He was the quintessential non-conformist, a true iconoclast, a perennial rebel, a textbook bohemian and an erudite scholar who could speak and write with equal felicity on things as varied as international oil politics and the Jagannath Cult. But all these epithets don’t even begin to describe the person that Gopal Krushna Mishra was.
As I read about his death on Saturday morning, my mind went back some 30 years in time when, as a young sub in ‘Sambad’, I would frequently run into him near the office gate in the evening and talk endlessly on just about any topic under the sun: the falling standards of English journalism one day, the implications of the Bofors scandal for the Rajiv Gandhi government the next, the rise of Dravid politics in Tamil Nadu the day after and so on. There were occasions when he would discuss all this – and more – in a single session stretching into an hour or more. Of course, he would do the lion’s share of the talking with me listening in rapt attention, only occasionally butting in with a query. He sure was an engaging speaker. There were other colleagues who dreaded his long monologues and found an excuse to slip away. But for some reason, I played the patient listener to the hilt – despite knowing that once in a while he was prone to hyperbole and a bit of innocent, harmless bragging. [I remember one occasion when I asked him – rather mischievously – if he knew how to fly an aeroplane. And sure enough, he gave me a 15-minute long narration of his rendezvous with flying, spiced up with enough technical details to make it convincing!] There was hardly a topic on which he couldn’t talk knowledgeably.
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It is hard to find another man who packed so much into a lifetime. He began as a Junior Finance Service officer in the state government, went on to work as an administrator of the Jagannath Ballav mutt in Puri and then began his long career in journalism lasting over half a century with ‘Janashakti’, a newspaper founded by the then Chief Minister Biren Mitra, in the 1960s.
Gopal Bhaina – as I and many others of my generation used to address him – was a man of many parts. But the two traits that I particularly liked in him were his iconoclasm and his frugal, almost subsistent lifestyle. Coming from a ‘shasani’ Bhattamishra Brahmin family that had pride of place in the Mukti Mandap, he had unhindered access to the sanctum sanctorum of the Jagannath temple. But he was never the conformist who would accept everything about the temple, its rituals and legends without questioning. In fact, he would frequently blast the priestly class and bemoan the degeneration of the cult.
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Gopal Bhaina inherited property that would run into crores, but never claimed or enjoyed his share of it. The man, who could have lived in a palatial building in Puri or Bhubaneswar, chose to spend the better part of his life in a modest single room with an asbestos roof in Kharavela Nagar in the capital away from his family, which stayed just a few kms away. There were two more rooms by the side, one of them given out – not on rent, mind you - to a thelawala and the other to the owner of a small eatery, who took care of him till the end. A small wooden table on which he wrote his stuff was just about the only furniture in his living room. Ask him about this and pat came the reply; “Why should I enjoy something I haven’t earned?”
He was a true bohemian who ate frugally and loved his booze. Even when his health started falling, he would not stop drinking or smoking. If someone pressed him to quit, he would shoot back; “Will I live forever if I do?” He apparently suffered nearly half a dozen heart strokes, something that amazed his friends and doctors alike. But till the very end, he never went to the doctor on his own. It was his son living in Jayadev Vihar, who took him to the hospital when his condition deteriorated recently, but he apparently ran away from there in two days’ time to be where he spent his last few years. He was admitted again after a few days but never recovered this time. In a way, it was perhaps fitting that Gopal Bhaina died at home rather than a hospital. He lived all his life on his own terms and died on his own terms.
Adieu, Gopal Bhaina! They don’t make men like you anymore!