Odisha...The Land of Chapati Eaters

People have a lot of opinions. And those are, often, on topics that they have little or no expertise on.

There is even a website that makes a living out of sharing views of amateur opinion makers. Ever heard of Quora? It is a question-and-answer website where you can post preposterous questions (some that have no answers) - and receive deserving answers.

It is not until I started reading Quora that it struck me how often people sneak in opinions as questions.

I saw this question on Quora from an engineering aspirant asking if it was safe to study in NIT Rourkela in "naxalite-infested Odisha"?!

It appeared the person had already made up his mind about "naxalite-infested" Odisha.

Someone gave a fitting response which went something like this:
"Oh no you should not come at all. There are these big foot naxalites who come to the campus during the nights and kidnap students. Especially if you were watching porn. So, don't bother..." and he went on, urging this person not to come to Odisha!

This was posted in 2016, in the "achche din" of Narendra Modi.

You can imagine, then, back in the "bure din" of twenty five years ago, how skewed the opinions of people would have been about Rourkela and Odisha. Especially, if you were from a family of adorable bigots, like I was!

"Orissa?? Tch...tch...tch" my cousin's husband started ruefully, shaking his head, "it is very backward...full of poverty, isn't it?!" he added a question tag, for courtesy.

"No it is a beautiful place full of very peaceable people" I said onto deaf ears. He patted me on the shoulder, giving an understanding look, and walked away.

A few days before my first trip to Rourkela, Ramana mama, poring through forms and college documents, exclaimed in horror, "Sambalpur aaa??! Is that where your university is?! Phoolan Devi hails from there!" he stated. The residents of a town with millennia of rich history and culture, and considered to be the education hub of Odisha, would not have been happy.

My mom didn't sleep for three days. She tied multiple amulets and "dhrusti" preventors to keep the bandit queen away from me.

During a subsequent trip, our neighbor in Mylapore, the delightfully funny Mr Varadachari, stopped me by the roadside to inquire about my whereabouts.

"Orissa?? Aiyyayyooo..." he bellowed from his lower stomach. "Full of chapatis, no?" he asked, rhetorically. He wasn't expecting an answer, for, he had more ponderous conclusions to share.

"No, no, uncle! There is abundant rice available" I defended in vain.

"Whatever you say, rice eaters have more brains than chapati eaters. All they have is speed. Look at Kapil Dev. Gave the last over to Chetan Sharma!" he concluded.

"But uncle...Orissa is not in the North" I clarified.

"Dei dei...keep quiet. Don't dupe me. I have seen you since you were running around naked" he said and walked away. In another country, he would have been booked for pedophilia for saying such a thing.

During one of his jaunts at Chennai, Chechu mama was summoned to offer comic commentary on the topic of my college education in Rourkela.

"Chechu! Come here! He lives in Rourkela in Orissa and studies in Sambalpur university" Ramana mama introduced me and started laughing in anticipation of a joke.


"...kela" someone completed.

"Sounds like doodh peda. Must be a very sweet place!" he winked. The crowd roared.

"Sambalpur? Phoolan Devi is the vice-chancellor, eh?" he added. My cousin, Raghu, rolled on the floor laughing uncontrollably (even before ROFL as a style of laughter was invented).

"Look...Phoolan Devi is not from Sambalpur...it's not correct? I protested, but was outvoiced in the din.

Another relative even corrected the name of the town that I had been living in, then, for a year.

"No...no. You mean Roorkee, right? Not 'Roor-kela'" he said, waving off any counterarguments.

After some time, I stopped offering defense. There was no point. I let my native people bask in their bigotry and liberally offer opinions about Odisha, "North Indians", and chapatis and their degenerative effects on the brain.

I didn't clarify that Odisha wasn't in the North. Or chapatis were not staple for Odias. Or that Rourkela was a beautiful, well-planned, cosmopolis, very rarely seen in India. My mom continued to tie amulets around my wrist for my safety, with mantras on her lips.

So, what were the questions that you were asked by relatives and friends about Odisha, Rourkela, or wherever you went to college? How did you manage?

The First Encounter With (Senior) God

"Hey you! Where are you from?" a thin-framed, near-baldhead asked, looking at me with piercing eyes. I was in the midst of filling out my admission forms. My Local Guardian (LG) had just stepped away to meet one of his friends in the college.

"I am from Madras. And you?" I asked, looking at him askance in the eye, with a tinge of irritation, as he had diverted me from my paper work.

I broke a few cardinal rules right there.

First, I looked a Senior God into his eyes. The divinity of his eyes ought to have burned me to ashes - I must have narrowly escaped, and live to tell the tale.

Second, I referred to my city without mentioning the state first, almost causing a constitutional crisis.

Third, I asked a senior a question! I mean, how dare I?

"Hi, I am RK Ramesh (name changed)" he introduced himself magnanimously, extending his hand out for a handshake.

"Just arrived? Lots for you to learn on how you talk to seniors" he said, somewhat vaguely.

He glanced around furtively and whispered, "Look, if someone comes and asks you what I am doing, you should tell him I am helping you fill the application, OK?" I nodded.

"Can you guess my state?" Ramesh asked.

"No" I said with a polite smile, thinking he would take it as a compliment that his state was unguessable.

"No??" he asked puzzled. He looked around, once again, and asked me "Tamizh aa?" My face blossomed like a lotus flower, hearing a word of Tamil, after nearly forty-eight hours.

"Tamilnadu?" I asked him, answering the earlier question. Ramesh laughed. Just then a guy came over and Ramesh spoke to him, at length, in Telugu. After he left, he turned around to me and said, "Now, you will I say, I am from Andhra!"

Before I took leave of him, he had spoken in six different languages to various people (show off!), and told me he was from Sikkim.

Just who was this guy?

He reminded me of the protagonist from an old Tamil movie "Naan Avan Illai" ("I am Not Him"). Gemini Ganesan (father of Bollywood actress Rekha) plays a conman that speaks a dozen languages.
When he refuses to divulge information about himself, despite third-degree torture, the police device a brilliant plan (to the extent that was possible in the 1960's). They wake up Gemini in the middle of the night, and rough him up. The element of surprise will definitely make him speak his mother tongue, the chief police officer theorizes. Those were the days, when Tamilnadu police were next only to Scotland Yard (a dialog from another movie. I know, we take our movies way too seriously).
Anyway, Gemini Ganesan, ever the enigma even in real life, when woken up, blurts out something in Chinese!

What language would Ramesh speak when woken up from sleep? I was dying to find out.

"Today is fine. But I want to meet you, once you are more oriented to the ways of our college, OK?" he said, before he left. I nodded my head, unaware that within the next hour I would receive a crash-course on the "ways of our college" from the senior gods at the hostel, liberally sprinkled with tight slaps on my meek cheeks.

So, who was the first senior that you met? And what was that first encounter like?

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