My first glimpse of former Chief Minister Nandini Satpathy was on August 15, 1972 as she acknowledged with a salute, the group marching by from St Joseph’s Girls’ High School, Bhubaneswar. I was the flag-bearer and I could have sworn she smiled at us all. I was filled with pride, seeing her on the podium, as the CM.
A few months later, one evening at home, I was summoned to pay my respects to the ‘Iron lady’ of Odisha, as she has often been called.
Struggling with a set of theorems that had to be learnt the next day, I just rushed into the drawing room. She smiled benevolently at my dishevelled plaits, skirt and blouse and ink-stained fingers — as I did Namaskar! It was such a memorable event in my life, as I sat and quietly listened to the conversation- on much-needed judicial reforms (my father, Dr Justice Braja Nath Misra was in the judiciary, on deputation to the Secretariat at that time) and politics - all of which I faithfully related to my dozen classmates at school, the very next day.
Till this day, I recall her utter kindness, her smile, her sensitivity. No, there were no airs about her and she remained my inspiration in the years to follow. To add to all this, was something very personal that my mother, Pramila Misra, related to me. Before she married my father and still at her home in Dhenkanal, Aja, my maternal grandfather, Dr Radha Nath Misra, had ‘family’ staying with him. They were the newly married Nandini and Devendra Satpathy!
My mother recalls Devendrababu helping her with some Maths one evening, when she had all but given up solving the equations for homework! later in Delhi, Indira Gandhi came to my Alma Mater, Indraprastha College for Women, in honour of 50 years of our college, at our Golden Jubilee. Gandhi and Satpathy were very close. I had seen all the photographs in the newspapers and read how these two women leaders in India would soon pave the way for women’s education, bring about reforms and help raise a number of women in Parliament, with the Women’s Reservation Bill.
Gandhi spoke to us, in mesmerising tones, of how essential it was to empower all women in India with education, maternal benefits – only then would India progress. Inwardly, I kept thinking of Nandiniji and wishing she too were here, talking to us, beside Indiraji. This was in 1975.
Satpathy was born in 1931 in Cuttack, the eldest daughter of the eminent litterateur Kalindi Charan Panigrahi, (later awarded the Padmabhushan). Her grandfather, Swapneswar Panigrahi was a freedom fighter. Her uncle, Bhagabati Charan Panigrahi, had established the Communist Party in Odisha. Small wonder then that Nandiniji grew up surrounded by talks on freedom, literature and politics. At Ravenshaw College, Nandiniji read for her Master’s Degree in Odia literature. It is here that she joined the left-wing Students’ Federation and soon became a vocal spokesperson.
In 1951, she and others with her were harshly lathi-charged by the police and imprisoned. It was in jail that she met and later married a like-minded activist, Devendra Satpathy. He was later elected to the lok Sabha for two terms from Dhenkanal. In the meantime, Nandiniji was disillusioned with ideological differences within the party and decided to join the Congress in 1958. Her husband too, was disenchanted with party-politics and joined the Sarvodaya party, led by Jayaprakash Narayan. Indira Gandhi took cognizance of Nandiniji’s leadership skills at one particular AICC meeting and history was forged.
Nandinij soon entered the Rajya Sabha in 1962 and proved her mettle, with her fiery independence, tempered with her dedication to just causes. When Gandhi was elected Prime Minister in 1966, she appointed Nandiniji as the Deputy Minister of Information and Broadcasting, later, as a Minister. A few years after that, Nandiniji returned to Odisha and took up at the helm of affairs as the Chief Minister.
Coupled with her intense determination to bring about development of the State, Nandiniji also wrote on literature, translated and created short stories that are popular even today. She translated Taslima Nasreen’s ‘lajjya’ into Odia, as well as Amrita Pritams’s ‘Rasidi Ticket’. The Sahitya Akademi acclaimed these translations.
Nandiniji wrote of one of her characters in her poignant short story Duhita (translated into English): “Our society is thus - a woman is either a devi or a dasi- she can never be a human, nor a being. How will such a society ever know what freedom isIJ” and the young female protagonist Mitali says: “Why talk about Sita or SavitriIJ Sita had her Ram. Savitri had her Satyavan. Women are always advised to be like Sita or Savitri. No one ever advises men to be like Ram or Satyavan.”These words matter today.