Sambeet Dash

He is the one and the only one icon from a state which lacks a notable personality of stature at national level. A strapping 6 feeter with a towering figure, a well known personality from a lesser known state inhabited by short height folks and a visionary from a state filled with short sighted leaders – he was unique of his kind.
The legends of this man Bijayananda Patnaik, popularly known as Biju Patnaik, who was born exactly 104 years ago are quite well known. Some of them are true, some are exaggerated folklores, more like devotional lies attributed to him.

But what he achieved was unheard of and unparalleled by any Odia of that time, i.e., flying airlines, both military and commercial aircrafts, participating in bold air rescue missions and long bicycle rides for more than thousand miles on fair weather roads infested with wild animals on unfavorable terrains.

What is not known, that our legendary, maverick son of Odisha is a half Odia, his mother was Bengali. He was fascinated by the famous Emperor Kharavela, another legend from Kalinga (as Odisha was known then) from 1st century AD who conquered the then powerful Magadha (modern Bihar) kingdom.

A few months before his death, when the well known writer Manoj Das mentioned to him that Kharavela became a reclusive and spent his last days in a cave, he responded – “Is that so? I never knew about that”. Biju profusely thanked Sri Manoj Das for this piece of trivia about the famous Emperor whom he idolized (mentioned by Manoj Das in one of his columns).

Biju BabuAn industrialist himself and a staunch believer in modern education and technology who hated the established superstitions and dogmas. He is credited for establishing the Rourkela Steel plant, Paradip Port, and my both Alma Maters D M School and REC (now NIT), Rourkela his first tenure as CM. I thank him for these two  institutes which immensely shaped my thoughts, life and career.

A maverick figure and a straight shooter, his frequent utterances laced with wry humor suited him, enhancing his image as the aggressive KALINGA SANDHA (The Odisha Bull). He never belied that image, often behaving as a reckless Bull in the China Shop with matching oratory.
His height added to the aura and myth surrounding him in a state where short height is the norm, being a 6 feeter an exception. Biju Patnaik had a huge fan following among Puri PANDAS (Priests) who were awed by his height and straight walk. I once heard one of them saying – “AMA  5 HATHIA BIJU PATNAIK 22 PAHANCHA GOTE NISWASA RE CHADHI GALAA” – “Biju Patnaik, our 5 hands long guy climbed the 22 steps of the famous Jagannath temple in Puri in one breath, (PANCHA HATHA or 5 hands is equivalent to 6 feet. One Hand is the length from the elbow to the finger tips is little more than a feet. So a five hands = 6 feet Approximately).
But Odisha stayed as poor as ever, it’s economy hardly Bullish, even during his highly forgettable second coming as CM in 1990. Married to a Punjabi lady who preferred to come to Odisha only during its salubrious weather in winter, Biju referred to her as my “Winter Wife”.

When a stampede in the famous Puri Jagannath temple killed many in 1993 during his second tenure as CM, he was dismissive of it – “Those who died went to Heaven, if I died there I could have ascended heaven too” (Dying inside this famous temple is considered as a blessing, a one way ticket to heaven). Many found his remarks tasteless, though it hardly ever dented his image.

biju babu deathNo wonder when he passed away in 1997, more than a million congregated in Puri to bid him adieu, including the Who’s and Who’s of contemporary Indian political spectrum, from as wide as Communists on the left and BJP on the right. Many were amazed by the spontaneous grief and respect shown, an apt farewell to the man who carved his niche, and unparalleled feat in the history of Odisha.

The sight of the thronging crowd probably prompted his son Naveen Patnaik to carry his father’s baton in a state he rarely visited. Khushwant Singh who once described Biju as a dashing married man eligible for extra marital affairs, ascribed the legend’s son as the effete looking Patnaik – hard to believe he is Biju Patnaik’s son. They say the Bullish Biju had the vision to take Odiyas to the next level, his son has brought himself to the level of the Odias.

(Sambeet Dash is an Odia technocrat living in Georgia ,US)