Faces all around beamed with positivity, and a new-found energy. It did not matter that some looked tired, shabby, beaten down, baked in the sun, sand-laden, often hungry and thirsty, unwashed - hope eclipsed everything in that scorching sun.
Marina Beach provided an outlet for pent-up frustration and the chance to express it brought energy and tempo. That infectious emotional high seemed to move the whole city, as it believed change was about to arrive, and everyone had to be there for the turning point and make it happen. On Saturday and Sunday, the crowds crossed one and a half lakh, going by police estimates.
Joe had spent already spent two nights and three days on the beach when I met him, along with a group of other youngsters, some of whom he had met only on the beach. The 24-year-old, who looked no more than a student, said he teaches English to senior secondary students at Chennai's Don Bosco at Ailapuram. "We won't fritter away this opportunity. It is a warning to all political parties that cheat us, treat us like fools, this is a warning call: change your old ways.'' How can you sustain something like this, without any leaders, I asked. "Leaders will emerge from within this group, ma'am,'' he answered.
Retired banker Chandrasekhar arrived with his immediate family and other relatives. "We came because this is a very important time. For the first time, we are moving away from personalities and talking about ideologies and ideas. This is giving true meaning to democracy.''
Rajeswari came with a 6-month-old baby that she was breastfeeding and a 5-year-old. "I just couldn't sit at home. I needed to be here,'' she said.
Menaka was helping her 72-year-old frail-looking father zip up his jacket as they both walked towards the protests. He was unwell, which left him cold despite the stifling temperature. "We just got him discharged from Royapettah Hospital last night and in the morning, he insisted we bring him here. He was here before and spent two nights here, after which we admitted him to hospital with high fever. But he was adamant that he wanted to be back and I had no choice," she explained.
There was music, drums, dancing, clapping, lots of slogan-shouting and passionate speeches. Almost everyone was carrying around a poster, mostly handwritten, to explain why they were there. What I could see was a heady mix of culture and politics, the feeling of being part of a revolutionary change, an easy to associate and identify with sense of parochialism, mixed with some form of idealism and nationalism, that is difficult to resist. I must add that I have been to and reported from several states, but have never seen this sense of pride in their language, literature and culture.
What was interesting was that every group was doing its own thing. Some had a few thousand around them, some others a few hundreds. At every podium and gathering, whoever wanted to was allowed to address the gathering, express their view on what was happening and what should be the way forward. When someone said something that sounded politically loaded or insulting to the country, they were stopped and warned to change tack.
Jessy was speaking about how cows were treated like children of the home back in her village and how she had in fact been named after one of the cows at home that had passed away. Along with Jallikattu and native breeds, Jessy was concerned about groundwater being depleted by Coke and Pepsi bottling plants that were depleting ground water. So she was asking youngsters to give up on these bottled drinks.
Poonguyal was in another group talking about sustainable agriculture with charts to show how indigenous was equivalent to healthy, sustainable agriculture. She told listeners that foreign cow breeds would lead to "dangerous, chemical-laden milk" and was ecologically harmful.
But by Day 3 or 4, there was a lot more that suggested infiltration by groups and individuals who were pushing their own agenda.
There were many who were raising slogans that ridiculed both Chief Minister O Panneerselvam and new AIADMK General Secretary Sasikala with slogans like: "Chinnamma, Chinnamma, OPS Engamma?'' (Chinnamma refers to Sasikala and they were asking her where OPS is, why isn't he here"). Or "Kaanum, kaanum, OPS kaanum" (Missing, missing, OPS is missing).
While these slogans may have been politically motivated or started by opposition party members who had infiltrated the crowds, at least a few people did think that as Chief Minister, OPS should have come forward and addressed the protestors at Marina Beach and elsewhere. A young man, greying at his temples and dressed like OPS was through memes and street plays being shown as someone who couldn't stand up for himself and bowed before whosoever he saw as powerful.
There were a lot of anti-Modi posters that sprung up too. Those holding them would insist on trying to make them show in TV camera frames and I would object telling that whatever their ideology, we could not have anything on air that insults either the Prime Minister or the nation in any way. Jayalakshmi told me she is a great Modi fan and did not support the anti-PM sloganeering. "To me, he is like an avatar of Sudarshana. But I don't know why he is keeping quiet on this issue of Jallikattu and the students' protest. He should have spoken. Maybe he has a good reason.''
Volunteers were visible day and night, serving others with a cheerful smile, ensuring everyone felt safe and comfortable and had access to water and food. Every volunteer was also a leader. They gave speeches, they also picked trash. They regulated traffic around the area, not one woman complained of any harassment.
Which is why the end was so stunning. The ugly battles on the roads leading to Marina Beach were in such contrast to what had played out earlier. Many policemen spoke about feeling empathy and support for the student-led protest, but said being in uniform, they could not speak openly.
Yet on the last day, the Ice House police station was attacked by a frenzied mob, vehicles were burnt, there was stone-throwing in several places, attacks on policemen, apparently protesting the crackdown in the early hours that broke the week-long protest. I don't know if it was in retaliation, but several men and women on the ground in uniform have been caught on camera indulging in arson and vandalism themselves. More and more video evidence is emerging to tell this disturbing story. The police has not offered any convincing or reassuring answer. Peace, hope and trust has been shattered in Chennai.
What the political leadership saw at Marina Beach must have certainly scared them. A public uprising that was almost universally cynical of political leadership, beginning to feel empowered to stand together and chart their own path.
(Uma Sudhir is Resident Editor, NDTV)
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.