I was not particularly happy when I was handed the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) beat in 2002: a familiar sight in
The Hindu
’s Chennai office was that of the stressed DMK reporter who routinely got screamed at for some news story. Over an evening beer at the Press Club, and with a few of us as audience, the reporter would vent against M. Karunanidhi. The other reason I hated the beat was that my Tamil was rudimentary, and Mr. Karunanidhi talks in riddles in Tamil. All DMK press releases were in Tamil.

Six months into the job, I realised that all the ranting — and I got a fair share in the nearly eight years I covered the party — was Mr. Karunanidhi’s style of engaging with a person. This also meant a level of access that is unheard of in today’s polity where politicians hire image makers to ‘deal’ with the press. In exchange for tolerating a few rants, I could witness the decision-making processes at the highest levels of governance.

Mr. Karunanidhi usually did not call the newspaper’s editor to lodge a complaint about a story; he engaged with the reporter instead. Sometimes, this anger spilled over to the party newspaper,
Murasoli,
where a quarter-page ‘box’ item would announce the infamy of the reporter about some news story that he was unhappy about. I have often been ‘boxed’ in
Murasoli.

The temper was not just reserved for the media. Once, I walked into his chamber in the DMK headquarters and saw all the senior party men getting roasted together.

Between 2002 and 2010, I woke up, a minimum of three days a week, to calls from him. He once caught me in Chicago and at another time in a train as it was approaching Palakkad. It did not matter where you were, or what you did.

Once the shouting was over, I almost always reached his Gopalapuram house. Over coffee he would explain what he thought was wrong, and I would explain why I was right. He listened. I did not invent the stories, I often told him. I used the time to ask him about concepts that I could not comprehend, such as changing the school education system to an utopian
samacheer kalvi
(uniform syllabus) and about the need for
samathuvapurams
(translated loosely as villages where everyone is equal). He explained the thought behind each of these. It’s another matter that many of these did not materialise in the manner that he wanted.

There were exceptions to this rule. On some days, by the time I reached his house, he would have moved on to a different topic. My day began there.

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