"You are the same old mischievous boy Viji who used to pull my pigtails," she said breaking into a smile and asking an aide to get him a chair and coffee.
The passing away of Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa has left Vijay Rao in Bengaluru nostalgic – remembering the cute but conservative girl who spent her childhood in the city before moving to Chennai.
Vijay Rao, three years younger to Jayalalithaa, remembers the girl who stood out among the crowd at Tata Silk farm in the early fifties.
Jayalalithaa or Ammu, as they used to call her at home, stayed with her mother, Sandhya, aunt, Vidya, and her grandparents while studying at the Bishop Cotton Girls’ School in Bengaluru in her pre-teen years.
Rao recalls that she was a privileged little girl who used to go to school in a tonga or a horse cart.
We were a gang of kids who played around the empty Tata Silk Farm ground in south Bengaluru with the favourite games being hop-scotch, racing each other and watching senior students play kabaddi.
Even back then, Ammu displayed singular focus on what she wanted to achieve, something that went on to become one of her well-known traits as a politician. She used to learn Bharatanatyam from a Lalithambal, who lived nearby. “She never used to miss dance classes. I found her very focussed those days itself,” says Rao.
Another neighbour, Rukmini CK, says her mother reminded her that the plump little girl in their neighbourhood who was known for extra-curricular activities, later on became a film star, and then a politician. “I really don’t recall her vividly as cameras were scarce those days and I have no pictures taken with her though I too attended the same dance classes,” says Rukmini.
Rao followed the silver screen debut of his childhood friend and her cinema career, as Tamil movies were regularly released in Bengaluru theatres.
The family used to live in south Bangaluru till 1959-60. “Master Hirannayya, a theatre artiste, had just moved to that area from Mysore. Her mother, Sandhya, was also a theatre artiste. Slowly, a large group of actors, including Dr Rajkumar, formed, and many of them moved to Chennai for better prospects,” he says.
Much later, in 1994, Rao visited Poes Garden, which housed Jayalalitha’s residence, as he had met one of her personal officers and had told him about playing with `madam’ as children (She was called ‘madam’ before the name Amma stuck and brand Amma became a household name.)
“I reached at 8.30 in the morning but the commandos who were guarding the house did not allow me inside. Fortunately, that officer came in a car and saw me standing outside. He pulled me inside his car and drove onto Poes Garden.”
Inside, Rao recalled Jayalalithaa sitting on the only chair in the huge hall filled with the then State Chief Secretary Venkatraman, elected MLAs and MPs and many officials.
“One by one she disposed of them all and I suddenly realised I was the last visitor standing in the room. 'Yes,’ she said rather tersely, and the officer I was with whispered in her ear that I knew her `from Bangalore days’.”
Rao recalled speaking in a quivering voice and running her through the memories. All the time Jayalalithaa listened impassionately while Rao stammered through his nearly 10-minute recall standing.
Suddenly, she smiled and said: You are the same old mischievous boy, Viji, who used to pull my pigtails.” Before he could say yes, she asked an attendant to bring a chair and coffee for `the guest from Bangalore’.
“I spoke to her about the fact that she used to come to play near Garadi Apartments and her aunt, Vidya. In the midst of the conversation, she recalled my grandmother, Kaveriamma’s, name. It was a very good conversation I recall very clearly even now. She asked me what I do and when I said I was a journalist with a news agency, she said `oh’ and left it at that.”
Her parting shot was: “Whenever you want to see me, fax me. I will confirm and you come,” she offered.
But, Rao did not meet her again. “I have green memories. She was a very cute girl with two pigtails.”