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Among celebrities
Joys of interacting with renowned people, known for their humility
Guest Column

P.G. Rama Rao

It had never crossed my mind that one day I would sit in an august assembly with distinguished professors, lawyers, political and social leaders, and other celebrities. It was the senate of the Utkal University, the only university in Orissa till 1966, popularly known as ‘Vani Vihar’. All the colleges in Orissa were affiliated to it. Dr. Prana Krishna Parija, an internationally renowned scientist and one time principal of Ravenshaw College, was the vice-chancellor and Dr. G.C. Rath was the registrar. The D.P.I. (H.E.), heads of PG departments and principals of colleges were ex-officio members of the senate. Other members were elected from the graduates’ constituency and the registered college teacher’s constituency.

My election to the senate was a funny episode. There were only three registered teachers in Kendrapara college. Shri Tata Krishna Murthy was the senior most among us and I requested him to go to the senate. He refused saying that he was already on extension after retirement and might leave the college in a year. Shri S.A.N. Moorthy said he was inexperienced as he was only one-year old in the college and thought that I, with 10 years of teaching experience, should be there. Shri Krishna Murthy proposed my name and Shri S.A.N Moorthy seconded it and my election was uncontested.

My first senate meeting was awe-inspiring. Justice G.C. Mishra, pro-chancellor, conducted the proceedings in a dignified manner. For most part, the language used was English. It was a pleasure to hear eloquent speakers such as Dr. Shri Rama Chandra Dash (political science), Dr. P. K. Pati (English), Dr. M. N. Das (history), Shri Shyam Sundar Mishra (Servants of India Society), Dr. Sadasiva Mishra (D.P.I, [H.E]), Shri Ashok Das (advocate general) and Dr. D.C. Mishra (economics).

I had heard a lot about Dr. Shri Rama Chandra Dash’s intellectual brilliance, debating skills and presence of mind. When he rose in the senate and started his pyrotechnics, I listened with wonder and admiration.

There was a story about Dr. Dash’s presence of mind and quick repartee. It was said that as soon as he entered the chamber for his IAS interview, one of the members of the selection committee asked him, “What is it?” He answered without batting an eyelid, “‘It’ is a pronoun.”

I would rather not go into the reasons for his becoming a professor instead of an administrator, but it is an indisputable fact that Utkal University, the subject of political science and IAS and allied services aspirants gained immensely as a result. His contribution — as head of university inspection teams, member of the syndicate, in promoting political science, for which most IAS aspirants opted — was immense.

For several years in the 60’s and 70’s, candidates from Orissa dominated the civil services scene. The legal profession gained after his retirement when he became an advocate in the high court, having achieved the law degree with distinction before his retirement.

He became an ardent devotee of Shri Satya Sai Baba in his late fifties.

During lunch break on the first day of the senate meetings, I met Dr. P. K. Parija briefly in his office. The famous scientist received me with a genial smile and said: “So you are our friend from Kendrapara.” After that he always referred to me as “our friend from Kendrapara.”

After the two-day session of the senate was over, I stood outside the administrative office of the university wondering if I could get a lift from one of the celebrities as no transport was available on campus. A tall, handsome man approached me and said: “I’m Sarat Pujari, principal, Panchayat College, Baragarh.” We struck a conversation when a car approached us and the man sitting at the steering greeted him, “Hey, Sarat, get in with your friend. Where shall I drop you?” Shri Pujari introduced me to him and said we wanted to go to the railway station.

I discovered during our train journey that Shri Sarat Pujari was a movie star who had received the best actor award from the President a year before. I was surprised that he was not mobbed. In south India, even 50 years ago, movie stars enjoyed a huge fan following and could not be seen in public without crowds gatherings around them. Oriya film industry was in its infancy then and acting was a hobby for educated people like Sarat Pujari. He told me about his family, the hardships he had faced in life before getting a job and the meagre remuneration he got for his movies. We parted at the Cuttack railway station. It was 7pm and Shri Pujari said that he would spend the night at a relative’s house and go back to Baragarh (near Sambalpur) by bus in the morning. I took a bus to Kendrapara.

On August 25, 1964, I was called to face the selection committee for the post of reader in English in Burla Engineering College — then affiliated to and administered by the Utkal University. As soon as I took my seat facing the three celebrities — Dr. P.K. Parija, Dr. Shri Rama Chandra Dash and Dr.P.K. Pati — Dr. Parija introduced me to the others as “our friend from Kendrapara.”

Then he said: “We have called you here with a view to assess your abilities. Am I right?”

As I looked at Dr. Dash, I remembered in a flash the story of his IAS interview.

I said: “No sir, you’re not right.”

Dr. Parija said: “Why not?”

I said: “Question of correct usage, sir. You should have said ‘with a view to assessing your abilities’. Please forgive me for this answer, but you asked for it.”

Dr. Dash asked: “What do you think of Hindi as the official language of India?”

I said: “No, sir, I think it is not fair to non-Hindi speaking people who will find themselves at a disadvantage compared to the Hindi-speaking people. I am in favour of English, which is not the mother tongue of any community in India except the Anglo-Indians who number about a crore or less and, therefore, will ensure justice and fair play to all.”

“Good answer,” said Dr. Dash.

Dr. Pati asked a few questions on my book, The Poetic Rapture (1963). I answered the questions and there were smiles of approval on the three faces before me.

A few days after my return to Kendrapara, Shri B. Pradhan, our principal, told me that Dr. Dash had spoken of my performance in the interview in superlative terms, and all the three members were unanimous about my merit, but could not select me as I did not have the Ph.D degree. I was disappointed but happy that eminent academics like Dr. Parija, Dr. Dash, and Dr. Pati were impressed with my performance. I might have lost the Burla post, but gained so much inwardly.

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