Close Encounters of the Odia Kind

Listening to an NRI stand-up comic the other day, I found mention of what some White people experience when they become aware of the atrocities of Western imperialism, colonialism, and racism. They get defensive.

"Some of my best friends are Black / Brown / Muslim / Indian (and so on)," they say, desperately trying to distance themselves from implications of their identity.

Oddly enough, it gave me a Deja Vu, despite never having lived the Indian American life. It has to do with being Odia in a big city.

India doesn't have White folk in any kind of significant quantity. But there are dominant sub-cultures here too. For example, Hindi cinema was, for a long time dominated by Punjabi culture. Saat phere, makai ki roti and sarso ka saag, bhangra and all that. Similarly, literary and journalism circles had a huge Bengali representation.

Telling people you are an Odia comes with its own baggage. It is never enough to just say, “I am Odia” or even “I am from Odisha”. Often, the one I am talking to has to strain her memory to remember what Odisha is. Once they do remember, they are at pains to explain the delay by emphasising that they do know people from Odisha. In fact, some of their best friends are Odia. This is followed by giggling and some badly delivered lines in Bengali because they don’t know Odia and Bengali are different languages and then more awkwardness follows.

Why does this happen? It happens because there is an expectation of awareness in this day and age. When you don’t know something, you feel guilty because you think you should have known. You feel like you have offended the person before you by not knowing who he is or where he comes from.

This is a good thing. It shows you are a fair-minded person who at least wants to do the right thing by being sensitive and aware. You are not the sort of person who will go about slapping people’s backs boasting about your ignorance and claiming that it doesn’t matter where people come from (people who do this often come from well-represented communities and don’t necessarily understand what someone less well represented might be going through).

Lack of representation adversely affects not only those who are without adequate representation, but also those who suffer a lack of awareness because of it. These are good people who would whole-heartedly embrace a new culture and try to learn about it. But because the dominant cultural narrative does not give them access to how some people in their country live, they are placed in the awkward position of having to do social somersaults to explain their ignorance. It’s fun to watch sometimes, when the person is a dick. But sometimes, I just want to put a hand on their shoulder and say that it is alright and that if they want to know anything, I would be happy to explain Odisha to them.

To the best of my knowledge that is. No single Odia can be a complete introduction to Odisha. Just as no single representative of any culture can single-handedly introduce you to their culture. But these first contacts are more about opening windows and less about walking through doors.

Therefore, when you meet an Odia — an actual Odia-speaking person born and brought up in the State of Odisha — know that the right way to start a conversation is with humility and curiosity. Just as it is with any community that you don’t know much about.