It is said that when Diogenes of Sinope, Asia Minor, who was exiled and started living in Athens was once asked where he came from, he replied, “kosmopolites” or “I am a citizen of the world”. That he was also the founder of the cynic philosophy isn’t part of this story, but I am a cynic at heart and that is why I keep going back to Diogenes.
I start with Diogenes and his “kosmopolites” because I often wonder about people trying to define their identities with their region of origin. I also wonder, being an Odia, why it is that Odia people have this constant need for acknowledgement from everyone that their state is beautiful, that Bhubaneswar is a great city, their cuisine is one of the best, Odissi a great dance form and Rasagolla is theirs to claim, eat and celebrate. (All of the above statements are true, by the way.)
There have been multiple open letters trying to get the attention of the nation, discussions on social and traditional media about how the state has been neglected by people and most recently, a literary festival where a recurring theme was a sense of hurt and sadness.
I attended the recent two day Odisha Literary Festival (#OLF2015) and honestly it was two of the best days spent in some time. Highlights being a session by “Hindi is Cool”, Imtiaz Ali’s candid and freewheeling session on the art of storytelling and a rousing discussion on the death of print medium.
However, I can’t help but think about a common thread across many sessions that I attended at OLF 2015. The linguistic and geographical barriers in India ensure that there will be a sense of prevalent parochialism. One can’t help that, but across sessions I noticed a sense of sadness because Odia culture or Odia language and literature is losing ground and following. That it is a matter of time after which people will forget Odia literature and eventually the language. People feel hurt because Odisha is mostly unknown outside Odisha, as seen on a recent video which was doing the rounds.
One reality check before taking on those threads: Are we agreed on the fact that Odisha is the only coastal state in India which is underdeveloped? With that out of the way, we can proceed.
I was witness to a great discussion about the future of Odia as a literary language and how people are not reading and discussing Odia literature anymore. Why only Odia? Isn’t Urdu struggling to find its feet? What about Konkani literature or Hindi literature? As reflected in the best session of the two day event, Divya Prakash Dubey and Nikhil Sachan accepted the fact that Hindi is not going to be as popular as English as a literary language. They brilliantly observed that English, and the burgeoning aspirational class in India, is a match made in the workplace, because it is the language of commerce. Gulzar in his own way speaking about how Urdu was saved by Hindi films, once observed, “Dikhai zaroor deni chahiye” (it is essential for a language to be visible). This all ties nicely to the Odia problem.
Why don’t young authors use Odia as a literary vehicle for publishing their books or filmmakers not using it as a screenplay to project their cinema? Why blame them when you yourself don’t read the rich literary history of Odisha or the small contribution of great Odia auteurs to Indian cinema. Have you seen Biswaprakash or Indradhanura Chhai? Have you read Mati Matala, Chha Mana Atha Guntha or ‘Sarala’ Mahabharata? Did you know Maya Miriga went to Cannes Film Festival? Are you aware of a 17th century literary masterpiece “Baideheesha Bilasa”, which is based on the epic Ramayana, where every word of the line of a poem is started with Odia alphabet ‘Ba’ is by “Kabi Samraata” Upendra Bhanja?
However, apart from the trivia, in today’s age when there is so much more to consume, why would anyone stick to Odia? What compelling reason would they have? You have to go beyond Bande Utkala Janani to really care about Odia literature, history and culture.
The tragedy is, it is not even mandatory to read the Odia language as a subject in Odisha. I am all for free choices but don’t cry about something if you yourself are part of the problem. Given a choice, people will always prefer Masala Dosa to Rooti-Dalma as breakfast. The children of today and the other consumers of literature or cinema are way smarter and will exercise their choice as they want to, but as a parent are you giving them those options?
The impending doom of Odia literature and eventually language was predicted loud and clear during the debate over Odia as a literary language and funnily in a throwaway incident, Imtiaz Ali candidly admitted that although he used to speak Odia very fluently, now he finds it very difficult to speak Odia as a language. Going back to what Gulzar said, the language has to be visible. I would just one more thing to that. Apart from being visible, it should be dynamic and there should be a compelling reason for people to read, write and speak a language.
Even if that option is provided, to read or not is again your choice. Unless you find it compelling you won’t get further. One just can’t get started with the writing of Uday Prakash and Manto straightway. Before that, one has to go through the Prem Chand grind. So, identify the Prem Chand equivalent in Odia literature and take it up as an option, either for yourself or your children. After that things will take a natural course. Either you will like the language and graduate to Manto and Chugtai or forget everything and continue in the quest of the three mistakes of your life.
Coming to the second point – recognition for Odia and Odisha. I have observed, during my travels across India, that there is always a feeling of hurt over Odisha and Odias not getting recognised.
Why do you feel hurt? Or to put it another way, why aren’t you happy? Are you not happy when you hear about an Odia singer winning a reality TV show, or when an Odia designer designs for Michelle Obama? Are you not happy to realise that along with Subhash Gupte and Anil Kumble, there is an Odia bowler to take all 10 wickets in an innings? That Nandita Das, the noted filmmaker has Odia roots or the fact that Imtiaz Ali has spent some years of his childhood in Suryanagar, Bhubaneswar. Pushpesh Pant, the academic and historian, talks about his Odia cook who cooks Dalma for him in Delhi. More recently, weren’t you happy that a folk song from your state got national attention and popularity, although it’s another matter that you created a controversy about it. Aren’t these enough or do you want to be entertained?
Mr. Nilamadhab Mohanty (retd. IAS officer), had a brilliant point to make regarding this – essentially what he said was that all these artists, cricketers, entertainers are just the icing on the cake. The cake however, is the community. It has to be baked well as a whole, for the icing to have the right effect. What is the community doing to make the cake, great? Even if you ignore Barabati incident as a one off, what do you have to offer? No one is going to acknowledge your existence because you crave for it.
There are Odia people doing well in professional fields in their own way. They are CEOs and CXOs, start-up superstars, brilliant doctors and engineers as well as excellent craftsmen. Again, as Mr. Mohanty, noticed and candidly put across, the best plumbers and cooks across India, are Odia. Why is this not a matter of pride?
So, where is this sense of entitlement that coming from? You have great temples, geographical wonders and natural resources. What did you do to get them? Nothing. What are you doing to preserve them? Mostly, nothing.
You don’t introduce your kids to Fakir Mohan Senapati or Sarala Das, what right do you have to crave for other people to read and celebrate them? You deface the statue of a true icon like Akshaya Mohanty and ask whether other people have heard of him or appreciate his music?
Kind of silly, no?
I have lived in Madras, Bombay and Hyderabad for some part of my life and I equally love all three places, maybe Madras a little more than the other two. Like Diogenes, I also consider myself a kosmopolites.
Nowadays, I just don’t care. I don’t care if the Bengalis take away the Rasagolla or some other people make fun of Odia plumbers or cooks or security guards. If people ask questions like “What is there in Odisha?”, I don’t feel compelled to go on an encyclopedic retort on the history and geography of Odisha. People who are cultured, smart and resourceful will always know that answer.
A lot of people complain that Odisha doesn’t market itself. Point taken, but what will marketing do? Can it overcome the shortcomings of a flawed product? The product is the people. The people and the community have to be good, for marketing to highlight it.
I am not sure about the other communities but I know about mine and talk about them. It could be true about yours too!
All this hurt and sadness is kind of annoying, to say the least. This makes the community look like a whiny old person who is refusing to grow up. We as a community are responsible for whatever we get and what we make out of ourselves.
I am not saying that I am above this. I have also suffered from this inferiority complex at some point in my life. There have been moments where I also felt my community, state, language and culture needs recognition. Moments where I felt like shutting down some people, and I have. However, later, I didn’t see the point of all that hurt and inexplicable sadness, and felt like a fool.
If you need acknowledgement then you have to do something about it. Any job that you do, you have to show a high level of commitment. Recognition will automatically come. Stop cribbing and whining.