off-centre Society

Why Odisha is a State without a stereotype

An Odiya thali   | Photo Credit: Wiki Commons

Language — specifically, accents — and food are perhaps the two easiest ways to stereotype a people. We’ve all heard jokes about Biharis, Punjabis and ‘South Indians’. Now, think Odia. Nothing. How did 4.6 crore Odias manage to slip under everyone’s radar for so long?

For most of my life, whenever I have declared to a stranger that I am an Odia, the response has been a thoughtful ‘hmm’. I can see their faces scanning a mental database for jokes or a major point of reference — and coming up with nothing.

However, that was not always the case. When I landed in a Delhi University hostel back in 2001, I was frequently asked if I wanted mango kernels for lunch.

Hunger deaths from eating untreated mango kernels had occurred recently and it was all over the news. I learned only recently that mango kernel was regular food for some tribes in north Odisha. They are split open, left in a running stream for two or three days to get rid of excess alkaline, and then dried and pounded into flour. But if not treated properly, they can be poisonous. I didn’t know that then.

Plumbing capital

Since then, it has been a relatively silent one-and-a-half decades. Only Bengalis knew enough to taunt you about being a cook or plumber. In fact, while I was dating a Bengali, who is now my wife, she joked that Odia men always had unfettered access to Bengali households because of those occupations. I come from a region that has been called the ‘plumbing capital of India’ — Kendrapara. Even though the epithet is an understatement, and Odia plumbers dominate Southeast Asia and West Asia as well, the information is not very well known and the joke has not caught on.

As for language, though I do a reasonable parody of Odia Hindi and English via my ‘Professor Mahapatra’ act, popular culture is yet to mock us. The standup comic, Biswa Kalyan Rath, tried to turn us into laugh-worthy jokes but it didn’t catch on.

In my eight years of writing about food, I have come across two Odia food festivals in starred hotels. One, by a very famous chef, who served an ‘Odia biryani’ — Odisha has none. The other was put together by a Bengali lady. And the manager of one of the first dedicated Odia restaurants in Delhi now runs a catering service for Bengali food.

For a State whose population is close to a quarter tribal, Odias themselves need to learn what’s Odia and what’s not

For a State whose population is close to a quarter tribal, Odias themselves need to learn what’s Odia and what’s not   | Photo Credit: K. R. DEEPAK

Most people from other States have serious misgivings about food from the Northeast. When it comes to Odia food, even less is known. Beyond the rasagulla, about which there is a border skirmish on, few can identify any other dish.

Coast is all

For a State whose population is close to a quarter tribal, Odias themselves need to learn what’s Odia and what’s not.

Food and language differ so dramatically in the four corners of the State that everyone has taken the convenient stand that coastal Odisha is all that is Odia.

In all this obscurity, one thing most outsiders agree upon is that Odia men make great husbands. Most of them can cook, they are good handymen, they seem meek, and if there is any toxic masculinity, it is still a secret. Odisha Tourism came up with a new tagline last year — India’s best kept secret. And that is so true I wonder if it applies to Odia men too.

The writer farms in the balcony, complains vocally about issues that bother him, and eats his way across the world.

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Printable version | Sep 29, 2021 7:28:43 AM |

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