It was May 2009 and the Lok Sabha elections were around the corner. The two Dravidian parties, AIADMK and DMK, were being closely monitored by the media. Their support to either the UPA or NDA would be crucial after the polling.
It was also the time when the war in Sri Lanka had reached its last stage. I was then the Chennai Bureau Chief of Times Now. Bureau chief or rookie reporter, for all English TV channel reporters, the work cut out was the same - follow Jayalalithaa and Karunanidhi.
In April 2009, I had got a sit-down interview with Jayalalithaa, in which she said she had not decided on any alliance.
But there was no time to gloat over the interview that was considered a rarity or to be complacent. We were required to follow the leader every day as she travelled from district to district. We were always in pursuit of a new interview, a short sound-bite or a fresh controversy.
One night that May, a few of us went to cover an AIADMK rally in North Chennai.
We waited patiently, standing a few metres away from the stage, hoping that Jayalalithaa would stop her car and answer our questions.
A few minutes before she got off the stage, her khaki-clad security guards tied us together with a rope, like cattle. It was the usual security drive to ensure that no one falls on the leader. After herding us so, it was common practice for the guards to sit down on their haunches around us, to ensure nobody breaks open the rope cordon.
As Jayalalithaa stopped her car to talk to us, we thrust our mikes at her. I was right in front, with two dozen other reporters and camerapersons behind me. Just as I was asking a question, I felt sudden pain in my lower body, so intense that I lost my voice. One of the guards who were sitting down and holding the ropes was molesting me, and it went on for a minute or more.
It was pitch dark and I could not see who it was. My eyes welled with tears, I could not ask any more questions, and I simply waited for the assault to get over. There was no scope for me to yell and draw attention to this because all reporters and cameramen were crushed against each other in an effort to capture Jayalalithaa’s voice into their mics, and we could barely move. But more than anything else, I was just too stunned to even come to terms with what was happening.
Jayalalithaa left and I burst into tears. My friends and colleagues (Priyamvatha and Smitha Sharma) consoled me, as I was hysterical by then. My husband was then on a train to Bengaluru, and I made him get down mid-way and take a taxi back to Chennai.
As I was returning home, I received a phone call. It was Jayalalithaa’s personal secretary. “Madam said you were crying. What happened?” he asked. Again, I couldn’t control my tears and told him what I could.
Later that night, I received a call informing me that the guards had been given a severe dressing down, but they were not sure who it was, as almost 30 guards accompany her everywhere.
The next day, after finishing the day's ‘follow the leader’ routine, I got a call from a landline number.
It was Jayalalithaa’s PA and he simply asked me to hold on. Then a female voice that sounded like Jayalalithaa came on the line, and asked, “Hello, how are you?”
I did not reply as I was under the impression that this was a recorded message. In 2009, most voters were getting recorded messages from Jayalalithaa and Karunanidhi asking for votes.
When I did not reply, she asked me why I was quiet. I was zapped. And I asked, “Is this really you?” She laughed lightly and asked, “Yes, do you think I don't make phone calls?” I cannot remember the exact conversation, but I vaguely remember saying something silly like “Oh, I didn't know you would call regular people.”
She then asked me what had happened and I explained. I told her that it was more frightening as it had been done by someone in the security team of a woman leader.
She asked me to be courageous, and said that I was a young reporter and should concentrate on work. She also told me that when such things happen, as a brave woman, I should go on with my work. She reminded me that since it was election time, there was lots of work for all of us. She repeatedly told me to be brave. The conversation ended there.
It was a short conversation, but she had reached out to me as a woman. And as I told other women reporters about the call, they all agreed that a gesture like this made all of us feel safer.
A few years later, Jayalalithaa visited Bengaluru for talks with the then Karnataka Chief Minister Jagadish Shettar over Cauvery river water sharing.
I had shifted to Bengaluru by then and I joined a large contingent of reporters covering the meeting. In such meetings, it is normal for journalists to wait outside the venue for an entire day to get a statement/sound bite from the leaders. But Jayalalithaa caught us by surprise. Minutes after the meeting began, she staged a walk out, and we were left scrambling to get her sound bite.
She patiently stood there and explained Tamil Nadu’s stand. As she was leaving, the ropes were drawn as usual (we were not tied though) and I was being crushed on one end. She stopped, pulled the car window down and gestured to her guard to take the rope off me. He did that. She smiled and left.
With that subtle gesture Jayalalithaa told me that she remembered the incident in 2009.
Perhaps she did not know what her gesture meant, but it gave me immense confidence that she would ensure my safety.
As women reporters, we are often molested, groped and even assaulted. During the election season, the groping becomes an everyday affair as we are required to report from the midst of crowds that are going berserk due to the election fever.
Most of us become so immune to this physical assault that we seldom react to it. Most of our editors too don't bother to address it as it is considered to be a ‘part of the job’.
But it isn’t. Every such incident matters, it scars us each time.
Perhaps, Jayalalithaa understood that it matters. I have read and heard a lot of stories on how she had to suffer as she fought her way through two male bastions - cinema and politics.
Jayalalithaa was an autocrat. She muzzled the press in many ways. Even in her administrative capabilities, she may have given ample opportunity for many women across the state to dislike her.
But to me as a young reporter, she is somebody who cared, one woman to another.
A TV grab of the interview