First, I hate this title. It looks so much like those meaningless viral posts that collectively must be wasting giga-hours of netizens’ time, almost to the point of criminality if you look at the number of views and shares they end up getting. “12 reasons why you should date a Punjabi girl”; “10 reasons why having a Bong wife will change your life”. Arrrrggh! There are at least a 100 reasons why you should rather count your puppy’s hairs than read such posts.

Well, this one isn’t, hopefully, as bad.

More than the Odias, I write this for people who don’t belong to the state and only have the state sporadically blip on their radars. The news of a cyclone, an article on mining, a fading geography lesson of childhood, a recent mention by a celebrity judge – this is more likely these days – in a reality show: “Gosh, I can’t believe you are from Odisha”. Ah, great. Thanks for the recognition!

I write this because I am shocked by the lack of basic knowledge about this state, even among very well-meaning, well-read and well-travelled people. It’s still okay when a call centre employee asks you whether Odisha is near Bhubaneswar (Bhubaneswar is the capital city, moron!). But what I can’t reconcile is a friend of mine, an alumnus of a top management college of the country, asking me exactly what language we speak (as if he almost knows what we speak, but exactly what, he isn’t sure). Anyway, more on that later.

And I write this piece not as someone who wishes to brag about his state. I am sure every state has something or the other to brag about and that’s what makes India such a wonderful country. Yes, I am proud to belong to Odisha, but that I should anyway be. Because being proud about your roots is not doing a great service to anybody.

Relegated to the backside as an under-explored part of the Bengal presidency since the British Raj, sometimes overshadowed by its more raucous neighbours, the Bengalis, the state had mostly remained on the edge of India’s collective consciousness. For example, Odisha, which contributes several players to the national hockey team and is a frequent champion in several national tournaments doesn’t find a single mention in the Shahrukh Khan starrer movie “Chak De India”. There are players from every part of the country, but not from a state that has given the national team its captain! Another Shahrukh Khan starrer “Asoka”, revolving around the the valiant king from Magadha and his attempt to conquer a land of brave and fearless fighters, the Utkala (erstwhile Odisha), shows zilch about the culture and tradition of this place, unlike movies like “Bajirao Mastani” and “Devdas” that copiously display Marathi and Bengali cultures respectively.

Now, here are some of the myths.

They speak some language like Odishi, not very rich and developed, unlike some of the other regional languages.

Okay, let me come back to my MBA friend. On a recent visit to my University in Bhubaneswar, he asks me softly, laced with a tinge of embarrassment, whether people in the state speak Bengali or Odishi! When confronted, he tried to gloss over saying “Odishi” was just a slip of tongue and he thought we might be knowing Bengali because they are our neighbours.

We neither speak Bengali nor Odishi. However we, especially those of us who stay close to West Bengal, are magnanimous enough to respond to Bengalis in their own language, an act which is seldom reciprocated by all accounts. You might call it lack of respect for one’s own language, but that’s only part of the story. Odias are very accomodating and are rarely confrontational.

We speak Odia, which by the way is the sixth regional language of the country and the first from the Indo-Aryan family to be accorded the “Classical” status. Incidentally, Hindi and Bengali are not.

To quote the Hindu:

The criteria for declaring a language as classical mandates high antiquity of its early texts/recorded history over a period of 1,500-2,000 years, a body of ancient literature/texts which is considered a valuable heritage by generations of speakers and a literary tradition that is original and not borrowed from another speech community

Odia language has a rich body of literature and has produced several great littérateurs including bi-lingual writers and, Sahitya Academy and Jnanapeeth Award winners.

Odisha is just a state of tribal people.

I have heard people making statements like “Oh, you are so fair (the statement is not about me of course!). You don’t seem to be from Odisha.”

Like Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand, the state has a high percentage of tribals (about 20%). But isn’t that something that needs to be cherished and preserved? Tribals such as the beautifully dressed Bondas have their own unique and sometimes exotic lifestyle, lending colour and variety to our rich heritage.

So, yes, we love our tribes and aborigines, but it is not as if the entire state is comprised of dark, spear-wielding, face painted, leaf-covered “hoo hoo la las”. There is the other 80% too, much like other states, consisting of Brahmins, Kshatriyas and an assortment of other castes within the Hindu population, who talk and behave like your average Indian.

It has some or the other disaster happening all the time.

The myopic 24×7 news channels who have their behinds glued mostly to the metros (you can make news if you are in Delhi and develop an itch at the wrong place!) come down to Odisha with a vengeance only when a natural calamity strikes. People outside hear about the state only in the context of a calamity because your average good news, which can’t be sensationalized or which doesn’t belong to a political hotbed, has no takers.

Some states have flood, others have earthquakes. Some have landslides and others have cloud bursts. With several rivers running through the state, we are prone to floods. We also brave cyclones once in a while, but not as  if we are flying or floating all the time!

The state is unsafe, for it’s infested with Naxalites.

Very recently, someone who is based out of Mumbai and was remotely considering undertaking a road trip to Puri asked me a question: What route should I take to avoid Maoists? Hah. As if Maoists have started opening dhabas along the highway.

There are Maoists in the state. But so are they from Gujrat to Chhattisgarh, from Karnataka to West Bengal. Do we think of Karnataka as a Maoist state? Odisha in the last several years has witnessed less and less of organized, large scale Maoist violence, unlike states such as Chhattisgarh. If at all, isolated incidents take, place mostly in remote or cut-off areas of the state where delivering state administration is a constant challenge.

For city animals like you and me, and an overwhelmingly large percentage of the state’s population, Maoists do provide good tea time reading!

Odisha is somewhere along with the North-Eastern states.

This is so atrocious that it doesn’t even warrant an explanation; but we are used to misinformation atrocities. People harbouring such enlightened thoughts could also believe that India is within Pakistan and Sun revolves alternatively around Earth and Neptune.

But anyway, for the records, far from being North-Eastern, Odisha is part of the Indian peninsula with a coastline of about 600 kilometers, one of just about 10 states of the country that are kissed by the sea. The length of Odisha’s coast is more than that of Karnataka and unlike the smaller North- Eastern states, Odisha is the 9th largest state of the country.

It’s an underdeveloped state with limited exposure to the outside world.

A well-meaning of friend of mine who came down to my University to deliver a talk on e-commerce was surprised to see almost all my students buying stuff online from the apps on their mobiles. “I am surprised ya…” she exclaimed, “…you have smart people here.” I was left aghast thinking what she really expected to see. Students holding Nokia 1-series phone, typing sweet SMSes to each other on monochrome 2-inch screens?

Quite the contrary. The state, especially the capital city of Bhubaneswar, is fast developing into an educational hub of the country, which, along with its nearby towns, is home to about 15 Universities and autonomous institutions. Not many cities of the country can claim that, can they?

What is even more myth-busting is that as per a not-very-old TOI survey, Bhubaneswar has one of the highest mobile internet density among the youth! In the recent Smart City campaign, Bhubaneswar campaign got the maximum citizen engagement on Facebook out of all the competing cities.

Never heard of any Odiya dish. Do they have anything worth a mention?

You can be forgiven for saying that there is nothing called an American cuisine. Or Jamaican sweets.

Odisha is so much steeped in culture and tradition that for every festival, there is a specific traditional dish. For one, we might make a steamed rice cake with sweetened coconut stuffing, sandwiched between turmeric leaves. Sounds exotic? For another, we might make a rice-gram cake dotted with cashews and coconut, baked overnight into a crusty delight, sandwiched between banana leaves and amber charcoal.

Odia dishes taste best when made from fresh, and sometimes unusual, ingredients, employing traditional cooking methods. Unfortunately, the Odia dish hasn’t been adapted to restaurants-type cooking. Outside Odisha, there is hardly a restaurant serving Odiya food because no enterprising Odia has attempted such a thing.

Rasgulla (and not Rosogolla as Bengali’s would pronounce it as), one of most delightful sweets of the country, arguably originated in Odisha as part of the offerings to Lord Jagannath. Recently, the Odisha goverment has attempted to obtain GI tag for it which is currently embroiled in claims and counter-claims.

However, it might come as a surprise to many that Puri Lord Jagannath temple is the largest permanent kitchen in the world feeding more than a lakh daily, and which on special occasions makes 500 Odia dishes for the presiding deity!

The state has no history and culture to speak of, except Odissi Dance may be.

If there is one area in which Odias can stand head and shoulders above most Indian states, its History and Culture.

In addition to being home to classical Odissi dance, the state also has a classical music form by the same name. Here you will also find young boys dance to gravity defying acrobatic moves dressed up as girls in Gotipua. There are several other dance forms too, including Chhau, the martial dance of the “Paika” or the infantry of yore. The state offers at least 7 different types of hand woven Saris, including the Sambalpuri, made famous by the former prime minister of India, Indira Gandhi.

Here in Odisha, you will find handicrafts made from almost every conceivable material: stone and wood, cloth and paper, leaf and bamboo, earth and horns, grass and jute, dried coconut and roots, brass and copper, sand and tree sap and silver and iron, an ensemble extremely rare in any other part of the country.

From scores of serene Buddist sites and excavations to the sea of humanity in Puri Jagannath Rathyatra, from the thousands of ancient temples in the plains to the exotic tribes of the untouched hills, Odisha is an explosion of colour, culture and history.

There aren’t any tourist destinations to speak of except Puri and Konark.

If you take a little time out to look at Google maps, it won’t take you long realize that Odisha enjoys a lion’s share of India’s remaining forests.

From millions of migratory birds in Chilika to majestic tigers in Shimilipal, from the prancing irrawaddy dolphins of Satapada to the proliferation of the extremely beautiful and rare black bucks in Bhetnoi, from the serene beaches of Puri and Gopalpur to the largest saltwater crocodiles of the world at Bhitarakanika, Odisha is a treasure island for the nature lover.

Here, millions of endangered Olive Ridley turtles come en masse from thousands of kilometers to perform their annual ritual of laying eggs, birds from Siberia fly non-stop to spend their winter, exotic red crabs and horse shoe crabs with immense medicinal value bask on the beach and a sea walks back and forth for kilometers in Chandipur. It’s a gross injustice to the state to attempt to capture it all in the limited space.

But of course, if you haven’t seen the awe-inspiring Puri and Lingaraj temples or the excruciatingly exquisite Konark, you don’t have the faintest idea whether one can actually create poetry in stone.

There don’t seem to be any Odia achievers anywhere.

Once a friend of mine from a western state asked me, “What is there in your state to be proud about? No national leaders, no famous personalities, no movie stars”. I laughed. It’s almost same as saying what is there to be proud about India? It’s just a corrupt third world country, teeming with poor humanity, lying at the bottom of human development index with hundreds of rapes every minute and thousands dying everyday in accidents on poor roads or just as they are born.

Perception and reality can sometimes be at the opposite ends of a spectrum.

No, we don’t produce a lot of business tycoons, film stars or cricketing legends (though we have produced national players), or loud mouthed politicians, people who dominate the air time of the country and celebrated by the national media ad nauseum. But Odias have made their mark professionally, running several flagship companies, doing exceedingly well in the software industry, significantly in medicine (some of India’s best doctors are Odias), in literature, art and culture and these days, overwhelmingly, in TV talent shows (so much so that every major talent show that earlier skipped the state now makes it a point have a “Bhubaneswar Audition”).

It’s pointless listing any names. May be we could do better in Business, Film, Politics and Cricket. That should suffice, I guess.

Odisha is a very poor state with people staying in abject poverty.

Yes, Odisha is poor. The average income of the state is far below some of the richer states of the country. But if you look at Odisha, a large part of it is covered in jungles and hilly terrain that isn’t easily accessible. The eastern plains of the state are pretty well off as compared to their western counterparts, but our average doesn’t look all that good. However, we have shown very promising growth in the past several years, with our growth far outstripping the national average.

The problem with the state is not endowment. It’s about registering in the country’s consciousness. Odia people are largely peace loving, plain-living and very accommodating. You would rarely find major incidences of communalism, organized acts of criminality or social disturbance, caste based dirty politics, brazen use of money and muscle power and hooliganism in the state. We don’t make any noise that would make people notice.

Those who think of Odisha as a poor state are correct, but only partly. Because innocence has no dollar value, the bounty of nature doesn’t contribute directly to GDP, the multitude of exotic tribes living in their undisturbed territory probably pull the average income down, the millions of migratory birds that call Odisha their home don’t contribute remittances, the serene lakes, rivers and forests don’t allow excavators for “true development”.

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