'Our name is our first identity. Why should we change it?'

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By Tamil Nadu chief minister K. Karunanidhi's daughter Kanimozhi is the latest weapon in the DMK's arsenal. Seetha meets the feminist poet who is all set to begin her political journey
  • Published 3.06.07

She walks into the room 15 minutes late. “Sorry, I overslept,” says Kanimozhi, Tamil Nadu chief minister K. Karunanidhi’s daughter and the latest political offspring in the limelight. At 7.15 am on a Sunday, one should forgive her, especially when she frames her words with a charming smile. Just the previous evening, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) formally cleared her name for the Rajya Sabha elections. Clearly, the congratulations were pouring in till quite late.

But I’m more relieved than forgiving. After three days of chasing, I had finally pinned her down to a time slot. Only to have her call 45 minutes before. “Please can we make it tomorrow? The party meeting is on. I don’t know what the decision will be, but there will be a lot of people. Dad will also be here. I’ve been a journalist, I understand your pressures.” The tone is pleading but you know the meeting’s off. So I suggest 7 am on a Sunday — a bit out of pique, but with the hope that we won’t be disturbed at that hour. “If necessary, we’ll run away somewhere,” she promises me.

Well, we don’t run away anywhere, but sit on plush yellow sofas in a huge room in her father’s sprawling Mylapore bungalow in Chennai. I hadn’t bargained on the phones, though, and the fact that Chennai-ites start their day at the crack of dawn. “Nanringe, romba nanri (thank you, many thanks),” is the answer to the numerous phone calls (“sorry for the interruptions,” she says when we end).

Kanimozhi is the latest weapon in the DMK’s ongoing war in Tamil Nadu. Last month, a growing rivalry between Karunanidhi’s sons and his grand-nephews resulted in the ouster of telecommunications minister Dayanidhi Maran from the Union Cabinet. Kanimozhi’s name was announced soon thereafter as the party’s new nominee to the Rajya Sabha.

In a simple chocolate brown churidar kurta, her shoulder-length hair caught in a clasp at the back, the Karunanidhi family’s face in Delhi looks much younger than her 39 years. But the soft-spoken Kanimozhi soon dispels any misconception that she’s just a puppet on her family’s political string. A feminist poet in her own right, she is forthright in her answers, never mind that she thinks a lot before speaking, pausing between words, much like her father.

“I just use Kanimozhi,” she says when asked if she is Kanimozhi Karunanidhi or Aravindan (her husband’s name). She prefers the south Indian practice where the woman is known by her own name before and after marriage. “Our name is our first identity. Why should we change it? What changes for men after marriage?” If necessary, she would like to be known as Kanimozhi Rajathi Karunanidhi.

Rajathi is her mother, Karunanidhi’s third wife. Mother was the disciplinarian in her childhood, but Kanimozhi was never scared of her, or in awe of her father, who became chief minister for the first time in 1969, a year after she was born. “My parents let me be what I am,” she says.

Did she see enough of her father, what with his official responsibilities and — this I leave unsaid — two households? His second wife, Dayaluammal, lives a stone’s throw away. “He never made me feel he wasn’t around for me. I really don’t know how he juggled the time. I saw him every day.” He may not have come for parent teacher meetings in school, “but he’s been there at every important occasion in my life.”

She doesn’t shy away from answering awkward questions. I ask about her relationship with her half-brothers — Dayaluammal’s sons, M.K. Azhagiri and M.K. Stalin. “It was okay. We never met every day, but it was all right.” Relations between the two families, the buzz goes, became cordial only because of the need to close ranks against Kalanidhi and Dayanidhi Maran.

“What controversy?” she deadpans when asked how she felt about it. The falling out between the Maran and Karunanidhi families, I persist. “It’s very sad that it happened. It would definitely have been nice if it hadn’t happened.”

The new family bonding will see Kanimozhi and her nephews (her half brothers’ sons) managing the recently announced Kalaignar TV, widely expected to take on Kalanidhi’s Sun TV. “No, we are not taking on Sun TV. We are trying to run our own channel,” she shoots back, one of the few occasions when you don’t have to strain to hear her.

Politics was never on Kanimozhi’s radar, though she accompanied her father on election tours as a child. A privileged upbringing included schooling in Presentation Convent, Church Park (whose alumni include AIADMK empress J. Jayalalithaa and Congress leader Jayanthi Natarajan) and a Masters in economics from the elite Ethiraj College. The atmosphere at both would have been poles apart from a home environment steeped in Dravidian ideology. “I got exposed to both worlds,” she says and appears to be a happy mixture of both. Understandably, the daughter of one of the leading lights of the anti-Hindi movement hardly knows Hindi.

Born into a family where writers were revered, and with a name that means “sweet language”, becoming a wordsmith was natural. She started dabbling with poetry in school but doesn’t remember if she showed her first poems to her father, himself a poet and screenplay writer before he plunged into politics.

After a brief marriage with a Sivakasi businessman while she was studying for her Masters (“So many women go through their lives struggling. I was among the lucky few who had the opportunity to come out of something I didn’t want to be in.”), she joined The Hindu in 1992 and worked there for four years. “It was a lovely experience. I would love to go back,” she says, her face lighting up. Ex-colleagues say she had no airs and thought nothing of drinking tea at a roadside vendor’s stall. Fawning sycophants were given short shrift, though.

A common passion for poetry and language brought her and second husband G. Aravindan, a translator and Singaporean businessman of Indian origin, together. They were married in 1997 and she moved to Singapore, where she worked briefly for the country’s only Tamil newspaper, Tamil Murasu. They returned to India and the literary world. She’s co-managing the Tamil Maiyam, an organisation to promote Tamil literature, arts and culture and was the driving force behind the hugely successful folk art extravaganza, Chennai Sanagamam, in February.

Somewhere along the line she did a film appreciation course in Pune. Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski is a favourite, and she likes Iranian cinema. “But now I’m a kids’ film buff,” she laughs, thanks to her eight-year-old son, Adityan. Friends say she’s a very involved mother, but she insists she’s “terrible” when it comes to things such as supervising his homework and disciplining him (“I’m not a disciplined person myself”).

Keeping away from active DMK politics (though she is a member) doesn’t mean she’s apolitical. “There’s politics in everything.” Including the literary and art world? “It can be worse there,” she mutters, before giggling. “If you believe in and fight for certain things, you are in politics.”

She’s been doing that, springing to film actress Khushboo’s defence when she was pilloried for her comments on pre-marital sex, being associated with an affirmative action group and making out a case for women archakas (priests) in temples. “Religion plays a very important part in the way people are defined in society,” she says. “When you don’t allow women near god, the image that they are lesser mortals gets reinforced. It happens in every religion.” She is herself a non-believer, though she loves visiting old shrines. But neither does she ridicule believers. “It’s not easy being a non-believer. You don’t have anything to hold on to.” So is it important to hold on to something? “I don’t know if people do need it, but a lot of people believe they need it.”

What gets her really worked up is curbs on free expression. That’s why she, along with finance minister P. Chidambaram’s son, Karthi, launched karuthu.com (karuthu means opinion) in 2005, a website where people can sound off on various topics. Karuthu isn’t just an online forum now, but organises debates and meetings in colleges on hot button issues.

Wasn’t the attack on the Maran-owned Dinakaran (after an opinion poll showing little popular support for Azhagiri) also an attempt to curb freedom of expression? She shoots a sharp glance but responds: “Yes, it needn’t have happened.”

She’s now getting set to give the finishing touches to a documentary she’s filmed on her father. “It showed me a different side of him,” she says. And helped her pick up a few tips for her political journey, perhaps?