Get 'bhanged out' in Bhubaneswar!
Travelling to Odisha's capital city to figure out just what makes its folk so frickin' Goan type 'susegaad'
Urban Oriyas are the gentlest Indians—saying this from experience, of having worked with a few, and befriended many. That might make them seem simple and boring (like the local food perhaps), although if you've watched comedian Biswa Kalyan Rath (whose humour flows from the twang first), you'll know Oriyas can be funny, too.
But people aren't the first things you observe/notice as soon as you reach Odisha's capital, Bhubaneswar, as I did this weekend (for a day, to attend a literature festival). Bombay was bright as a white, Syska LED bulb, when I left at 5 pm. At 7.30 pm, Bhubhaneshwar appeared pitch-dark, as if well past 9pm.
Odd that a country with an east-west range of 29 degrees longitude, meaning time difference of two full hours (for sunrise/sunset) at its extremes, must still adhere to a single Indian Standard Time (IST), for when they wake up, go to school, or head back from work.
Odisha is in the east. So the local time is actually closer to IST (calculated from Mirzapur in Uttar Pradesh). Its people, while equally earthy—in their inherently quiet, almost meek genteelness—defy the loudness of the neighbouring eastern Indians. By which I mean the hollow braggadocio of a UP-ite/Bihari (like me), or indeed the colonial arrogance of an average (upper-class) Bengali.
Bengal, by the way, is currently at war with Odisha over who invented the rasagulla. I think Oriyas must win this claim, simply for being extraordinary sweet themselves, which leads them, I'm told, to being "perennial people pleasers"—a trait that helps them most in the hotel/hospitality business across India. This is probably a reason I find no local waiter at the posh bar/restaurant in Bhubaneswar.
What's up, yo? The coast, I suspect, explains some of Oriya's chill factor. Does it have a downside, as anybody who's excitedly moved to Goa, but struggling with basic services, will tell you? Sure. Don't know if there's an Oriya equivalent for the Goan 'susegaad'.
"Goa is basically Odisha dressed in (westernised) mini-skirt," says a friend of mine, who moved to Bhubaneswar from Bombay few years ago. Meaning, it's the same, clean, neatly-kept state, with lazy sun above, and vast stretches of busy plus virgin beaches below, where things, in keeping with nature around, move slow—if you live here, and wish to get anything done (like fix your AC, maybe).
Speaking of which, nature's is the only fury you're ever likely to experience here. Everyone has a video of how cyclone (Fani) struck their home few months back. As it has every few years, although the death toll, I'm told, has dropped from tens of thousands in 1999, to running into tens now—thanks to effective disaster management.
Shiva, the Hindu god of destruction, in all its 108 forms—from Amarnath to Kashi-Vishwanath—has a home in Bhubhaneshwar's grand Lingaraj Temple. Among the valid epithets I've heard for this lovely capital city is that it's also "Pune of the East", given the large number of educational campuses spread across. One of which, the massive tech-institute KIIT (with an adjoining social-science school called KISS), run by philanthropist-politician with a slightly misplaced name Achyuta (Samanta), is where I'm at.
The epithet I feel like going with, given Bhubaneswar's connection with Shiva, and by association the deity's natural prasad/blessings is that it is, in fact, closest to "India's Amsterdam"!
Do I know any other Indian town where marijuana (among several of Shiva's treats) is sold openly, legally, in proper shops, on regular streets, to be bought, rather than 'scored'? Not even Banaras, where you find bhang retailed easily, everywhere, of course. As you do in Bhubaneswar, and far more in nearby Puri—in dominations of two, five, and 10, according to potency—so a city can collectively go, "Boom Shankar," any time of the day/year.
Locals tell me their former MP, Tathagata Satpathy, now a retired politician, who runs a fine English newspaper, Orissa Post, once made a strong cultural case for re-legalising marijuana in India in parliament. The substance had got banned only in 1985. Satpathy's arguments must have fallen on deaf ears, obviously.
What does normalising cannabis usage mean for a society at large? It has a calming effect, for sure. You've heard of pub brawls. Ever heard of a fight that broke out, because people got too high outside a bhang/weed dhaba/café/store? This sort of 'susegaad' probably has an inter-generational effect on people.
And so, in the dead of the night, local friends take me to what seems like a shopping centre, way past its business hours. Shutters roll up. Lift is closed. We walk up to a terrace-bar for rounds of drinks, and then saunter in to a totally happening, erstwhile-Bombay dance bar, with booze flowing, women moving… And, guests eventually, quietly lining up to leave, once the music is over. Had this been UP/Bihar? Trust me, guns would've gone off.
Mayank Shekhar attempts to make sense of mass culture. He tweets @mayankw14 Send your feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org
The views expressed in this column are the individual's and don't represent those of the paper
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