Berhampur Diaries: The Larger-Than-Life Figures Of 1970s

“Nothing is easier than to denounce the evildoers, nothing is more difficult than to understand him”- Dostoevsky

” Courage is the first of human qualities because it is the quality which guarantees the others” – Aristotle

If myths and legends are made of people for their extraordinary, outstanding achievements, or are famous for their great courage, grit and guts, my home town Berhampur had its fair share of such myths and legends made in the 1970s. To my impressionable mind at the time there were a few who struck me as larger than life figures, for possessing the qualities I lacked, valued, and admired. The figures who dominated the newspaper headlines and the imagination of the townspeople then were Prabhakar Rao, Pratap Swain, Rabi Mahapatra, Prasanta Patajoshi and et al.

Though what they were famous for was not for some noble deeds of great significance, they were still held as cult figures of sorts for their indomitable courage and strength. They struck me as no less heroic than Lord Hanuman, or Hercules, or Achilles, or Bruce Lee, all embodiments of great courage and strength.  Not a day passed when the town was not possessed by a sense of terror unleashed by one or two of the above figures engaged in violent gang wars with each other. Devoid of any other sources of meaningful engagement, too many youngsters were channeling their raw energies in body-building, learning boxing and other sports and athletics. Eventually every locality had a boxing club, and a gymnasium, and individual or group clashes often erupted between the many such clubs for very petty, personal reasons. The town had become a volcanic tinderbox  waiting to explode anytime, people always living in mortal fear of being caught in the crossfires of these violent clashes.

Deprived of anything called a good, decent upbringing, we were the unfortunate generation of “angry young man” as the cliche goes. If fighting one’s own demons of poverty, lack of opportunity, frustrated desires and dreams of a better future, inherent aggressiveness, and issues of anger, envy, spitefulness and jealousy were not enough, the highly degrading social milieu of the period made things worse for many of us like me. If any proof I need to offer for my assessment I can remind readers of Salim-Javed duo’s classic, unforgettable creation of the same period called Dewaar, it’s hero Amitabh Bachchan personifying and epitomising ” the angry young man”, anti-establishment, brave, courageous character who takes on the might of the underworld dons and civil society rulers single-handedly. I am a bit sure the daimonic trait was as much a personality trait of Amitabh Bachchan in the movie as it were of my heroes as well. My hometown heroes may not have achieved the mega popularity of Deewar or Gangs of Wasseypur heroes, but were surely worthy of a lot more adulation than what came their way. Readers may disagree with my portrayal, many may see them as deserving condemnation and vilification, but surely they were not professional , mercenary supari killers, were not underworld dons dealing with drugs, smuggling, and extortion, nor yet were mafia dons threatening businessmen, they were simply protecting themselves, their friends and relatives from abuse, humiliations, threats, injustices of whatever kind through means fair or foul.  Scan any newspaper of the period and one will come across the names of Prabhakar Rao, Prasanta Patajoshi, Pratap Swain, Rabi Mahapatra and a few others on a regular basis involved in scores of cases of murder, mayhem, murderous attacks, fistfights, rival gangs clashing with deadly weapons in the centre of the town, and worse on a daily basis.

This episode will highlight the courage of Prabhakar Rao, a young man of 20/21 back in the 1970s when he spelt terror in the hearts of many a so-called gangsters and others in Berhampur. If  his very physical features were so intimidating as to make his opponents cringe and tremble in fear, his simple , innocent looking demeanor made him a friendly figure for too many who happened to come close to him. Nearly six feet tall, dark brown skinned, a perfectly built muscular body, the very figure of a sculpture’s delight, Prabha, as he continues to be known even today, was the very embodiment of a handsome young man with a sweet smile always on his face those days. With his passion for sports and athletics, and special interest in boxing since he was a teen, he looked the perfect picture of an able-bodied sportsman. What added to his stature of a fearless young man is the then fashionable Fidel Castro style green colour cap that he always donned over his head.

What is it that made Prabha such a feared, indomitable and super courageous figure in the eyes of my townsmen? And an endearingly lovable man at the same time? Evidently his reputation, whether good or bad or a moderate mixture of both, rested on his ability to take on, sometimes single-handedly, a group of 10-15 dreaded, heavily armed so-called opponents, and leave them bleeding and begging for their lives. And all this victory was almost always achieved with bare hands. What made his reputation not so unclean is his persistent refusal to attack or hurt anyone without giving sufficient warning to avoid violence and bloodshed, and ever eager for reconciliation through dialogue and reason. Nonetheless, his simpleminded approach to any conflict or misunderstanding he was called upon to adjudicate were occasionally coloured by his loyalties to a particular side, rather than based on objective fairness or unfairness of the disputes. Forever too eager to come to the rescue of friends, relatives, or even unknown people in distress in need of help, Prabha never thought of the consequences, and took on the might of even the dreaded hooligans, gangsters, and other anti-socials to secure justice. In someway similar to what we have read in fables of yore about noble savages, Prabha’s story is a classic example of a life given away, and wasted for securing justice for others, through means fair or foul, invariably inviting trouble, violence, police brutality and prison terms on himself. The larger than life image that he came to acquire in the process inevitably invested him with a halo of a great hero of the town, and he remained sort of a cult figure for at least a decade or more after he was sent to jail in a murder case. It is another matter that he was not even present at the site of the murder in which he was framed as one of the main accused by the police. The particular incidents of his life’s involvement in cases of fights, fisticuffs, scuffles, skirmishes, and other violent or not-so-violent cases are so dramatic, theatrical, gripping, and awe-inspiring in nature as to be fit to turn his story into a perfect celluloid or theatre script. Before going into the specific cases of his life sequentially from his adolescent days to the time he gave up the life of violence, and settled down to a peaceful life of domesticity, it’s worthwhile to recall the sheer magnitude of his reputation, good, bad, or dubious, from the single instance when the then Odisha Chief Minister Biju Patnaik personally intervened to grant him parole from jail and invited him to meet him at the CM’s office for a face to face meeting.

This writer had the privilege of meeting Prabha recently to listen to his myth of life, and his tale recounted to me over a few sessions only confirmed what the town always believed about him as being made up of steely, indomitable nerve and courage, yet a man deeply rooted in simplicity, humility, and compassion.

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