After a long career as an English teacher in colleges across Odisha, Rajkishore Mishra cannot recall failing any student in his classes.
There was, however, one unique failure — not in English, though. Once he tried to teach Odia, the basics, and the disciple could not “pass”.
The student, Naveen Patnaik, however, succeeded in becoming a top politician and a popular chief minister.
Sixteen years into his political career, Patnaik still cannot speak Odia extempore. At rallies, he depends on Odia speeches written in English.
In the assembly, he debates and replies to questions in English.
His inability to speak Odia leaves him vulnerable to criticism from political rivals, but Odias are evidently not too unhappy with their non-Odia-speaking CM.
Patnaik has been Odisha’s CM for 14 uninterrupted years.
To be fair to Patnaik, and strictly speaking, Odia is not his mother tongue — a point Mishra is quick to make.
“Naveen was never exposed to Odia in his childhood. His nanny was British. His mother Gyan was Punjabi and conversed with him in English,” says Mishra, who taught Odia to Patnaik for almost two years before both teacher and student gave up.
Mishra retired in January 2000. Patnaik became the CM for the first time in March the same year. Their Odia classes started a month later.
“I could understand his reluctance to pick up a new language. After a few months he was able to comprehend it. Sometimes, in front of him, his partymen would tell each other in Odia how useless it was to meet the CM. After a few minutes, Naveen would simply smile and say, ‘Mu januchi’ (I understand). They wouldn’t know where to hide,” laughs Mishra.
Opening up for the first time on his stint as Patnaik’s Odia teacher, Mishra recalls, “I told him the word durniti. He said, ‘Professor, allow me to get it registered in my head.’ Then he tapped his forehead and murmured, ‘dur means far, niti is principle. So, it means far away from principle.’ I pointed out, it meant corruption. He retorted, ‘That’s a bad word.’”
Mishra, 73, had last met Patnaik, 67, almost six years ago. But he remembers his student as a perfect gentleman, witty but extremely emotional, an authority on art, a voracious reader and someone who led a very simple lifestyle. “His bedroom used to be littered with books.”
The tuitions took place in the morning, initially, almost daily. “Often, he would ask me to stay back so that he could avoid meeting politicians sitting outside,” says Mishra. “Once he was smoking. I objected and said it was unbecoming of a student to smoke in front of his teacher. Naveen threw away the cigarette and never smoked in front of me again.”
Mishra is reluctant to judge Patnaik harshly. “The coaching was love’s labour’s lost. Perhaps I was a bad teacher. I thought I was wasting his time. At my insistence, he had delivered his first Hindi speech in Sambalpur in 2001.”
The teacher is also aware that his student’s language handicap has not hurt his political fortunes. “People just love him. There have been eloquent Odia speakers in power, but Naveen is a far better CM.”
Patnaik attended the weddings of Mishra’s two daughters and presented Bhagavad Gita on both occasions.
Did Patnaik ever offer his Odia teacher a fee? “He never dared. He knew such an offer would mean an insult,” says Mishra, who spends his retired life in Bhubaneswar.
Only once did Mishra seek his ‘fee’. “I requested him to give a government job to a widow who was in dire straits with her three children.”
After a few months of file circulation, bureaucrats told the CM it would be difficult to give the woman a job because there were 60 such cases in the pipeline.
Patnaik, however, did pay his gurudakshina (tradition of repaying one’s teacher). Soon after, an order was issued announcing permanent government jobs for all 61 women.