(My column in Mint Lounge, February 18 2017)
Sasikala V.K., understandably, was condemned for years as a sinister influence around the late lamented Jayalalithaa, and efforts to park her in Amma’s hallowed post in Tamil Nadu have come, at last, to naught—the Supreme Court has identified a less gratifying location for the lady, famous mainly for possessing endless reserves of nephews, stout with rowdy power and stockpiles of oddly acquired wealth. Tamil Nadu, always a most fascinating political landscape, is now going through yet another interesting (and, I daresay, entertaining) phase, and O. Panneerselvam, a dutiful cipher if ever there was one, appears determined to carry the day. For whom is, of course, another matter.
The weight of her “disproportionate assets” has finally sunk Sasikala for the predictable future but while drama plays out on the east coast of India, I am reminded of happenings on the west coast many decades before, also featuring shadowy figures haunting the corridors of power. A century ago in Kochi, for instance, a raja succeeded to power. He was an intelligent man but age had blunted his previously sharp capacities. Within a few years into his reign, he grew ill and unable to exercise the power and judgement his position demanded. Some say he was more interested in the art of conversing with lizards, but more considered documents tell us that as the ruler retreated into fits of giggles and incoherence, his “consort” picked up the sign manual.
In matrilineal Kerala, the raja’s wife was not his queen—she was only the consort, who could live in conditions of borrowed glory during the lifetime of her exalted spouse but had to retire to her original circumstances after his death. It was the raja’s sisters and their children who succeeded him in the royal line, his own issue treated only as ordinary subjects. If a ruler were wise, he would make arrangements for his lady to carry on in comfort, if not opulence, and find his sons respectable vocations as contractors or doctors or lawyers. Either way, the wife and her household were the king’s private affair, and they had no business or stake in matters of state and policy that concerned the matrilineal ruling dynasty.
This particular consort, however, rose to fame as the real power in Kochi between 1914 and 1932, by which time her husband was practically senile. Parukutty V.K. wasn’t a bad administrator, but brooked, evidently, no opposition to her “ruling passion”, which was “the acquisition of wealth for her already wealthy family”, in the words of the watchful British Resident at court. The land her husband “gifted” her, for example, was sold back at a premium, after which it was “leased” on a discount by the lady. None of this was strictly illegal but it was deemed singularly inappropriate. The ruler’s ministers objected, not to speak of the royal nephews, but the consort and a loyal palace manager controlled access to the decrepit raja and, in this fashion, retained their grip over the decisions he took and the orders he signed.
This was hardly unprecedented. Further south in Thiruvananthapuram, the local prince had fallen in love with a very married commoner. Her husband, a low-level palace employee, relinquished her to his sovereign, compensated in return with the loftiest title in the land and permanent influence for decades. It didn’t matter that he was publicly embarrassed in stiffly starched society as the “former husband of the maharaja’s present wife”. After all, he had also been installed as palace manager, which supplied a healthy consolation of bribes. It also didn’t trouble him that local courts and newspapers excoriated his corruption—as a pillar of the ruler’s awkward domestic arrangements, his position was unassailable.
Of course, when the rulers died, things changed. Parukutty in Kochi, for instance, had no chance of clinging to power since a royal nephew now succeeded as ruler—a nephew with a consort of his own to promote. But she spent the remainder of her days in style, holidaying in Europe and supervising her land holdings, tea factory, and other numerous possessions. In Thiruvananthapuram, too, the “scoundrel favourite” (as a royal relative called him) withdrew the moment his patron departed, focusing on enjoying the vast fortune he had amassed, and even dispensing scholarships and aid to needy students from his caste.
Perhaps Sasikala could have taken a leaf out of these Malayali books and quietly faded into the sunset (with all its material comforts) instead of seeking to seize so pointedly power to which she has no legitimate claim. Or, to be fairer, the least legitimate claim. It is, of course, another matter that wives and relations of monarchs could get away with a lot back in the day—that, after all, was the feature of the age in which they lived. Today, illicit hoarding from a lucrative career with a different kind of monarch can sink ships many years afterwards—that, incidentally, is the point of what is called justice in a democracy. And Sasikala’s greatest contribution may well be that she will go down as an example of this.