkar.

‘Who was he?’ she asked, turning back around to face us.

‘Founding father, Miss,’ Jaya said.

‘Does anyone know what Ambedkar believed in?’

‘Liberty, equality, fraternity,’ Madhavi said. Then she snickered.

The rest of us were fixated on Chama Miss’s bag, where she had stashed the bars of chocolates. We thought of how the sugary blocks would melt in our mouths, leaving us with nuts and fruits to bite and chew. Wouldn’t the bars melt before lunchtime? Why wasn’t she handing them out now?

None of us can say who was responsible for what happened next.

At recess, we found ourselves in the alley towards the back of the school, where the restrooms were. This was the sandy strip that all the teachers avoided because of the toilet smell. Twenty-six of us stood there, with twenty-six bars of chocolate. We ate them ferociously. Jaya too. The chocolate had indeed melted, so we licked the foil clean. We chewed the fruits and bit the nuts. Then we gathered all the wrappers into a large pile. We wiped the gooey remnants off our faces with handkerchiefs. There were five minutes to spare before class started, and we had to act quickly.

‘Jaya, will you hide the wrappers in the empty storage room next to the science laboratory?’ we asked. ‘Go now.’

‘Why me?’

‘We need your help. Chama Miss likes you. She will not mind if you walk into class late.’

Jaya stood up, gathered the wrappers, and walked towards the storage room.

We were all in our seats when the bell rang. All but one.

At first, Chama Miss did not notice. But when she asked us for the answers to our math sums, she paused. Usually, Jaya raised her hand.

‘Where is she?’ Chama Miss asked, panic rising in her voice.

‘She went home at lunch,’ we said.

‘She was not sick this morning.’

‘She was sick at lunch.’

We moved on to other lessons. At the end of the day, Chama Miss searched her bag for the missing chocolates.

‘Where are they?’ she asked the class. ‘I want to distribute them.’

No one answered.

‘Where are the chocolates?’ she said again, louder this time. She hit her wooden pointer against her desk. Her gaze shifted from student to student.

‘She ate them.’

‘Who?’

‘Jaya.’

‘All of them? All twenty-six of them?’

‘All of them.’

‘Each of you,’ Chama Miss said. ‘Will be going home with notes. Unless you tell me what happened.’

‘We saw her go towards the storeroom,’ Latha, the sweet twin, said quietly. Then she burst into tears.

Chama Miss walked briskly to the storeroom, all of us in tow. It was locked with a padlock from the outside. She used her key to open it, and found Jaya lying in the centre of the room on the floor, curled in a ball, chocolate streaked across her face. She was silent, and her eyes were puffy. A single purple wrapper, its aluminium backside twinkling from the sunlight that shone through the open door, was by her feet. The rest of the pile, a mound of twenty-five wrappers, was a bit further away.

‘Who locked her in this room?’ Chama Miss demanded.

‘Not me.’

‘Not me.’

‘Not me.’

‘Did you eat the chocolates?’ she asked Jaya.

‘Miss. I ate them,’ she said. Her voice was raspy, perhaps from crying, perhaps from shouting for help. ‘Sorry Miss.’

‘All of them?’

‘All of them.’

‘Are you sure?’

‘Yes.’

‘Then I must suspend you.’

We spent a long Diwali holiday thinking about what happened. We were sure that Jaya would hate us. ‘She will never speak to us again,’ we said.

Ten days later, back at school, it was as if the whole incident was forgotten. She answered when we called her to join our games, or to eat lunch with us. She smiled at us. She offered her help with reading and sums when we were struggling. But something was different this time. The eagerness was gone, that enthusiasm she’d had, to jostle us and tell us jokes, to show off her new toys, or giggle with us when Prem Sir shook his hips.

If we did not call her to our side, she sat by herself or with one of the teachers, or with the younger girls. It was not that she seemed lonely, only that she preferred to be alone. Eventually, instead of lunch, she had just two bananas. The pounds slipped off and by Standard XII she became that woman all of Tamil Nadu came to know, the one with incredible proportions.

‘She has a consultant who monitors her diet and workouts,’ our mothers said. ‘They spend a fortune on it. But acting is a family business, so what else can they do? Good thing she ate her fill when she was younger.’

‘She’s the best student among us,’ we told her mothers. But our mothers did not listen. They believed what they wanted to believe.

When the news arrives, you rush back to your friends. Finally, you have something to talk about.

The police took her away in the morning, right from Poes Garden. They found 10,500 saris, 14 exotic birds, 850 pairs of shoes, an entire bedroom set made of silver – a bed frame, a nightstand, and drawers – and 94 pounds of gold hidden in a secret vault, buried under her green grass. Total cash assets that could not be accounted for from her films or her state salary: 700 million rupees.

‘I knew it all along,’ Madhavi says. She shrugs. ‘I just could not say.’ Her husband was the Inspector General of Police.

‘You did not even hint of this to me,’ her sister Latha says, sceptically.

‘I could not,’ Madhavi sniffs. ‘It was top secret.’

You did not know. Not at all. This disturbs you deeply, that you knew Jaya for so long and had no idea what she was capable of.

Messages fly back and forth between you and your friends for weeks on the Sacred Heart WhatsApp group. What would happen to Amma? What would happen to the house? She was put under house arrest while the judge deliberated.

Srimathi finds an old picture in her bureau. Standard VI. 1960. Sacred Heart Girls Matriculation School. Chama Miss is in the photo, rail thin. You are in it. She is in it.

Somehow, the photo ends up on the news. A reporter calls.

‘Can you tell us what she was like? Can you share anything?’

You hold the phone and do not speak.

‘Please, Madam. Anything at all? What did she like to eat?’

You hang up.

The phone rings again. This time it is a police investigator.

‘Madam, we need to speak to you. We are following all leads. Any small thing you can remember?’

‘No,’ you say. ‘It was so long ago. Nothing to do with now.’

‘If you think of anything, please call,’ the investigator says politely, before hanging up.

You hear sirens. Outside of your flat window, you see flashing lights. You look down, and your hands are cuffed. An officer with a thick moustache is looking at you with hatred in his eyes. It was just chocolate, you want to say. But all that comes out is, ‘Can I use the loo before we leave?’ You are going to die, you know it. Then you feel a hand on your arm, shaking you. It is your husband. ‘Wake up,’ he says. ‘You are having a bad dream. Your pillow is soaked with sweat.’

The day that she was acquitted, we watched it on television. Thousands of people stood in front of Poes Garden, where she was under house arrest. They were waiting for her to come out and thank her well-wishers. We knew she would come. We kept the television on for hours. People danced on the streets. Some wore paper masks with her face on it. Srimathi was there. The camera panned across her face. She was wearing those earrings. Amma’s devotees brought garlands of marigold and after dark, they lit sparklers that they circled around in the air. The paramedics came twice. First when an old man collapsed on the streets from exhaustion. Then again, when a woman went into labour and gave birth. It was evening. Then eleven. Then midnight. We kept watching. She never appeared. Word finally came; it was not an auspicious day or time for her to present herself in public. Her astrologer wanted her to wait until morning. But the crowd stayed. Someone set up a speaker system on the streets. They danced all night to her old film songs. We stayed up with them, though we did not dance. At last, at dawn, she emerged wearing a green silk sari. Her green shawl was wrapped around her shoulders. She brought her palms together and bowed. Vannakam. Then the camera zoomed in and we saw it. We saw all of it at once. We were the only ones who could. Amma, the overweight politician, cunning and double-chinned. The famous actress, voluptuous and doe-eyed. And Jaya, the girl who played with marbles and loved chocolates, as any child would.

 

Image © Press Information Bureau of India

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