‘One Among You,’ the first volume of Tamil Nadu CM MK Stalin’s autobiography, translated by A.S. Panneerselvan, provides a glimpse into the personal and political aspects of Stalin’s life
Political autobiographies, more often than not, tend to be an exercise in vanity. Accounts of men and women in power, who wish to whitewash their acts of omission and commission, they are replete with vainglorious boasts about one’s infallibility, propriety and integrity. An enterprise invariably undertaken by leaders in their twilight years to festoon their flagging careers, and give a boost to their doddering spirits. Or to lay to rest, once and for all, their follies and foibles, or to project themselves as paragons. An objective, dispassionate look at one’s life and times is rare. Rarer still is the admission of guilt over excesses or abuse of power; in short, anything and everything unpalatable is a no-go zone.
Contrary to the prevalent practice, One Among You (Penguin), the first volume of Tamil Nadu Chief Minister MK Stalin’s autobiography — translated from the original Tamil Ungalil Oruvan (2022) by senior journalist A.S. Panneerselvan — seems to spring from an honest place, a genuine urge to relook at his life ‘not for others but for my own reflection.’ “If you choose your destination correctly early in your life, nothing can prevent your success. The correct destination will reveal the right path. The right path will take us to the right destination — that is the story of my life,” Stalin writes in the Introduction, offering his solitary piece of advice to the young generation.
“Stalin invokes the oral tradition to make it more direct, with less metaphors and more description,” says Panneerselvan, a Roja Muthiah Research Library fellow and former Readers’ Editor of The Hindu (Chennai). Tamil Nadu, he adds, is known for its autobiography tradition; in fact, one of the earliest autobiographies in Asia was written in Tamil — The Private Diary of Ananda Ranga Pillai, which was also translated into French as Pillai (1709-1761) was an official in the court of the French Governor-General Joseph François Dupleix in Pondicherry. “Since Pillai’s days, there has been an attempt to understand our external world through personal experiences; in Tamil, the two methods are known as puram (exterior) and agham (interior), respectively. Since autobiographies use the personal self to understand the world, they are useful in comprehending the trajectory of the state itself,” he adds.
The story of Stalin’s life
One Among You is the story of Stalin’s formative years — from 1953 to 1976. It’s the portrait of a young man as an aspiring politician: these years saw Stalin pursue education, dabble in party work as well as theatre and cinema, get married to Durga, undergo incarceration under the Maintenance of Internal Security Act (MISA) during the Emergency in 1976, and all this while strive towards building a political future for himself, making the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) — the party nurtured by his father and five-time (1969-2011) Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi, whom he refers to as thalaivar (leader) and Kalaignar (artist) throughout the book — as his sole ‘field of endeavour’. The Dravidian ideology, he writes, is his ‘life-affirming principle’.
Kalaignar meant many things to Stalin: ‘life, spirit, father, mother and leader’. In the end, however, he took ‘a clear decision’ to determine his destination because he was ‘born and brought up for politics.’ He acknowledges his debt to the four leaders who created ‘the benign shade’ under which he stands and who were ‘the sculptors’ who shaped him. Besides Kalaignar, they included Periyar (the founder of the Dravidar Kazhagam), Arignar Anna or CN Annadurai (the founder of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), who showed him ‘how to run a broad-based inclusive movement by bringing a diverse set of people together’. From Perasiriyar (K. Anbazhagan), he learnt how ‘one could effectively combine ideological fidelity, courage, commitment and humility.’
“My leader Kalaignar, throughout his life, showed me how to keep the movement thriving amidst adversities by being completely committed to an ideology, and through relentless struggles and mass mobilization,” Stalin writes, adding that he was not just begotten by Thalaivar’s ‘blood’ but also ‘by his life’. His debt to Kalaignar is a subtext that runs throughout the book: “One may wonder why he is more visible in this book than me. To that, my reply would be that both of us are here. I cannot be here without him.”
Diary of an important year
1953, the year of Stalin’s birth, was a very important year: India’s first general elections were held in the preceding year, which had also seen the launch of Parasakthi, the most defining film scripted by Stalin’s father, M. Karunanidhi. “This means that Stalin was born in a truly modern independent India. He is not a midnight’s child, but a child of the Indian republic. His party was four years old then; it was launched in 1949. By 1953, his father was already a leading political leader in his own right, leading the language struggle for the DMK,” says Panneerselvan, adding that when you are born to a great leader, the gap between personal and political is very little. The centerpiece of the biography is the intertwining of the personal and the political: Stalin’s public and private personas inform and enrich each other: he has meticulously documented how they have enriched each other. “That was the most fascinating aspect for me to take up this task of translating this book,” says Panneerselvan.
According to him, the interactions with Kalaignar and Perasiriyar shaped Stalin because these two leaders had helped make a major shift within the party which came to power in a pre-liberalised India in 1967, but is surviving as a major political force even today. “They imbibed the change in the political process of 1991 and made adjustments in the DMK. Their approach to various issues are the major lessons Stalin learnt from these two stalwarts. This is what has given him the courage today to be part of the huge formation of opposition parties. As Tamil Nadu CM, Stalin has been resisting extreme centralization. He has been trying to bring back the inherent powers vested with the states. That’s a reason he has become key to the opposition unity. He has become the fulcrum of today’s India because he has been witness to this entire exercise,” Panneerselvan underlines.
The personal and the political
Stalin learned enormous political skills by being Karunanidhi’s son, but this also delayed his political ascendancy, says Panneerselvan. “He doesn’t talk about it in the autobiography, but it’s a fact. Throughout the book, he dwells on the way forward and not the ruptures. There is not a trace of rancour in his voice,” he adds. “Despite Kalaignar’s insistence that he go through formal education, Stalin stopped his graduation. The lure of politics and the power of public engagement is central to his story,” says Panneerselvan. Having entered the world of electoral canvassing during the 1967 general elections, Stalin became part of the DMK Youth Wing, which was founded in Gopalapuram — where he grew up — in a barber shop in 1968.
“When Thalaivar became the chief minister, he took part in a conference organised by the association of hairdressers. It was a felicitation function to celebrate Thalaivar’s ascent to the seat of chief minister. At that meeting, Kalaignar said: ‘You have convened this meeting to praise me. But in reality, we need to have a function to praise your stellar role. You not only fix the hair of our people. You are the set of people who changed the ruler of the state.’ The Hairdressers’ Association had a logo that displayed a comb and a pair of scissors. Drawing attention to the logo, Thalaivar said: ‘If you are a pair of scissors, then we are the comb. If you are the comb, then we are a pair of scissors. We have that level of affinity and cooperation among us.’ It was not a mere celebratory assertion to make hairdressers proud. It was a statement of fact,” writes Stalin, who transformed the Gopalapuram Youth Wing into a statewide phenomenon in 1983, leading it from the front as a Secretary — a position he held for more than four decades.
Volume One, however, ends when he is sent to jail during the Emergency; the story from thereon will be part of Volume Two. After getting elected in 1989, Stalin was elected as the Mayor of Chennai in 1996. But he was not inducted into the cabinet as late as 2006. “If you actually map his trajectory on a scale, we know that he is far more senior to most of the national political leaders today. Most national political leaders were not in the scene when Stalin was arrested in 1976. So, negotiating personal and political issues is an aspect which comes out very clearly in his autobiography,” says Panneerselvan. For Stalin, the decision to become a politician was easy, but conveying this to his father was far more difficult.
A ringside view
Stalin negotiated political difficulties and ruptures ‘with a sense of equanimity,’ adds Panneerselvan. As a child, he had swallowed a steel hook. It was the idea of healing that he took away from that childhood experience. “That’s a reason you don’t find rancour in his writing. It comes from the simple fact that when you have ruptures, you should focus on healing rather than talking about the difficulty. It is the way forward that Stalin focuses on throughout the book rather than dwelling on the difficult situations, which he swiftly glides over,” Panneerselvan.
To understand why Kalaignar occupies a special place in Stalin’s imagination, Panneerselvan adds, one has to understand what he represented in the Tamil psyche. “He emerged as a much bigger influential figure when he was less than 24. He was a person who introduced MG Ramachandran — the latter became a star after his debut in Parasakthi in 1952. “Between 1949 and 1952, Kalaignar emerged as a major voice of Tamil Nadu, who saw the Indian body politic as two trajectories: coming together, and voting together. “In voting together, you give the power to the state. In coming together, you empower the citizens. In DMK’s citizen-centric conception of governance, you came together rather than transferring the power to the state. The idea of investment in citizens is central to the political party and that trajectory is one which Stalin had a ringside view. Growing up, Stalin had an opportunity to witness the tricky questions which the party tried to address and the difficult realities that it strove to negotiate, including the Hindi imposition,” says Panneerselvan.
After the DMK won a massive mandate in the 1971 elections, Stalin writes, various conspiracies were hatched to divide the DMK. “We never thought that MGR would be trapped in that conspiracy. When the party launched disciplinary action against him (in 1972) for speaking in a manner to create chaos within the party, it did provide clarity to my mind. The lesson was that the party was bigger than friendship and any relationship. This is what defines party discipline. MGR was very affectionate towards Thalaivar Kalaignar. But he defied the party discipline and spoke in a provocative manner; Kalaignar kept his personal friendship and warm relationship aside and took action with the sole idea that the party was supreme. It was a great political lesson for me at a young age,” writes Stalin.