They invoked Gandhi, they invoked Godse. Now it’s the turn of the man who “fought Godse”.
On May 11, a bewildered old woman was bundled into a car by her daughter in Odisha’s Rajkanika block and taken to Bhubaneswar, 135 km away, presented before Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik, and handed over a cheque of Rs 5 lakh. The sum, the biggest the 86-year-old Mandodari had ever seen, was being given to her for being “Raghu Nayak’s widow”, she was told.
As Mandodari and two of her daughters, on whom she depends for a living, wonder at this sudden largesse, locals suggest the reason is more prosaic: the possible visit of Union Minister of State for Petroleum and Natural Gas Dharmendra Pradhan to Rajkanika, located in Kendrapara district.
With panchayat polls due next year, the ruling BJD, they say, was just ruling out the Gandhi card.
Raghu Nayak’s story began and ended in minutes on the lawns of Birla House in Delhi, the day Mahatma Gandhi was shot there by Nathuram Godse. Moments after Godse shot the Mahatma on January 30, 1948, the then 37-year-old gardener of the lawns sprang to his feet and grabbed the tall killer. He managed to pin him down with the khurpi he used to dig soil. A year later, Nayak was one of the prosecution witnesses who helped trial judge Atma Charan sentence Godse to death.
Nayak was first recognised as a “hero” only in 1952, when then president Rajendra Prasad gave him a cash reward of Rs 500 with a letter lauding him for “fighting Godse”. He kept on serving at the Birla House as a gardener till he retired in 1968.
By the time he died in 1983, he had been consumed by both obscurity and hardship.
Nayak’s story was all but forgotten until last month, when CM Patnaik announced the Rs 5 lakh assistance for Mandodari, now a frail octogenarian with no teeth.
Recalling the hurried events of the day, Nayak’s middle daughter Basanti Mallick (52) says, “The village tehsildar told us to go to Bhubaneswar. I hastily packed whatever documents I had with me and left for the capital with my mother.”
For over a decade now, Mandodari, who has four children, has been living with Basanti in Kendrapara’s Jorolo village, 5 km from Nayak’s native Jaguleipada. She shares the small kuchcha home with seven other members of Basanti’s family, including two grandchildren.
Over the years, help has been little and far between. Mandodari would be remembered sporadically, sometimes in an odd news report or when politicians would chip in — Rs 10,000 in 1998 by the J B Patnaik government, Rs 6,000 from former Congress minister Niranjan Patnaik in 2002, and Rs 30,000 by the Patnaik government in 2013.
In 2005, residents of Jaguleipada erected a memorial in Nayak’s honour with assistance from German auto major Daimler-Chrysler that took note of his “heroics” from an article that appeared in an English daily.
The state government brushes aside allegations of indifference and that the latest grant is politically motivated. “The Rs 5 lakh cheque was a genuine attempt to help the family. Our government has helped her in the past too,” says former Rajkanika MLA and local BJD leader Pratap Deb.
Talking about her husband’s days with Gandhi, Mandodari, who is these days at the house of her youngest daughter Jayanti in Cuttack, says, “He used to stay in the servants’ quarter of former Odisha CM Harekrushna Mahtab’s residence at 19, Akbar Road, and walk to Birla House for work. He would get the goat’s milk which the Mahatma loved most.”
A Class VII pass, Nayak had travelled to Kolkata with some village friends in 1925 and found a job as a gardener at Birla House there. Impressed by his loyalty and devotion to work, he was sent to Birla House in Delhi in 1930. After his first wife Badan Nayak died in 1946, Nayak had married Mandodari.
Nayak retired from Birla House with a monthly pension of Rs 25, which is now up to Rs 100. Mandodari remembers they had to sell her ornaments to get one of their daughters married. After Nayak died, Mandodari stayed initially with their only son Bidyadhar, but had to leave the family home in Jaguleipada allegedly unable to bear the torture of her daughter-in-law.
A little more than a decade ago, she shifted in with Basanti.
While Mandodari doesn’t talk much, the unexpected generosity has left the family more vexed.
Basanti, a nominee in her mother’s bank account, has announced she will use some of the money to plaster and paint her house. “As mother stays with me, she would need a pucca toilet. Earlier, I could not afford fruits and energy drinks like Horlicks for her, but now I can,” says Basanti, who earns Rs 2,000 month as an anganwadi worker. Much of the money that the family earns from selling paddy on 1.5 acres of land is spent on treating Basanti’s son-in-law, who is suffering from gastro-intestinal cancer.
Basanti’s declaration hasn’t gone down well with Jayanti. “I too should be a nominee. My daughter is bringing different fruit juices for her grandmother everyday,” she says.
Villagers in Jorolo say that one of Nayak’s grandsons too created a ruckus a few days ago seeking a share of the money.
“The government has no say on how the family spends the money. We have no plans to interfere,” says Rajkanika tehsildar Sukadev Behera.
While the daughters tussle over the grant, they are unanimous Nayak needs to be mentioned in history books. “My father was confident that someday people would remember him and the time has come to give him his due,” says Basanti.