The endearing human side to Biju Patnaik

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By Sandeep Sahu

On the day of his birth centenary, there is one thing that can be said about Biju Patnaik without any fear of being proved wrong: there will never be anyone like him – certainly not before it is time to celebrate his second birth centenary.

He is unique because he is impossible to slot. How does one describe him? A politician? That would be a great injustice to the great man. A visionary? He indeed was a visionary, but is it all there is to him? A statesman? That is perhaps more like it; but it still describes only a part, not the whole. People often throw around the term ‘a man of many parts’ rather casually. But if there ever was a man who fits the description, it has to be the man we know as Biju Babu.

His exploits in multiple arenas – from industry to aviation to politics – are far too well known to bear repetition. His daredevilry – from dropping off essential supplies to beleaguered Indian troops in Kashmir soon after Independence to the stunning mission on a Dakota to rescue Indonesian leader Sultan Sjahrir and his wife – is the stuff of folklore.

That is why I would rather talk about a side to Biju Patnaik that is seldom talked about: the ‘humanist’ in him. As someone who has had the good fortune of observing this side of him from up close, a few anecdotes from the distant past come rushing out of the deep recesses of memory to illuminate the mind space.

Years ago, while roaming deep inside Bhitarkanika trying to put together a story on – what else – environment, I, along with good friend Tapan Padhi, strayed into a lowly, thatched, mud walled house – more out of curiosity than anything else. We were handsomely rewarded for this curiosity. Sitting in a room that could not have been bigger than 8’’X 8’’ and doubled up both as the living room and a drawing room, we got talking to Panu, who must have been in his 70s at the time, in the flickering light of a dibiri (power was a distant dream for the area at the time). All I had to do was broach the name of Biju Babu (as someone who studied in Kendrapara, I knew the special bond the people of the area had with the big man) and the man took us down memory lane, recalling anecdote after anecdote that unveiled the human side of Biju before me.

“A few years ago, budha (literally meaning ‘old man’ but a term of endearment in Odia) turned up on late afternoon and told me; “Panu. I am really hungry. Give me something to eat.” I was so embarrassed. There was nothing at home other than some pakhala. Sensing my discomfiture, budha said; ‘I am sure you have some pakhala. Give me some with some salt – and onion, if you have it.” I could barely watch him gorging on some sour pakhala, raw onion and salt,” Panu went on. Even in the faint, flickering light of the dibiri, I could clearly see tears rolling down the cheeks of the old man.

Good friend Mohan Jena, the former Jajpur MP, gave me a second peep into the human side of Biju Patnaik that many didn’t even know existed. Mohan, who was then a leader of the DSO, had gone to Biju, who was then Chief Minister, for some help for a major surgery that his party colleague had to undergo. Given the state of health care facilities in the state at the time, the operation could only be done in AIIMS, New Delhi. “How much do you need?” asked the Chief Minister. “Rs 1, 000 should be good enough,” Mohan said, eager not to appear greedy. Biju Babu took out some money, put it into an envelope and handed it over to Mohan. After coming back, Mohan found, to his utter surprise, that there were currency notes worth Rs 3, 000 in the envelope. Honest man that he was, Mohan rushed back (Yes, it was possible to do that when he was Chief Minister!) and told him; “I had asked only for Rs 1, 000. I think you have given Rs 3, 000 by mistake”. Pat came the reply; “Not by mistake, young man. You will need it. Delhi is not Bhubaneswar. Do you know how much it would cost you just to commute to AIIMS for a few days?” Mohan kept the money, went to Delhi and got his colleague admitted to AIIMS – only to find that Biju Babu had personally called the AIIMS Director urging him to ensure the best possible care for his friend!

My first encounter with the man turned out to be a memorable affair. Biju Patnaik, as Chief Minister, had just returned from a tour of Rourkela where my father was the Municipality Executive Officer. He had been presented a memento by the Municipality which his staff had mistakenly left behind in Rourkela. My father had entrusted me the onerous task of handing over the memento personally to Biju in the belief that journalists have easier access to the Chief Minister. As someone who was still in the confines of what is often derisively called the ‘desk’, I didn’t see a chance in hell of meeting the Chief Minister. It is here that my friend Biren, who lived right next to Naveen Nivas, came to my rescue. He advised me to land at the Chief Minister’s place with the gift ‘before 6’. And how it worked! As I was trying to explain to the lone policeman at the gate (how things have changed!!!) the purpose of my visit, I heard the familiar baritone asking the guard to let me in. I made my way gingerly to the balcony where Biju Babu had ensconced himself on his favourite chair. As I nervously told him what had brought me there, he asked; “What do you do?” “I work in Sun Times,” I replied, still nervous. “Oh, I see. Soumya’s English paper, right? Good. Have something,” he said pointing to a host of eatables on a table: bakery, fruits and other such stuff. I tried to excuse myself, but there was no way I could ignore his love-tinged command.

My first encounter with him as a ‘proper’ journalist was no less memorable. I had just made a transition to a national English magazine as its Odisha Correspondent and was almost immediately assigned by my Editor to do an interview with the Chief Minister. “How the hell do I get to him?” I wondered. Having just become a reporter after a long stint in the desk, I didn’t have even have a pass to enter the secretariat. Even if I had managed to sneak in (Yes, it was possible to do that in those good old days even if you were not a journalist), the chances of getting an appointment with him was negligible. On an elder’s advice, I called up the land line (those were pre-mobile days) at his residence, hoping to get someone a little friendlier than the CM’s grunt PRO. “Who is it?” thundered the voice from the other side. It did not take me a second to realise that it was the big man himself. [I came to know later that he was in the habit of picking up his phone.] The interview was fixed at the party office near Forest Park at 5 pm the next day.

As I reached the Janata Dal office, I saw a 100+ crowd already assembled there and thought my interview was gone with the March wind. Three minutes before the scheduled interview, the familiar Kalinga Ratha entered the premises. Biju Babu got down and was immediately mobbed by the waiting crowd. “I will listen to you all. But wait. Where is the man from Sun Times?” he boomed. I raised my hand in a desperate bid to catch his attention. He waved me to come to the appointed room.

As I was settling down for the interview, pen and pad in hand, Biju Babu said; “You have just 10 minutes, OK? You saw all those people waiting for me. I have to meet them too.” “Okay, Sir,” I said before ‘firing my first salvo’ as they say. Wonder of wonders! We ended up talking for what looked like eternity, but counted just 45 minutes on the clock!!

In the days and months that followed, I met him plenty of times -not always for an interview – and every subsequent meeting brought out a new facet of the humanism in him. I remember rounding off one of the many interviews I have done with him over the years with the question; “You have lived the life of a king. How would you like to die?” (In retrospect, it appears rather audacious to ask the sitting Chief Minister a question like that. But maybe some of his audacity was beginning to rub off on me!). The answer was a classic, something that I would treasure all my life. “I would like to die a pauper,” said the great man.

Years later, looking at the sea of humanity eagerly waiting on either side of the road from Bhubaneswar to Puri for one last glimpse of their beloved Biju Babu on his funeral procession, I muttered to myself; “This man has died the richest man in recent memory. He is carrying the love and affection of so many to the grave.”

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