Christmas Eve and MGR

M. G. Ramachandran, known as MGR, died on Christmas Eve, 1987. He had been an extremely popular filmstar, and then politician; he was Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu when he died. He was elderly and his health had been failing for some time, but his death caused an enormous outpouring of emotion in Tamil Nadu.

I was working at the American Consulate in Chennai at that time. Early in the morning on Christmas Eve, the Consul General (CG) called me and said that he had heard that MGR had died. He said that I should try to get in to the office as soon as possible, because we were afraid that there might be some kind of unrest in the city.

I was able to drive in from my house in Rutland Gate because it was still early. Later, as more people heard the news, people in cars were driven back; cyclists were forced to get down and walk, as a sign of ‘respect.’ As it happened, I had the Consulate building almost to myself. A few people had come walking, or had arrived very early; the rest stayed home.

My office was on a level with the Gemini flyover – at the time the only flyover (overpass) in Chennai, and a central route to Rajaji Hall, where MGR’s body was taken to lie in state. As the day progressed, more and more people began crossing the flyover on foot, walking downtown. Soon they were a solid mass; people were coming in to Chennai from outlying towns and villages, to see MGR. I spent much of the day taking phone calls and just staring at the people streaming by. Some of them were crying, no doubt, but as the crowd grew and grew there was and air of excitement, as though they felt their own strength, and wondered what would happen next.

Every once in awhile, someone would stop and throw a stone at the Consulate. One hit one of my office windows, and left a spider web of cracks in the bullet-proof glass. In the afternoon, someone jumped over the wall – which had just been raised in a security upgrade, though it had not yet become the fortress that it is today – and smashed the glass on each side of the Consulate’s main door. Then he ran back and over the wall and was gone. There was some looting of shops – I could see from my window a petrol bunk being broken into, and people making off with cans of engine oil and such; some cars, I heard later, were damaged; there was violence throughout the state, and many people committed suicide; but what I saw was just the huge, unimaginable mass of people, all headed in one direction.

On the day of MGR’s funeral, I drove out with a black dupatta tied to my windshield wiper as a sign of mourning, and picked up a large floral wreath. I was nervous about it, but no one stopped me. I went to the CG’s house, where a police escort was supposed to take us to Rajaji Hall. No one turned up, however, so we decided to go alone. We put the wreath prominently in the front seat beside the driver, and set off on our own down the beach road. The road was completely jammed. The size of the crowd was unimaginable – hundreds of thousands of people. The driver had to inch along. People peered in, saw us foreigners and the wreath, and parted to let us pass. None of us spoke a word – it was like driving through a tunnel made of living human beings, of whose intentions we were unsure.

Eventually we reached the place, later than we had intended, because of the non-existent police escort. By this time MGR’s body had already been removed and placed on a gun-carriage (I think that’s what it was), where he would be taken in procession through the streets, before being buried in a hastily constructed tomb on the beach. We carried the wreath to the carriage, handed it up to someone who placed it on MGR’s body, and stepped back. Then we drove back through those thousands of people; I went home and watched the rest of it on television.

If you have seen Mani Ratnam’s film Iruvar, which tells a story based in part on MGR’s life, there is a scene at the end, where the main character’s body is taken on a carriage through huge crowds. That scene looked very real: it brought the day back to me. It was an unforgettable experience.

11 Comments so far

  1. suppamani (unregistered) on December 24th, 2006 @ 10:12 am

    I can see even today the sad scenes of that day; that day in Tinneveli Express my sister and nephew came which was stopped at the Pallavaram Station; My sister contacted me by 6 AM from a Public booth; then myself and my cousing started in two scooters and went through sea of men and reached the station by 2PM and again returned home by 6PM in the evening only we can reach back at home by moving inch by with them; It is an incident which nobody can forget in their whole life.

  2. Parthasarathy (unregistered) on December 25th, 2006 @ 12:25 pm

    One aspect of MGRs rule that I am perplexed Tamilians tend to ignore, was the exponential increase in the scale of corruption.

    Though corruption was not unknown before him, during MGRs period, this became institutionalised while rowdyism enjoyed ‘state’ support.

    MGR brought the 20% culture into being, where all his ministers were supposed to surender to him 20% of their loot. While anyone who dared to oppose him were silenced.

    To his credit, however, one thing outshone any other aspect of his life. And that was his genuine love for the poor, unlike other politicians of his time. His heart beat for the poor.

    For me, this alone should absolve him of any of his other sins.


  3. Roop (unregistered) on December 25th, 2006 @ 12:58 pm

    In one simple word MGR is another Don Vito Corleone of India. The Best!!!!

  4. annoynomas (unregistered) on December 25th, 2006 @ 11:07 pm

    I used to visit him in the 60s when he lived
    in Lloyds road, next to V.P.Raman’s home.
    He was a Good Man, Smple Man. Spoke in Tamil with
    a slight accent. Unlike the Dravidian racist politicians of today who care to line their own pockets and their family, he often talked about the
    sufferings of the poor and cared truly for the poor.

    May his sould rest in peace.

  5. annoynomas (unregistered) on December 25th, 2006 @ 11:08 pm

    I used to visit him in the 60s when he lived
    in Lloyds road, next to V.P.Raman’s home.
    He was a Good Man, Simple Man. Spoke in Tamil with
    a slight accent. Unlike the Dravidian racist politicians of today who care to line their own pockets and their family, he often talked about the
    sufferings of the poor and cared truly for the poor.

    May his soul rest in peace.

  6. Nancy (unregistered) on December 26th, 2006 @ 9:54 am

    I met him twice, but by that time he could no longer speak clearly. He had a very expressive face, though, which helped to convey his meaning.

  7. david (unregistered) on December 27th, 2006 @ 10:35 am

    I remember the day quite vividly. We were woken up by the sound of two men smashing the lamps atop the gate posts on either side of our gate. What that had to do with MGR’s death, or how that would make a difference is anyone’s guess. The rest of the day saw mob rule at its worst, when what the papers call ‘lumpen’ elements came to the fore. liquor shops were broken into so that they could fuel their sense of power. There was wide spread vandalism on Mount Road and elsewhere, while we sat at home and watched on TV. It’s sad that some one’s passing away should be associated with such events rather than remembered positively.

  8. Parthasarathy (unregistered) on December 27th, 2006 @ 2:22 pm

    David, for all the hype about the ruckus of two decades ago, Chennai is by and large, still a peaceful city, as compared to many other cities where riots are routine, and non-violent, as there are nt killings directed against any community.

  9. Nancy (unregistered) on December 27th, 2006 @ 6:08 pm

    Nobody would deny that Chennai is a peaceful city; but that period was a violent one. I fear that something similar may happen when Karunanadhi dies – it sometimes seem to be almost a point of honour among the ‘political workers’ to behave in extreme ways, rather than trying to keep the populace calm. It could have been a lot worse, of course — but one hopes that that kind of out-of-control atmosphere will not be repeated.

  10. kumar (unregistered) on December 27th, 2006 @ 6:55 pm

    Then there was the incident where someone broke/damaged KArunanidhi’s statue on mt.Road and mayhem followed; rumours followed that he was eventually killed!
    Karunanidhi sulked and his statue was not fixed for a long while;
    Another disgusting comment from Rajiv about sikh killings following indira gandhis’ assn was ” when a great tree falls …”.

    I would hate to venture out when KArunanidhi dies !
    – kumar

  11. Parthasarathy (unregistered) on December 27th, 2006 @ 11:32 pm

    It is perplexing that political leaders in Tamil Nadu are admired to the extent that citizens go around damaging public property when they die.

    That too inspite of these very leaders looting this very public when they were alive!

    Maybe Jayalalithas or Karunanidhis will witness the same upheaval.

    Thankfully though, these events occur with a gap of about 2 decades. Thank God for the small mercies!

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