The Eagle Of The Storm: Biju Patnaik’s Childhood Tales

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Biju Patnaik is among Odisha’s rare legendary personalities whose stature has grown even after his death. The man continues to inspire awe and attract respect from people belonging to different walks of life. His political rivals, too, hold him in high esteem. Such has been his presence that the political party, Biju Janata Dal, founded in his name after his demise in 1997 continues to rule the eastern state uninterruptedly for the past 20 years. Coinciding with his shradhadiwas, Odisha Bytes brings exclusively for you a yet -to-be-published fictionalised biography on the great man’s childhood by noted writer, academic and columnist Dash Benhur:

 Gateway

When a storm is about to break, thousands of birds scuttle across the sky in panic. But the eagle is unperturbed, for it can fly above the storm.

“The Eagle of the Storm” is the story of a life that was filled with daring – the story of an Odia who was always ready to face any danger for the sake of his people. Finally, he sacrificed everything that he possessed for the development of Odisha.

He came into the world on March 5, 1916, and departed on April 17, 1997, at the ripe age of 81. But every moment of his life was dedicated to the welfare of the people of Odisha. He had the ability and the confidence to deal with any challenge. His open mind, generous nature and farsightedness made him a fearless leader of the people.

During fifty years of political life, divided into two separate phases, with a long interval in between, he served as Odisha’s Chief Minister and also, for brief periods, as a Union Minister. Except for the four years between 1967 and 1971, he was either a Member of Parliament or the Odisha Legislative Assembly for the remaining period, winning 16 General Elections and losing 7; in all, he was elected 8 times to the Odisha Assembly, 4 times to the Lok Sabha and once to the Rajya Sabha. He walked without a care along paths strewn with garlands as well as thorns, turned from a billionaire to a pauper, but was never swayed from the goal of serving his people.

This eagle was the Late Bijoyananda Pattanayak, known to Odisha as Biju Patnaik — the unstoppable leader who always carried in his heart memories of the ancient glory of Odisha. The eagle whom no storm could conquer.

Sunrise

Night had not ended.

Babu Lakshminarayan Pattanayak, Munsif in the Sub-divisional Court at Cuttack, had gone out very early that morning for his usual walk along the banks of the Mahanadi. At home, his wife, Ashalata Devi, was about to give birth to their third child.  Lakshminarayan Babu was tense with anxiety. The midwife, the nurse, their relatives and friends, were waiting expectantly. The sun was about to rise. A bather turned to face the sun, with water from the river cupped in the palms of his hands joined together, chanting an invocation to the Sun-god: “Om jabakusum shankasham kashyapayang mahadyutim.

Laksminarayan Babu was known to be a conscientious and independent judge. Although he attached great value to the ancient traditions of Odisha, he was always ready to welcome new streams of thought, but was strongly opposed to superstitious practices that were being paraded in the name of religion.

Ashalata Devi was already the mother of a son and a daughter.  The son, Sadanand, was older than the daughter, Swikriti. Sadanand had been given the fond nickname of “George” while Swikriti was “Budhi” (“Old Woman”) to her loving parents.

The child was due to arrive at any moment now. Would it be a son or a daughter? It would make no difference to Lakshminarayan Babu, of course.  He only prayed that Ashalata would be relieved of her pain soon.

Just then, Lakshminarayan Babu saw someone running towards him. He had been very patient and had curbed his anxiety but now his patience ran out.  He quickened his stride and walked to meet the man. It was Kuber, the trusted family servitor.

“What’s the news, Kuber?” he asked.

“It’s a boy!” Kuber replied breathlessly.

Lakshminarayan Babu looked up at the early morning sun and joined his hands together in an expression of gratitude. The birth of a son was something to rejoice over, although a daughter would have been welcome too. But the greatest blessing was that Ashalata had been relieved.

It was March 5, 1916. The place, Tulasipur, Cuttack. Following an old Odia custom, sweets were distributed to children from nearby homes. Those who could afford it distributed expensive sweets: khurma or khaja, made from wheat flour that had been fried in ghee and coated with suga; the less affluent made do with mua (popped rice covered with molasses). The announcement was made: “Boys, you have a new playmate!”

Laksminarayan Babu had no faith in horoscopes. He selected a name for the new arrival himself, in advance of the ekoisia (twentyfirst day ceremony), when newly-born children are usually given names. Bijoyananda Pattnayak: that would be the child’s name. He had decided on it before the child’s birth. It would match “Sadanand”. The mother said one day, as she was fondling her baby lovingly: “Mo Biju ta !” (“My darling child”). The name stuck.

Lakshminarayan Babu had not asked any astrologer to prepare a horoscope but someone who had an interest in astrology and was known to the family had found out the precise time of the baby’s birth, prepared a horoscope himself and brought it to the Pattanayak home. Extending the horoscope to the father, he said “This child of yours will be as bright as the Su! He will be a credit to you: self-respecting, outspoken and fearless.”

Lakshminarayan Babu had no desire to listen to the predictions but the last three adjectives made him pause. These qualities in a human being were important for him.  When the gentleman had left, he went through the child’s horoscope. It said:

“The child is born under a rare combination of planets. He will achieve many great things and will be a leader loved by the people. He will be self-made; all his attainments will be self-achieved. He will be industrious and resolute. High ambition is joined in him to a desire to serve. At the time of his birth, seventeen years and two months remain of the mahadasha of Sani (Saturn)”.

Smiling, Lakshminarayan Babu walked into the room where his wife lay on the bed with the child by her side. He said to her: “The horoscope promises a great future for this son of yours! Here, take it. You can keep it if you like.”

She smiled happily.

Yes, I can !

He was seven years old then.

This was in the year 1923. His education had begun. Biju and his elder brother, George, went to school together. The teachers loved him because he had ready answers to all questions. The school in Cuttack that he went to was called “Mission School.” The Head Master was an Englishman by the name of O.J. Milman. He was inclined to be strict but was kind to children who took their studies seriously.

Biju never wanted to miss school, never offered false excuses so that he could stay back at home. His mother had warned him: “Be a good boy and never quarrel with anyone. Remember, your father must never hear any complaints about you.”

He looked taller than George, although he was younger. He was fit and healthy. Some people said he resembled his mother, with his wide forehead and full face.

All noise ceased in the house the moment the boys’ father came home. Every evening, he would ask them what they had been taught that day. Biju was in the Lower Primary class. Laxminarayan Babu’s questions were about games as well as studies. No matter which game was played, his question would be, “Did you win or lose?” He was annoyed if the boys said they had lost. “You must always play to win!” he told them. If a boy reported that he had been thrashed by another child, that was the end! He would be turned out of the house and made to stand outside, on the verandah. “There is no place in this house for someone who comes home after a thrashing!” the father would say.

His eyes and his moustaches merited a close look at such a time! Their mother, Ashalata Devi, was careful not to say a word when her husband was taking one of their sons to task. But when the child was about to go to bed after his dinner, she would stroke his hair lovingly and say, “Always do what your father asks you! He wants you to be tough! If you let your mind become weak, you will be a loser!” Biju saw the compassion in his mother’s eyes even at that young age. If she saw someone who looked needy, she would be generous with her alms. No one who was hungry ever went from their door unfed.

The children were moulded by the combination of their father’s toughness and their mother’s tenderness. No danger or threat could make them bow down. Their father had told them that each danger was a challenge; how well you faced it was a test of your humanity. Their father said, “If you feel frightened, stand still and try to find out the reason for your fright. You will find that it has vanished.”

One day, while talking to them, their father told them about a young man from a forest tribe. “One day, he suddenly saw a tiger in front of him. He had a stick in his hand, but what could he do with that stick?  Someone, perhaps his father or his grandfather, had told him: “Never turn your back and run when you are frightened by something.” He remembered the words now. He stood there and looked the tiger squarely in the eye. The tiger was equally bold: he too just sat there, with his legs outstretched, never moving, shaking his tail from side to side. The sun was overhead. Several hours passed. The young man looked at the tiger unblinkingly. The bamboo shaft, as tall as a man, was in his right hand. The sun set. Who knows what passed through the tiger’s mind but he got up at last, let out a roar and walked away. The young man went home flourishing his stick, without a fear or a tear.

The story remained lodged in Biju’s mind.

One day, he had a stomach ache when he returned from school. He remembered the story of the young man in the forest who had forgotten what fear was. The aching in his stomach increased but he decided not to tell either his mother or his father about it. But the pain became so bad that he felt he would faint. He was forced to tell his father. There was panic in the house. His father rushed him to the hospital and the doctor, an Englishman named Dr. Pebbles, said it was appendicitis. An operation would have to be performed at once. Arrangements were made. But midway through the examination it was found that the child’s appendix had burst! This was a serious complication.  The doctor would have to operate at once or the boy might die.  No anaesthics were available in the hospital, so the operation would have to be done without anaesthesia. Would the child be able to stand it? He would have to keep very still while the surgeon was operating. The doctor was in a fix. What should he do?

He said to Biju’s father, “Please ask your son if he can take the pain.” But before the question could be relayed, Biju replied: “Yes, I can! ”

Biju’s father had been telling his sons stories of other people’s courage, but he himself was sick with fear now. But Biju never moved a muscle until the operation was over.

The operation was successful. The danger had passed.

Dr. Pebbles said to Biju’s father, “Your son has conquered fear. He is quite different from other children.”

If you want to rise …

The house in Cuttack in which Biju’s family lived was called “Anand Bhavan”. His father had got it built several years after they moved to Cuttack.

anand bhawan biju patnaikBiju had been born in a rented house. Anand Bhavan had not been built then. Three brothers and a sister. George was the eldest; then came Sukriti. Biju was the third child. He had another brother, “Siju”, who was four years younger.  His name, in all official records, was Dayananda.

Their father was very particular that their studies and physical education must go hand in hand. Sports could not be neglected. “No matter what you do, you must do it with the determination to succeed! ” he told his children. “Never even think that you cannot do something!”

The following incident happened when Biju was still a student of Mission School. As soon as they returned from school the boys rushed off to play. Each child was free to play a game of his choice, but games that allowed you to sit were not permitted. One had to be physically active while playing, so that sweat flowed from your body. Even at a very young age, Biju was good at football. Sometimes it was hockey, or some other game. His elder brother, George, was good at games too, but none could excel Biju. He liked to boast to his parents of his skill in sports.

Lakshinarayan Babu kept himself informed of everything.

There was a small garden inside the compound of the house. After the boys returned from play, they had to water the plants and take care of them: this was the daily routine. Their father allowed no compromises in the observance of rules.

Visitors to their house sometimes asked Lakshminarayan Babu, “Why do you make these children work so hard? You are a government official; you can ask your peons and orderlies to do the work.”

Few people would have dared to ask him this question openly.  Laxminarayan Babu never allowed the peons and orderlies provided by the government to do any household work for him. But in this regard, he was an exception among government officials.

His reply: “I do it deliberately. Every evening, I sit on my verandah watching the children. They are not given anything to eat unless they have done their share of work. If they do not learn discipline at this age, if they do not get used to physical labour, their lives will be ruined. They can never become proper human beings.”

His constant worry: “Let not my children face defeat in anything they do. Let them be ideal human beings. Let them fly high always.”

In front of Laxminarayan Babu’s house there stood a huge banyan tree. One of Biju’s great pleasures in life was to swing from the hanging aerial roots of this tree. He was about to enter his tenth year but he looked older; it was difficult to guess his age from his looks. If there was something that his friends were unable to do, the call went out to Biju. He loved every challenge. Even among his friends, he was the undisputed leader. He stood out easily because of his tall stature.

The game of swinging from the banyan’s roots was on. Somebody threw a challenge: can anyone swing so high as to touch the topmost branch of the tree?

“It’s impossible!” another boy said.

Biju overheard the remark. He jumped and caught hold of a thick hanging root of the banyan and clung to it. “Now push me as hard as you can!” he said to a friend.  Higher and higher into the air rose the swing, but the topmost branch was still some distance away. “Higher, Biju – a little higher!” his friends roared encouragement. Biju was just inches short of the target. He would not give up.

Success at last! He had touched the highest branch. But as the swing was returning, he slipped and fell to the ground with a loud crash.

His friends rushed to pick him up. They were worried that he might have broken some bones, but Biju had been lucky. He had only twisted an ankle. He got up and limped back to the house.

“What happened?” his father asked. Biju told him everything.

“Were you able to touch that branch?” his father asked him.

‘Yes,” he replied.

“Good !” his father said.

But to himself he said, “Well, that’s what will happen. If you want to rise, you must be prepared to fall sometimes.”

Self-esteem is the ultimate treasure

You can put everything that life has given you in one pan of the balance and your self-respect in the other. This was the belief that ruled all his actions, from the day that Biju first went to school. If you are unable to respect yourself, you will not have the courage to do anything, and a human being without courage is no better than a vegetable.

He was then in the sixth class. With two brothers and a sister, life went on smoothly. George, Budhi, Biju and Siju. Biju was the most active of all. Here now and somewhere far off the next moment. His mother would say to him in jest, “Are those legs that you have or wings?” Put a bicycle in his hands and he would go around the whole of Cuttack in a flash.

It was the year 1927. That year, Biju left Mission School and became a student of Ravenshaw Collegiate School, Cuttack. It was a famous school, as well known for its discipline as for its high academic standards. It was in this school that “Utkal Gourab” Madhusudan Das had studied, although it was then known as ‘Cuttack High School”. It received its new name in 1868. It was here too that Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose had been a student. His fame had spread throughout the country. Students stood up in respect when his name was mentioned. He had become a symbol of courage for the country.

In those years, India was being rocked by an earthquake – the struggle for Independence. Mahatma Gandhi was the helmsman guiding the struggle. His thoughts, his personality and his spirit had entered every Indian. Next to Biju’s school was “Swaraj Ashram”, where the Indian National Congress, Odisha Division, had its office. It had become a meeting-ground for freedom fighters, the epicentre of the freedom struggle. Mahatma Gandhi was about to visit this place.

The 18th of December. “Mahatma Gandhi is coming!” There was a fever of excitement.

Biju had a burning desire to see the Mahatma. What would he be like?  How brave he was! Everyone shook with fear when the British Government’s name was mentioned, but not Gandhiji! He had declared that Indians would fight the foreign rulers with truth! “Non-violence is our weapon; truth, our path.”

Gandhiji had come to Cuttack for the first time in March 1921. Biju was only five then. He had heard many things about Gandhiji at the school. This time, people were saying that he had come to spread the message of “khadi”. He had finished his work in the Ganjam district and was coming to Cuttack now. He would camp in Swaraj Bhavan.  There was endless talk about him. People were coming to Cuttack from all parts of Odisha just to see the Mahatma.

Swaraj Ashram, Cuttack

Biju reached Swaraj Ashram. There were surging crowds everywhere, like the waves of the ocean. Policemen with sticks held them back. It was impossible for anyone to enter. No one could hope to catch a glimpse of the great man.

Suddenly, Gandhiji had felt unwell and so all his programs had been cancelled. He was resting. But the people who had come to see him refused to go away. The police tightened its cordon around the Ashram. But who could hold Biju back? He slipped through the crowd, crawled through the wire fence and entered the building, after a loud argument with the police officers who tried to restrain him.

At the entrance stood Mr. Hargreave, the Superintendent of Police, Cuttack. He could not tolerate this show of impudence by a mere child.  In his hand was a thick baton with a brass knob. He raised his hand and brought it down hard on Biju’s skull.  Blood flowed in a copious stream. Stunned by the blow, Biju fell into the drain nearby.

Two constables were ordered to pick up the boy, find out his identity and address and escort him home. Lakshminarayan Babu was at home. The constables said: “Here, Sir, take charge of your child! Gandhiji is on a visit to Cuttack today and the crowd is unmanageable. Your son broke through the police cordon and fought with the officers. He was hit accidentally on the head.”

Laxminarayan Babu listened but said nothing. He took Biju at once to the hospital.

The police could possibly file a case. The child’s name might enter the criminal records. Laksminarayan Pattanayak was a Munsif himself and knew well how this could affect Biju’s future. He wrote a letter to the Collector expressing regret for the boy’s actions.

But inside, he was proud of what his son had done. It could not have been easy for him to break the strong police cordon. Could the police not have handled the situation in a more civilized manner? Was it necessary for the SP himself to crack open the child’s head? Was this brutality justified?

Biju told his mother everything. The police had treated the people who had assembled for a darshan of Mahatma Gandhi like flies or insects.  The SP had referred to them as “uncivilized natives”. Biju had felt deeply humiliated by all that happened. Confronting Mr. Hargreave, he had said, “It is your job to control the crowd, but who are you to call us “uncivilized natives”?  I will surely break this cordon – you cannot stop me.”

The sight of the injury on her son’s head had upset Ashalata Devi. But after she had heard everything, she felt reassured. He had done the right thing! Such courage in a child of this age was rare. May God give him long life!

 

I shall fly into the clouds

The year: 1931;  the place: the “Kila Padia” in Cuttack — the vast, open meadow on which stood the remains of the 13th century fortress built by the ruling kings of Odisha  to keep invaders at bay. Some distance away was the “Bali Jatra Padia”, the site of the ancient port on the river Mahanadi from which, between the 7th and 9th centuries A.D., ships owned by Odia merchants had sailed to the islands of Sumatra, Java and Bali, laden with rich cargo.

The boy had just been promoted from Class 10 to Class 11. His name in the school register was Bijoyananda Pattanayak but to his large crowd of friends he was “Biju”. He was the tallest boy in his class, towering over even his teachers.

Suddenly, someone in the crowd brought the incredible report that an aircraft had landed in Kila Padia — in fact, there were two of them! Educated people referred to these objects as “Byom Yaan “ – literally, “Space Vehicles”, while to the uninformed they were “Bemjaans”.

Aircraft had first appeared in the skies over India during World War I. Most people had only heard of them and a very few had seen them, but only from a distance. For children, they were mysteries to be marvelled at. Some school textbooks contained references to the flight of the Wright Brothers in America in 1905. But an aircraft landing in a field in Cuttack! A dream, what else?

Curiosity and children are born companions and the 15-year-old Biju was among the most inquisitive of children. The sight of an aircraft playing hide and seek with the clouds was enough to fire up his imagination: the roar of its engine was music to his ears.

He once questioned his father about aircraft and the people who flew them. “What is so wonderful about them?” his father had replied. “Drivers drive cars on roads, don’t they? In the same way, pilots fly aircraft in the skies, that’s all! They are trained to fly, just as drivers are trained to drive; of course, they need special training. You have to be brave and adventurous to fly an aircraft. It’s not easy to determine the direction in which you have to fly and bring your aircraft down to the earth safely.”

Courage and love of adventure had been Biju’s hallmark since his early days. “If courage is what one needs to fly in the sky then I should surely be able to do it!” he thought.

The news that an aircraft had landed in Kila Padia thrilled him. He was one of the hundreds who rushed to see the uncommon sight. But what he saw disappointed him. A cordon of thick ropes surrounded the two aircraft and a whole battalion of policemen armed with lathis had been stationed around them to prevent people from coming too close.  It seemed the whole of Cuttack had moved to Kila Padia on that day. What amazing crowds!  In the centre stood the two aircraft, like birds of an unknown species poised on ungainly legs. If they were not birds what else could they be?  They had wings, tails and legs, even eyes.

Biju felt a surge of excitement. Everyone in the crowd was trying to push ahead and get closer to the aircraft but the police were holding them back. To top it all, this government was run by firangis (foreigners), who were always ready to shower them with lathi-blows at the slightest provocation. It was said the aircraft would remain there all night. They had run out of fuel and had come down to refill their tanks.

Biju was dying to get nearer to the aircraft and touch them. He wanted to see what their engines looked like. Surely, many others had the same desire – but who was bold enough to do it?

Standing next to Biju was another student from the same school – Gopalchandra Chhotrai.

On a sudden impulse, Biju vaulted over the rope cordon and ran towards the centre of the ring, where the aircraft had been parked. There were so many policemen surrounding them that it was difficult for him to even get a look, let alone touch them. But he was not to be denied. He reached forward and placed a hand on the wing of the nearest machine. He had no sooner touched the aircraft than five or six strong hands seized him by the collar and sleeve of his shirt and dragged him away.

“How dare you!” an Inspector of Police, a white man, roared at him. “Haven’t you been told to keep away from these machines? How dare you touch them!”

“Look at the impudence of the boy!” another white policeman said. “Doing something that he has been clearly told not to do ! And he’s just a slip of a boy! I wonder what he’ll turn out to be when he grows up!   Probably a terrorist! Teach him a lesson he will not forget easily!”

That was enough hint to the ‘native’ policemen surrounding the white officers. Two of them caught hold of his arms and dragged him through the crowd to almost the edge of the Kila Padia. Meanwhile, lathi­-blows were raining down on his legs and body. Waves of pain shot through him.

He never knew how he reached his home – maybe some of his friends helped him. His father looked at him but said nothing. Some of the other boys must have related the story to him.

Biju’s father had often told him: “If there is something that you have decided to do, and if you are sure that it is worth doing, you must go ahead and do it! Never leave anything half-done!”

He had wanted to touch the aircraft that landed in the Kila Padia and had done what he wanted to do. The police could not stop him.

It may have been a small incident for the people who witnessed it or for the policemen who dragged him away, but it brought about a lasting change in Biju. That day he decided “ When I grow up, I shall fly up into the clouds in an aircraft!”

Gopabandhu’s umbrella

This incident may have taken place in the year 1927. Biju never mentioned it to anyone and neither did Gopabandhu Das, the other person in the story. It was George Pattanayak, Biju’s elder brother, who wrote about it somewhere.

Since then, the story has become well known.

“Utkalmani” Gopabandhu Das, the “Jewel of Utkal”, who was Odisha’s tallest leader during its struggle for independence under Mahatma Gandhi’s guidance, was 31 years older than Biju. He was born in 1885 and passed away in 1928, when Biju was just under twelve years of age. It was an exceptionally eventful as well as tragic year for both Gopabandhu Das and Odisha. That year, he was busy in collecting relief funds for people in Odisha who had been devastated by floods; he also had to co-ordinate the activities of the Indian National Congress in Odisha as well as those of the Lok Sevak Mandal, which he had founded earlier. Besides, he had to travel to Lahore that year for the annual session of the Congress. Then he was struck down by typhoid. Until the day of his death on June 17, he had no rest at all.

By 1927, he was known to everyone in Odisha as “Utkalmani”. His heart cried for the poor and the suffering. Not only was he known as a journalist and litterateur; he was the ideal held up to the youth of Odisha at a very difficult time.

Biju’s father, Laxminarayan Pattanayak, had the highest regard for Gopabandhu Das and so, in Biju’s eyes, he was the leader that Odisha deserved. It was he who waded through the flood-waters and mud to reach every village in Odisha, carrying rice, chooda (parched and pounded rice) and clothing for those who were in dire need of help.

Driven by the same desire to serve, Biju accompanied Gopabandhu to a flood-affected region. There are different versions of this story: some say it was the Baitarani river that was in flood while others say it was the Brahmani. George Pattanayak himself has written that it was the Kathjodi. A few sceptics have been inclined to doubt the story, saying that such a small child could not have shown such incredible daring. Biju was only 11 when this incident happened, in 1927.

“No smoke without fire,” it has been said. If this entire story had been fiction, how could it have become so widespread? That year was a year of disaster, not for Odisha alone but for a great part of India. Both the east and the west coast of the county were hit by unprecedented floods. Torrential rains began in the last week of July and continued uninterrupted for four days. Both Gujarat and Odisha suffered great damage. People were referring to “Sardar Patel’s Gujarat” and “Gopabandhu Das’s Odisha”, because it was these two great human beings who came to the rescue of millions of flood-stricken people at the risk of their own lives.

In Odisha, all communications had been snapped. On July 18, the train from Howrah to Puri was unable to reach its destination as the tracks had been washed away between Manjuri Road and Baitarani Road. Gopabandhu Das was at his school in Satyabadi, but news of the destruction caused by the flood was reaching him continuously. Being seriously unwell himself, he despatched a team of volunteers under Pandit Lingaraj Mishra to Jajpur.

Countless villages had been submerged. Hundreds of people and their livestock had been swept away. Terrified villages had taken shelter on trees or patches of high ground. Many had lost everything they possessed. Bhadrak and Jajpur were the worst affected.

The Viceroy of India, Lord Irwin, was scheduled to visit Odisha at this time, but the special train by which he was to travel was unable to leave Howrah as the tracks had been washed away.

It was at this time too that Gopabandhu Das decided that he could not stay away from the scene where thousands were in distress; he had to go there himself. He took a boat to Cuttack, together with some volunteers and students. It is entirely possible that a student of Ravenshaw Collegiate School, who was always the first to jump into any situation where there was a scent of danger, whose name was Biju Patnaik, was present in Gopabandhu’s boat at this time. No one is in a position to provide proof of the incident, but it gave rise to a legend that has endured.

Biju’s elder brother, George, has written: “While Biju was a student, he accompanied Utkalmani Gopabandhu on an excursion to provide relief to flood-affected people. The swollen Kathjodi river was about to burst its banks. They were seated in a wooden boat. Suddenly, Utkalmani Gopabandhu’s umbrella was carried away by the wind into the river. Immediately, Biju jumped into the river, retrieved the umbrella and returned it to its owner. Utkalmani said to him: “You jumped into the river. What if you had died? Is my umbrella more valuable than your life?” Biju laughed and replied “Everyone has to die sooner or later – tomorrow, if not today. Should one always live in fear of death?”

Gopabandhu was greatly impressed by the boy’s bravery and gave him his blessings. “I am sure you will win great fame some day and be a credit to us all,” he said.

The sympathy that Biju had for the poor was matched by his daring in the face of danger. Many years have passed, but the memory of this incident has been carefully preserved by some people.

Exploring far horizons by bicycle

Biju was then a student of the I.Sc. (Intermediate in Science) class in Ravenshaw College. He was then at the peak of youth. His mind refused to stay on the ground and was always flying in higher regions. He had a thirst to do something that would make people sit up and take notice. There was no one in the college to rival him in sports. He had been declared “Sports Champion” three times in succession. It was he who introduced the event called ‘Pole Vault’ at athletic competitions in Odisha.

In 1932, when he was only 16…

They were going to have three months of summer vacation, from April 15 to July 15. The perfect time to go roaming! Biju drew up a plan, together with two friends from Cuttack: Bhramarabara Sahu and Amar Dey. Bhramarabara was his classmate at Ravenshaw College but Amar was a student of the Engineering School. They decided they would go on a cycling-tour from Cuttack to Peshawar.

Peshawar? It was such a long way off and the journey would be full of hazards. Wild animals, dacoits, extreme weather and the constant apprehension of illness. He had asked several friends if they would like to join him, but only these two agreed.

But why Peshawar? It was the route, through the Khyber Pass, which countless invaders had taken over the centuries. Peshawar was the oldest city in South Asia. The word “Peshawar” was derived from the Sanskrit name “Purushapur”, which meant “The City of the Brave”. That was why Biju had chosen to go on this journey.

Some of the prominent people in Cuttack who heard of the wild adventure which the three youths were planning, including the prince of Raj Kanika, Shailendra Narayan Bhanjdeo, and two of the professors of Ravenshaw College, Prof. Pranakrushna Parija and Prof Krupa Nath Mishra, offered them encouragement. However, no one offered them the monetary support which they would require. The Athletics Association of Cuttack, which had the resources to help them, declared that this project would be a total waste of money.

There was one generous donor who would certainly have helped in normal circumstances – Madhusudan Das, the famous Odia lawyer and political leader, who was known as “Kulabruddha” – the Grand Old Man of Odisha. But at that time he himself was helpless because of illness and old age and was also deeply in financial debt. Laxminarayan Babu, Biju’s father, was a strong supporter and even arranged some funds for them. “Let the boys explore untrodden paths!” he said. “It is only by exploring the unknown that they will discover new things.”

The 1st of May, 1932. The three young men obtained certificates and identification papers from the City Magistrate at Cuttack. These things might come in handy – who knew? A few clothes, some bedding and a few other necessary things were packed and stored in the carriers behind the seats. They reached Jobra Ghat, the point in Cuttack from which their journey was to begin. Several friends had assembled to see them off. Some hugged them; some shook hands. Everyone requested them to write letters when they could.

Many in Cuttack criticized this as a foolhardy adventure – almost the first in Odisha’s

History. They started out from the Pathara Bandha – the old dam across the river, built of stone – with Biju in the lead and Amar at the rear, and Bhramarabara in the middle.

They chatted endlessly as they pedalled along – across streams and rivulets, by the side of paddy fields, through dense forests. Odisha unfolded itself beneath their wheels.

On the 4th of the month they reached Chakradharpur, which marked Odisha’s boundary. Mahatma Gandhi happened to be in Chakradharpur at the time.

“How lucky for us!” Biju cried out when they got the information. “Five years ago, I tried to catch a glimpse of him in Cuttack but failed to do so. This is an opportunity we should not miss!”

They cycled to the house of an Odia gentleman whose address had been given to them when they started. Here they bathed and had breakfast. Then the three friends started off for the place where Gandhiji was to camp. Impenetrable crowds.  An hour later, Gandhiji arrived, followed by another crowd. For the first time in their lives, they were able to see the Great Leader at close quarters. “He looks exactly the way he appears in pictures!” Biju thought. “Always the same man –  never changing!” He was seated in an open car, leaning on one hand. The crowd was shouting “Mahatma Gandhi ki jai!”, but he kept on looking straight ahead, lost in his thoughts.

That was their first achievement on this bicycle Odyssey.

It wasn’t as though no dangers came their way at all, but the three friends confronted every situation boldly.

This happened somewhere in the jungles of Bihar. Ahead of them lay Ranchi. They were pedalling along, humming a tune. The evening shadows were growing longer. The jungle was thinning out; they could see human habitations ahead. They would halt for the night here. Suddenly, Amar shouted out “Tiger!”  They all saw a Royal Bengal tiger sitting quietly by the roadside, with his forelegs extended. They got off their bicycles. Biju was reminded of the story which his father had told him years ago – the story of the young man from a forest tribe who had met a tiger. He shouted out to his friends “Keep very still, everyone ! Show no signs of fear! This cannot be a man-eating tiger or he wouldn’t be sitting there so calmly!” We are three! Let us look him straight in the eye! He is bound to go away.”

A group of travellers arrived just then. When they saw the tiger they shouted out loudly “Jai Ma Bhawani !” (Praise be to the Great Goddess !)  Biju and his two friends joined them in shouting “Jai Ma Bhawani ! Jai Jagannath !”

And sure enough, the tiger disappeared into the jungle with a great leap!

Many were the adventures they had – great and small.

The 4th of June.

The journey that had begun in Cuttack on May 1 came to an end in Peshawar. En route, they had passed through Chakradharpur, Ranchi, Sasaram, Banaras, Kanpur, Agra, Delhi, Amritsar, Lahore and Rawalpindi. They had to halt in Peshawar for a couple of days to relieve their aching bodies. When the people of Peshawar heard of the adventures which the three young lads had gone through, they were full of praise. They went around visiting places of interest, some of which were of spectacular beauty.  But there was one place which the police would not allow them to enter – the Khyber Pass.

While in Peshawar, they were informed that a member of the group – Amar Dey – had secured a job in the Royal Air Force. He had to take leave of his friends and return to Cuttack to take up his new job.

Biju and Amar took a train back to Cuttack. The journey would take three days and three nights.

They were received at Cuttack by a large crowd of admiring friends. Among those who had come to welcome the boys was Lakshminarayan Pattanayak, Biju’s father.

A friend asked him, “Weren’t you nervous when your son went off on this trip?”

His reply was “Brother, the world we live in is very large. Unless one prepares oneself and tries to find out everything that there is to know, life will become difficult. Whether it is my son or yours, everyone must learn to stand independently on his own two feet, or they will be a burden on the earth. So let them go wherever their legs take them; let them explore new horizons!”

 

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