WITHIN 10 MINUTES OF OUR MEETING, TN Dava Prabhu, who insisted I call him David, was rolling up his pants to show me his legs. Given our location, this seemed appropriate. We were in front of a modest restaurant in the small city of Sriperumbudur, an hour’s drive from Chennai, where, 20 years earlier, on 21 May 1991, Thenmozhi ‘Gayatri’ Rajaratnam, who went by the nom de guerre Dhanu, bent to touch former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s feet—and detonated a denim suicide belt that contained six grenades.
Rajiv Gandhi died instantly. And David was one of more than 30 people injured. His rehabilitation has stretched over two decades. Scars from several surgeries run the length of his legs, which are shaky, their muscles atrophied. He walks with a cane and looks far older than his 47 years. The blast, however, has done little to diminish David’s role as a neighbourhood maven. And there are likely few people more qualified to expound on the area’s transition. While Indians identify this city of about 100,000 as the site of a prime minister’s assassination, Sriperumbudur connotes something completely different abroad. Since the turn of the millennium, the city has attracted car and mobile phone manufacturing, and is frequently referred to as either India’s Detroit or India’s Shenzhen.
For oldtimers like David, this transition has been turbulent. He resents that multinational companies in Special Economic Zones (SEZs) get unlimited water and power, a luxury folks in the surrounding villages lack. David’s English is limited and his major contentions come across in Morse code-like bursts: “Climate change. Breathing the air. It is completely spoilt. And the water spoiled.”
We were soon seated on plastic chairs outside the hotel ordering our second kaapi, South Indian filter coffee, beside a whimsical fibreglass rendering of the Buddha.
David singled out Saint-Gobain Glass India, the Indian subsidiary of the French glass manufacturing company, for criticism. “So many people have to go to the hospital every day,” he said. As a result of their pollution, he charged, the water is ruined in 35 nearby villages.
He was also critical of Nokia and their suppliers who occupied an SEZ around the Finnish cellphone giant’s most productive factory. Echoing the assertions of organised labour, he felt only migrants were filling the jobs here. “The local people not study,” he said. “No education.” As a result of the influx, rents were increasing and locals were being priced out.
Prior to the assassination, David designed sets for the Tamil film industry. He now spends much of his time at the hotel, making fibreglass sculptures. He even created the Buddha we were seated beside. Clutching his cane, he negotiated his way across a patchy lawn to a white masonry boundary wall to show me more of his work. He pulled a sculpture off the wall. It was a bust of a woman I thought resembled the Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa, who had most recently come to power for the third time in May 2011. As it turned out, the bust was that of his mother-in-law.
Talk soon turned to politics, a favourite parlour game in Tamil Nadu. David stood with the majority.
“The AIADMK is good,” he said. “Jayalalithaa is good.” The DMK, he charged, were land poachers responsible for transferring valuable farm tracts to multinationals for laughable prices.
Both parties are the ideological offspring of the Dravidian Self-Respect Movement, which in recent years has splintered and strayed from its original mission. Both parties also espouse a love of the Tamil language and culture that is central to the state’s identity.
This sense of shared identity complicates feelings about the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, the Sri Lankan Tamil separatists who carried out Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination. Santhan, Murugan and Perarivalan, three Tigers convicted of planning it, are still petitioning the Supreme Court for clemency. Former Chief Minister M Karunanidhi supports their bid for clemency, as does Vaiko, of the fringe Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK).
The MDMK’s campaign posters featured the face of a chubby Tamil man that I eventually realised was the LTTE founder-leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran. When I mentioned to David that it seemed strange that a man who’d been responsible for the blast that maimed him was featured openly on the state’s political propaganda, David said something surprising: that he still believed in Prabhakaran’s goals.
Adam Matthews is the former Senior Editor at The Caravan.