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India Currents gave me a voice in days I was very lost. Having my articles selected for publishing was very validating – Shailaja Dixit, Executive Director, Narika, Fremont

At sometime past nine in the morning, Padmacharan Nayak, 97, is busy telling callers about the matters that will be discussed in a meeting of activists that he will chair later this month. “I will take a train and reach the venue- 140 kms away,” informs Nayak who resides in Bhubaneswar.

Like other days, having left the bed at 4 a.m., he takes a short walk, collects spinach from the bushes by the roadside, makes his own coffee — he often prepares his breakfast — before scanning through a few newspapers.

“Time is flying away and there is so much work to do and too many tasks to accomplish. I need to hurry up,” he murmurs.

Celebrating 75 Years Of Freedom

Elsewhere, roughly three hundred kilometers away, in Rairangpur town under tribal dominated Mayurbhanj district, 91-year-old Rasananda Lenka, post his walk and brief yoga session, is ready to embark on a slow walk to his workplace: the sub divisional court, a few hundred meters away from his home. 

Meet the duo from India’s eastern coastal state of Odisha. As youngsters, they grew up in the last two decades leading to India’s Independence in 1947.  They are gearing up to celebrate India’s 75 year of Independence on August 15. Nayak and Lenka say they will attend the functions in their respective localities. “It’s a great day for every Indian,” says Lenka.

Bicycle Days

Covid seems to have had its effects on their habits. These days, after spending a few hours at the court, Lenka prefers to come home by 2.30 in the afternoon, while Nayak has stopped using his preferred vehicle for over eighty years: a bicycle. Two-three years back, he would paddle around the city for his daily jobs. 

“There were times when I would cycle down to Bhubaneswar and Cuttack — a distance of around 100 kms — complete my work and return to my village after a day or two,” he remembers. 

Rasananda Lenka. (Photo by Debi Mohanty)

Dry States

Age, though, has failed to deter his resolve. The child of pre-independent India, Nayak today spearheads a different struggle: to make India liquor free.

Since 2013, under his leadership, activists of Milita Odisha Nisha Nibaran Abhijan (MONNA), a social forum comprising members from all walks of life, are working to make the state and country liquor free. 

Nayak knows, it’s a herculean task, but he is sure, one day, his dream will be realized, it doesn’t matter, whether the day will come in his lifetime or after. 

Grassroots Activism

Apart from sensitizing people of all ages including students, Nayak and his fellow activists have staged peaceful protests, held rallies, awareness campaigns and carried out signature campaigns. They have reached out to over 3,000 villages in 180 blocks across almost all of Odisha’s 30 districts. 

Nayak himself has visited villages in 24 districts. Not only that, he has traveled around the country, met India’s prime minister Narendra Modi and top leaders including Chief Ministers of several states with a request to ban liquor.  Every month, he donates his entire pension amount — Rs 30,000 — to the cause.

Serving The Poor

On the other hand, Lenka does his bit to support the poor villagers who come to him with their cases. He doesn’t disappoint them, takes up the case at a nominal fee, and even provides legal aid, free of cost.

 “A number of times, after the hearing of the cases, I have paid some clients the bus fare for their journey back home, from my pocket,” claims Lenka.

Mahatma Gandhi

Interestingly, both had their trysts with politics, too. Nayak as a student was motivated by Mahatma Gandhi’s patriotism, commitment, leadership, views and visions. He was a lecturer for a few years before he embraced the Leftist ideology. 

Nayak joined the Communist party and also served as a journalist in the Soviet Information Department at New Delhi. 

Subsequently he quit the Communist Party and contested as an Independent candidate from Rajnagar (in Kendrapara district) assembly constituency in 1961 and became an MLA in the Odisha Assembly.

The Road Forward

By his own admission, Lenka is a ‘Congressman throughout.’ Armed with an LLB degree, he began his professional journey as an advocate at the Rairangpur court in 1960. He was also the state Youth Congress secretary. Lenka treasures his fond memories of his association with ex Odisha Chief Minister, the legendary Biju Patnaik, late father of Odisha’s incumbent Chief Minister, Naveen Patnaik.

For two successive terms starting from 1962, Lenka was a councilor of Rairangpur NAC (notified area council). Three decades later, in 1997, India’s President Ms. Droupadi Murmu became a councilor in Rairangpur- which earned municipality status in 2014.

Every Family’s Guardian

Reflecting on pre-independence days, commuting from one place to another posed the biggest challenge. Roads in villages were almost absent.  In towns, only a very few lucky ones had access to newspapers. 

“Yet, everyone knew and adored Gandhiji and his ideas. The entire nation spontaneously responded to his call. He was every family’s guardian. No one has ever commanded more love and respect from an entire nation like he did,” describes Nayak as his eyes lit up.   

The Quit India Movement

In August 1942, when the Quit India Movement begun under Gandhiji’s leadership, like other students of Bana Bihari High school in Kujang town of Odisha’s Jagatsinghpur district (then under undivided Cuttack district), Nayak, a tenth grader, stayed away from class for four months. 

“I never thought I could ever continue my study in life, but I was not sad,” reflects Nayak.

Though he was back in the school and eventually cleared matriculation and then intermediate examination, due to lack of financial support, Nayak failed to enroll into BSc course. So he took up the job of a science teacher for a year at the Bana Bihari high school where he was a student a few years back. And with some amount of money at his disposal, he returned to the Revenshaw college in Cuttack and completed his degree and post graduation in chemistry.

As Nayak and Lenka drive down their memory lanes and share their experience of the era, a sense of nostalgia writ large on their faces, their voices change, automatically. However, when they narrate about the defining moment — India’s Independence — they are excited.

India’s Defining Moment

In 1947, Lenka was in the ninth grade at MKC high school Baripada in Mayurbhanj and Nayak was pursuing his bachelors in science degree at the Revenshaw College.

According to Nayak, well before the sunset of August 14, all the students of Revenshaw College had gathered at the huge ground facing the hostels. “I can’t express the feel of the atmosphere, there were smiles on every face, it’s a different smile,” recalls Nayak. “We celebrated the entire night and returned to our hostel rooms, late in the morning, the next day. We were Independent,’ he grins. 

Nehru’s Speech

YouTube video

The same day, a huge crowd had begun dancing from the afternoon in Baripada market. Lenka was one among them. Sweets were distributed as they patiently listened to Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s historic speech at midnight. “The crowd erupted into a roar of happiness. Celebrations continued till the morning,” he thunders. 

Time has passed by them. They say despite the lack of basic infrastructure then, life was beautiful, the people were very simple and there existed a strong bonding among them. They concede that India has progressed a lot in every sphere, but say, there is still much to be achieved. 

Realizing Gandhiji’s Dream

“We are proud of our country and its democracy. We must remember the sacrifices made by our freedom fighters and try to realize their dreams,” puts Lenka. 

On the other hand, Nayak views that it’s time the government put a ban on liquor which affects society, impacts democracy and corrupts the mind. “We must work together and realize Gandhiji’s dream,” he says.