The words count more than the language

The words count more than the language

Naveen Patnaik still continues his struggle with the language — as revealed again when his speech in Oriya written in the Roman script went viral on the Internet

UNDER him,Orissa has become Odisha,Oriya has become Odia and Odia/Oriya has become the official language of the state. However,the “outsider” chief minister of Orissa,Naveen Patnaik,still continues his own struggle with the language — as revealed once again when his speech in Oriya written in the Roman script went viral on the Internet recently.

Those close to him vouch that he has tried,real hard,to master the language,those now distant from him scoff he hasn’t tried hard enough. Anyways it is a debate that first began in 1997 when the anglophile who rubbed shoulders with the likes of Kennedy widow Jackie Onassis and Mick Jagger,and spent a lifetime away from the state,arrived and took charge of the nascent Biju Janata Dal after the death of father Biju Patnaik,one of Orissa’s tallest leaders.

One story goes that after he came,a public meeting was held to appeal to other Janata Dal leaders to join the breakaway BJD. The leaflet with Patnaik’s appeal was ready for print,but was held up so that he could learn to sign in Oriya. His one-time mentor Pyari Mohan Mohapatra claims that after the 2009 Assembly poll victory,Patnaik pointed out that East India Company ruled India without knowing Hindi.

Sixteen years since he joined the rumble and tumble of Orissa politics,Patnaik’s speaking prowess hasn’t improved much from the initial snatches of “Mote tike khyama karantu,tike samaya lagiba (Please excuse me,I would take some time)”. His first tutor gave up and left while sister Geeta Mehta,a writer,has tried her best to coax him to learn the language.


To be fair to Patnaik,he understands Oriya,but is yet to learn to speak it or write in it. Better still,he may realise that in the larger scheme of things,this matters little,even in a state that was among the first to be formed on the basis of language,in 1936. Even the Congress and BJP no longer ridicule his speeches. The political alternatives to Patnaik are either non-existent or far worse.

A few others surmise that people in rural areas actually love his broken Oriya while those in urban Orissa don’t care what he speaks. If Patnaik does go ahead and win the 2014 Assembly polls,his fourth victory in a row,that debate may be settled once and for all.

Debabrata is a special correspondent based in Bhubaneswar