The remarks of outsiders on Odias can be unbearably patronising at times. Their nice words don’t warm the cockles of your heart; they leave you fuming and cursing. Behind the words, you realise, there’s sympathy and pity and that detestable sense of superiority.
“Odias are such innocent people, so simple, so unassuming, so guileless,” they would often observe. It instantly hits you as a demeaning assessment, not as genuine appreciation of a self-effacing people. You know what is actually meant: You are not a smart people, at least not as smart as us. Perhaps their view is too inconsequential to get riled about but placed in the backdrop of the general impression of Odisha they carry, it does not appear to be trivial matter.
Despite its many achievements the image that the state carries beyond its boundaries is certainly less than flattering. It is to developed Indian states what third world countries are to the rest of the world: an economic straggler and a backward state in a time warp. It produces the occasional bright sparks of brilliance in the form of its sportspersons and achievers in the field of art and culture but lacks the steady vibrance and pulsating energy of a happening state.
Before we proceed, let’s be warned. There will be harsh observations, uncomplimentary words and facts unpalatable to the collective ego. But we need to face them, have patience for the inconvenient. Introspection would be a futile exercise without it. Tolerance to criticism is reflective of character of communities. Hissing, bristling reaction only highlights lack of confidence.
Now, to continue the original theme, the rude assessment of outsiders, in hindsight, is not vastly different from that of someone who has been out of Odisha for long and thus has the advantage of two reference points for comparison. Odisha of 2019 is definitely not what it was 20 years ago. You can see and feel it.
There is change. There is a mobile phone in every hand, bikes in every home and more cars on roads. There is more alcohol in human systems in villages, urban settlements and cities and more Hindi in our daily conversation. And, more English. There is more expressive talk on social media platforms than in the real world. There are more kids playing mobile games on couches than in playgrounds; more noodle being packed into school bags by moms. The sense of the attire and personal grooming is more in tune with the times. There are more girls on scooties going to colleges and workplaces. Fast food has caught on and there are food trucks in important nooks of cities. Friends who are still not bald have many brands of hair dye to choose from. There is a nascent porn industry with a sturdy consumer base too.
The roads are wider and better. They take you deeper too. Most places in the state are accessible and there are fewer destinations that require an overnight journey. There is more traffic on roads and travel time for even short distances is much longer. Urbanisation has spread wider. The concept of apartments and gated communities has caught on, robbing old towns of their distinctiveness and imposing on them aesthetically agreeable yet characterless uniformity. There are paintings on walls flanking the streets depicting sporting glory and stunted greenery on dividers to make presentable the harsh sight of an urban population on the move. We have malls, those temples of new-age consumerism, sprouting in every available space. There are well-laid gardens designed to enhance the aesthetic appeal of cities. They are also the venues for secret rendezvous of young lovers and those seeking sex on the sly.
Yes, you can perceive change through the senses. But there’s a bizarre emptiness lurking somewhere. We have been in step with the rest of the country in post-liberalisation consumerism, but haven’t produced a Mahendra Singh Dhoni or a PV Sindhu. We have let loose our creative instincts on walls and behemoths of concrete and glass, but we have failed to produce a Satyajit Ray or even a Manoj Bajpayi. At a time when small states are throwing up heroes and achievers of national calibre on a sustained basis, we register nowhere on the radar. Our movies are of abysmal quality. Our cricketers are not in IPL squads. We produce enormous amount of literature on Facebook walls but not many that catch the nation’s attention. And how many start-up millionaires do we have?
The list of what is amiss can be unending. But has been mentioned above is enough to underline the broad point that we are driving at. There’s something out of joint somewhere. There are signs of stagnation all around. Our material progress has far outpaced our achievements in other spheres of activity. Yes, we produce a Dutee Chand or hockey stars of national value, but such achievers are more products of phenomenal individual talent than of conscious systemic nurturing and grooming of capabilities. Talent has to move out of Odisha to bloom and flourish.
This is Odisha of 20 years ago. Amid the cosmetic trappings of materialism and the heady deodorant of modernism, you still smell the staleness of the old.
What’s wrong with us?
For a long time, we have been under-performers, punching well below our weight. For those residing in the state, the sad reality might escape notice because of its familiarity. Sometimes, it takes an outsider to present the correct perspective. If we are perceived as a docile people happy with laidback lives and a community with no hunger to compete with others, then we need to introspect where we lost the plot.