Aruppukottai: Septuagenarian Yesudasan polishes off the plate of ‘pazhaya satham’ (leftover rice) mixed with curd in a bit of a hurry. He has to leave home before the sun turns too harsh. As he wipes the mouth with a white towel having a black-white-red border to step out, he turns to a portrait of MGR reverentially to offer a silent prayer.
“It was only after MGR became Chief Minister, I ate rice. He is my God,” says the 73-year-old rushing to join his comrades, waiting to start the day’s campaign for AIADMK candidate for Tiruchuli constituency, K. Dinesh Babu, at the corner of Perkins Streets in Aruppukottai where an MGR statue now stands.
In 1977, MGR, as leader of the newly-formed AIADMK, chose Aruppukottai constituency to enter the Assembly. The people who elected him then still regard him as a demigod, who changed their life by ensuring they ate a meal of rice and curry everyday and also helped them own an extra set of cloth to change. Near the MGR statue, Yesudasan, is joined by around 25 old-timers.
“MGR is not dead, he still lives as god in people’s heart in Aruppukottai and adjacent villages,” said Rajakani, (65), whose life and personality were shaped by MGR films. Rajakani and a whole lot of people of his age-group in Aruppukottai town had sacrificed their school education to watch MGR films.With cinema as the only medium of entertainment in 1960s, rural people who watched his films believed that MGR was the perfect hero in real life similar to the roles he played with great care in movies.
When DMK expelled him from the party in 1972, MGR seems to have lived up to the expectation of people in real life. “Tamil Nadu was hit by the great famine then. We all were subsisting on tapioca,” said Sundaresan. If people did not get anything to eat, they slept on empty stomach.
When MGR learned that the composite Ramanathapuram district, which comprised the present Ramanathapuram, Sivaganga and Virudhunagar districts, was worst hit by the famine, he sent his brother M.G. Chakrapani to open “gruel centres (kanji thotti) in villages to feed the people,” recollected his close aide and former MLA V.S. Panchavarnam (77) from Aruppukottai. When people were absolutely terrified over their future, MGR decided to contest from the then Aruppukottai constituency and it was a dream come true for the people.
And for MGR, who spent most of his life in tinsel town, people in Aruppukottai constituency taught him real life lessons. “When MGR was campaigning in the interior villages, he was intrigued to see women drying their sarees by tying a portion of it to a tree and men drying their dhoti holding it over the head and walking in their undergarment,” recalled Panchavarnam. So Panchavarnam informed him that people had only one set of cloth to wear. Similarly at night, MGR encountered the hard reality of people living completely in dark as they waited with chimney lamps. MGR also learned about police harassing poor people by slapping a fine for riding ‘doubles’ or without headlight in cycles.
A government servant, who was riding a bicycle with his wife, was so frightened by the sight of police, accompanying MGR’s convoy, that he tried to veer away, resulting in the fall of the couple near Kariapatti one night. When MGR noticed that, he asked his followers to help the couple, Panchavarnam recalled, adding: “Puratchi Thalaivar asked us to explain all these problems but never passed any comment or gave any promises’.
But after the election, MGR surprised all his followers through his policies for people’s welfare. “Immediately after he became Chief Minister, he announced free dhotis and sarees, electricity to rural people; and one-rupee rice scheme,” said Sankaramurthy (60) a retired government staff of Aruppukottai adding he also relaxed rules imposed by police on bicycle riders.
Some 25 km away from Aruppukottai, 62-year-old Sethamma remembers MGR launching his campaign from Aviyoor village. There was a slight drizzle when MGR arrived at the village seeking their votes and he saw that as a good omen. She was grateful that she and other women in the villages were able to possess a change of cloth only because of MGR’s free saree scheme.
People in Aviyoor have a special liking for MGR because he named many children when he visited the village for the campaign. “Whenever I go for family functions, I proudly tell them my husband was named as Madhavan by MGR,” Parameshwari said, laughing. Launching the campaign, MGR told the crowd that he had chosen the very spot that Muthuramalingam Thevar kicked started his campaign when he contested the MP election and urged them to send him to the Assembly too, recalled Krishnan, a 72-year-old man from the village.
Now, all candidates contesting from Tiruchuli constituency, launch their election campaign from Aviyoor. MGR’s choice of the village, after Muthuramalinga Thevar, as launch pad, however, made it an AIADMK stronghold as party gets majority votes in all elections since 1977 from here. Moreover, most houses in the village have the two-leaves symbols painted on their walls now.
In 1977, after MGR became the Chief Minister, he appointed Panchavarnam as in-charge for the then Aruppukottai constituency to address people’s grievances.
“Once in a month, he will call me to the Secretariat and personally listen to me and also suggest ways to solve people’s problems. Aruppukottai, thus, got schools, proper roads,” Panchavarnam said adding MGR gave his entire MLA salary of `1,200 to him. MGR also visited the constituency after becoming the Chief Minister. He even celebrated Deepavali with the people once.
MGR earned the appreciation and was praised for his humanitarian and leadership qualities by none other than that man who contested the 1977 election in Aruppukottai against him. S.M. Bose, who is now 69, had accepted the challenge when many senior DMK leaders refused to contest against MGR. “I agreed for the challenge despite being his fan. Many people threw stones and refused to allow me to enter their villages when I went for campaign,” recalled Bose, who recently joined AIADMK....