by Nandini Sahu 

That day we took her along and rushed to the school ground at 10 am, though the CM was to arrive at 11am. 

Mami Pradhan was ten years old. But she had a tremendous sense of dignity, doing nothing that would be frowned upon in the society as just suitable to a maid’s daughter. She was thin, flat chested, malnutritional and looked hardly six or seven years old. She maintained herself as far as she could, always looking good in her own terms in my old clothes that Ma gave away. She was my classmate, studying in the MCD school. Even native clothes looked fine on her, however old fashioned they might seem to others. She had that air of a refined, accomplished girl, which was purely made up, superficial. She would always struggle to be a face in the crowd, to be different, and was successful to some extent, because she had the advantage of a beaming grin, ear to ear, quite unnecessary most of the times. 

Udayagiri was a small town in central Odisha, in Phulbani district. It was a sleepy town, having no character of its own. My parents spent their lifetime there, more than forty years, without any definite reason. First, they wanted to be together, as teachers, one in a boys’ high school and the other in a girls’ high school, both government schools, so that their children would be secure with both parents. After retirement we pleaded them to move to some other town where proper medical and higher education facilities would be available. But they never agreed. 

“Beta, Phulbani means where flowers speak to men, ‘phool’ speaking ‘vani’; see the greenery around. And Udayagiri is where the sun rises, it’s like the sun-city,” Baba had all excuses. But they spent their whole life with tooth aches, fever, rheumatism, with lack of medical facilities, and now they were all by themselves. Their children are away, in townships, in metro cities and two of my sisters are in the U.S., because one cannot think of a career in Udayagiri, unless one is a farmer or a shopkeeper; or at best, a school teacher. 

Most people of Udayagiri belonged to the hills and most had never seen a train, a sea; forget about an airplane or a chopper. So on that eventful day, we gathered in our school ground, wearing our best frocks, applying little Emami snow-white cream of Ma under Ponds powder, and trying to look our best. Mami had taken special care to groom herself, she was looking more like a clown with that artificial black mole tattooed on her cheek and magenta coloured alta applied on her lips to appear like lipstick. She wore one of my old frocks which Ma had given her the previous year, which she wore only on special occasions. She had made it a point to stand a little ahead of the crowd, to catch the attention of people, and was grinning all the while, for no specific reason. 

The helicopter landed at 11am on the right time, most unlikely for a politician. Biju Babu was different. He was an active and happy-go-lucky kind of a man, quite good looking, like his son Naveen Patnaik, the present Chief Minister of Odisha. Biju Babu was garlanded by the choicest beauties of the local college, best attired, perfumed, who also were awarded with the pleasure of shaking hands with the CM. 

The CM went to the dais straight away and started passionately lecturing the audience. His gestures drew a suppressed murmur from the awestruck audience. In the midst of loud applause, he waved his hands and said, “Jai ho!” 

“Jai ho!” 

“Biju babu ki jai ho!” 

“Long live Biju babu!’ 

“Jai ho! Jai ho! Jai ho!” 

Instantly,and very dramatically, our Mami caught hold of a national flag lying in the ground and vigorously waved it at the party workers and the CM, out of excitement. I tried to stop her from drawing the attention of people towards us, but she was adamant. She shouted in her trilling voice “Baju baju jai ho!” “Baju baju jai ho!” That’s what she could make out from the slogans, I mean. 

A party worker of Biju babu glanced at her, a lanky girl, looking as old as five or six years, hands thin as a bird’s legs, waving and hopping, in rags. He whispered something in the CM’s ears. 

So, she belongs to the people below poverty line, BPL; can make an eye-catching headline. 

Suddenly the CM did an unusual thing. He asked one of his party workers to get that girl on stage. He did it promptly, lifted Mami in a moment and placed her on the dais, in front of the CM, the very Chief Minister of Odisha. Biju babu patted her shoulder, gently, politely, affectionately, and asked, “What’s your name, beti?” 

“Mami Pradhan,” she announced proudly. 

So, that was that. 

“Bhaiyon aur behano! This is real India. This is the real face of Odisha! Look at this girl. Mami Pradhan. She has a dream in her eyes, even if she is poor. Poor? Who is poor? Lord Krishna ate a fistful of puffed rice from his devotee Sudama and they shared their fortune! 

Mami is our Sudama. Let us all take an oath today that we, the privileged, the educated, would do our lot to support all Mami Pradhans in our villages. You have shown your great love and faith in me by casting your precious votes for our party. If you promise to shower your love in the coming general elections, I also promise you that we can create an Odisha of our dreams, where there is no poverty. Garibi hatao!” 

“Jai ho! Biju babu ki jai ho!” 

There was thunderous applause in the air. The journalists rushed to click photographs of Biju babu holding the reed thin hands of Mami Pradhan, still with a grin, ear to ear. 

“God! Look at this girl, she is not at all nervous! See her guts!” our neighbor Mini didi told my elder sister.