By Bibhuti Patnaik
[Bibhuti Patnaik is without doubt the most widely read writer of our times. At least two generations of Odias have grown up reading his novels. He was also Convenor of the Language Advisory Board of the Kendriya Sahitya Akademi from 2008 to 2012. So, when he says something, others have to sit up and take notice. In this piece, originally written for the editorial page in the November 8 edition of premier Odia daily ‘Sambad’, the eminent author dwells at length on a topic which we Odias have been inexplicably shy of discussing, except in private conversations: the utter disdain with which our Chief Minister, Naveen Patnaik, has dealt with the task of learning the language that is spoken and understood by the people of Odisha.
Note: Some of the unique features of the Odia language have necessitated some explanatory notes within brackets and some paraphrasing for the non-Odia speaking readers.]
Television channels were airing Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik’s address to the people of Odisha on the 15th of last month. A school teacher was sitting by my side at the time, listening to the Chief Minister’s address. “Why did the Chief Minister dub Odia culture as ‘kadali’ (which in Odia means banana) culture?” he asked all of a sudden.
“Kadali culture? I don’t think I heard anything like that in his address,” I said.
“You didn’t hear? Did I hear him wrong? The Chief Minister said ‘kala’, ‘sanskriti’ of Odisha. We call banana ‘kala’.”
“The Chief Minister pronounced ‘kala’ (which, when pronounced the Odia way, means ‘art’) ‘sanskriti’ as ‘kala’ (which, as pronounced by the Chief Minister, means what the teacher described as banana) ‘sanskriti’. That is because the Devanagri script from which he was reading out his speech only has ‘la’ and not ‘la’ (which in Odia is pronounced differently). That is the reason he pronounced ‘kala’ as ‘kala’.”
The primary school teacher, on hearing me, bit his tongue and then said; “Even Bengali and Marwari students in our school learn reading and writing in Odia in six months. Could our Chief Minister, who happens to be the son of Biju Babu, not have learnt how to talk, read and write in Odia in the last 13 years if he wanted to?”
“It is not as if the Chief Minister has not made an effort to learn Odia. As far as I know, he appointed an English professor as his tutor to teach him Odia after he became Chief Minister. The professor also had extraordinary proficiency in Odia and Sanskrit languages. So, he was very confident that he could teach Odia to the Chief Minister, who is proficient in English, without much of a problem and in a very short time. But when there was not much progress in the Chief Minister’s learning of Odia even after six months, he told him one day; “Sir, I am doing everything I can to teach you. But you are unable to read or write in Odia because you are not taking enough interest in learning Odia. If you are not keen to learn Odia, why should I come here and waste your precious time?”
The Chief Minister replied to the professor neither in Hindi nor in English, but in a foreign language of which the home tutor did not understand a word.
“Did you understand what I said?” the Chief Minister asked in English with a smile.
“No Sir, I could not understand a word.”
“I answered you in French. I am proficient in Hindi, English and French. Can’t I do without learning Odia?”
The Chief Minister’s conversation with his home tutor described above is based on hearsay. I don’t know how much of it is true and how much false. But I certainly know that the Chief Minister does not want to give much importance to learning Odia because he is good at Indian languages like Punjabi and Hindi, besides several foreign languages. Couldn’t he have pronounced ‘kala’ (art), ‘phala’ (fruit) and ‘chaula’ (rice) the way they are pronounced in Odia?
While writing the letter to the Union Culture minister demanding classical status for the Odia language, he must have known that the four languages that have got this status – Tamil, Telugu, Kannada and Malayalam – are the official languages of the four concerned states. All work, from the state secretariat to the courts, in these four states – Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Kerala – is done in the regional language. The Chief Ministers of these states read official files written in the language of the state and also write their remarks on the file in the same language. They have been using their respective languages as the official language long before they were accorded classical status. If Odia language, as in the case of other states which have got classical status for their languages, is used for official communication at all levels, can the Chief Minister of Odisha Naveen Patnaik read these files and write his remarks? If he can’t, Odia language will never get the status of the official language of the state as long as he is the Chief Minister of Odisha even if Odia gets classical status.
The efficiency and foresight with which the Chief Minister dealt with the cyclone last month has enhanced people’s faith in his leadership. It appears to be a near certainty that the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) will come to power and Naveen Patnaik will become Chief Minister yet again. The possibility is as much a matter of great joy for Biju lovers as it is a matter of serious apprehension for lovers of the mother tongue of Odisha. This is so because the popular perception is that Odia cannot be the official language of the secretariat as long as he continues to be the Chief Minister of the state. It is both the responsibility and the duty of Naveen Patnaik to dispel such an impression. Language is a matter of self-respect for a race. No one can become a people’s leader by ignoring the sentiments of the people of the state.
Learning Odia, especially for someone who is an Odia, is by no means such a difficult task.
The National Literacy Mission has developed a new method to teach language to adult illiterates in six months. It has been christened Improved Pace and Content of Learning (IPCL). At the core of this new teaching method is the knowledge of objects among adults, something that children do not have. That is why adult illiterates show no interest in learning alphabets if they are asked to learn by rote like children. Unlike in the case of a child, an adult does not need to be told that a ‘balada’ (bullock) has four legs, two horns and a tail to know what the animal is. If ‘balada’ is scribbled below the picture of a bullock, an adult can easily make out that the first letter is ‘ba’, the second ‘la’ and the third ‘da’. The Literacy Mission has taught – and continues to teach – crores of illiterates how to read and write every year in just six months by using pictures. If the Chief Minister spends just an hour every day, he can easily learn to read and write in Odia in two months by using the three volumes of primary books published by Jana Siksha Sadhan Kendra of the state, written on the lines of the IPCL curriculum.
Even after learning reading and writing, the Chief Minister will have to talk to his colleagues in Odia to get his pronunciation right. Health minister Damodar Rout speaks Odia in a way even a villager can understand. If the Chief Minister talks to him in Odia, he may commit a few errors at the beginning, but it would not take long for him to correct them. If he talks to Finance minister Prasanna Acharya, he can even learn Sambalpuri. When Sonia Gandhi failed to understand a particular Hindi word, she was told the English equivalent of the word. She tried to faithfully emulate Indira Gandhi’s Hindi pronunciation. That is why shades of Indira Gandhi’s way of talking are seen in Sonia Gandhi’s pronunciation. Though she had to later take the help of a home tutor to acquire special knowledge of Hindi, her mother-in-law Indira Gandhi was her first teacher when it came to speaking Hindi.
Why cannot Odisha’s great son do what an Italian woman could?
Yes, of course he can. But for that to happen, Odia self respect has to take root and branch out in him.
It is not enough to have an interest to learn a language in old age; it also requires a need and a compulsion. Before somebody tells him something to create this need in him, he should resolve on his own not to attend a literary event or give away prizes of the Odisha Sahitya Academy till he learns to speak in chaste Odia. Academy awards should be given away only by the Academy President. Veteran writer Satakadi Hota is the chairperson of the Odisha Sahitay Academy at present. It is not proper for either the Chief Minister or the Culture minister to give away awards leaving him with nothing better than to to just sit and clap.
Kendriya Sahitya Akademi awards are distributed by the elected President of the Akademi. Neither Union ministers nor even the Prime Minister are invited to the literary meeting organised by the Akademi. And yet the Union Culture ministry bears all the expenses of the Sahitya Akademi. Earlier, the Culture minister in Odisha also doubled up as the chairperson of the Odisha Sahitya Academy. Since a litterateur is currently the chairperson of the Academy, he should be given the honour of giving away the prizes.