Pallavi Rebbapragada’s well-researched biography saves us from the shame of letting the spirited story of former Odisha chief minister slide into oblivion

For those no longer young like us, nostalgia is always at a premium. And particularly when we are taken down the memory lane pertaining to the days of Nandini Satpathy, the treat becomes unforgettable. Once enjoying a political footprint that was disproportionately bigger than her small physical stature, reliving the life of the former Odisha chief minister is as good as getting a gripping insight into all that transpired in the rarefied corridors of power during those heady days when Indira Gandhi stamped her authority over the country.

As a close confidante of the then prime minister, who at one point served as the Union Information and Broadcasting minister, and with whom she shared similar interests such as their love for Sambalpuri sarees, it was natural that Satpathy would be compared with her powerful mentor. No wonder, many called her Odisha’s Iron Lady.

But that was then. Few in the new generation remember Satpathy, the original feminist who took umbrage in the early 1970s at being described as the state’s first woman chief minister. ‘Do you call Harekrushna Mahtab the state’s first male chief minister?’ she is known to have retorted. Or when she, as a teenager, pulled down the Union Jack and hoisted the Indian tricolour at Cuttack’s Ravenshaw College when it was an act of undeniable defiance risking jail.

The story of her life: A folktale worth many retelling

In and out of prison during her formative years as a politician — first as a Communist and then as a Congresswoman — Satpathy’s life was a tale of spirited spunk. From being born into a middle-class but highly respected family in congested Buxi Bazar of Cuttack (her father, Kalindi Charan Panigrahi, was a celebrated writer) to being feted by Bollywood celebrities such as Raj Kapoor and Meena Kumari, Satpathy’s rollercoaster story was what qualifies to be a folktale worth retelling over and over again.

We need to be thankful to Pallavi Rebbapragada and her publisher Simon Schuster for reminding us of Satpathy. What Pallavi’s well-researched book Nandini Satpathy: The Iron Lady of Orissa does is to save us from the shame of letting the remarkable life story of an early icon slide into oblivion. For someone who never met Satpathy and only got inspired to find out more about her after reading an obituary that took an unnecessary dig at her when she passed away in 2006, Pallavi has done a commendable job in stitching together Satpathy’s story despite missing the intimate details that one normally expects from a biography.

Satpathy lived a rather lonely life when her days of glory were over. She still shone as an author, and her translation of Taslima Nasreen’s Lajja in Odia was a bestseller, sold in thousands, and got her accolades. But she never regained her glory. She continued as a legislator in the Odisha assembly till she called it quits. But politics and newer political rivals such as Janaki Ballabh Patnaik got the better of her and ensured she stayed on the sidelines.

Pallavi’s narration, at places, suffers from unevenness. At times, while detailing what happened to Satpathy in the 1960s or 1970s, she harks back to events that unfolded in the 1950s or in the 1980s, before getting back to her original subject, that is Satpathy. She uncovers a lot of Odisha politics and its history in the process, but the constant back-and-forth compromises greatly on the raciness of a book about a remarkable figure. Sloppy editing has been a bane, too. Devaraj Urs of Karnataka never became the prime minister as the book suggests. The plural of aircraft is aircraft and never aircrafts. The book has also tripped in the usage of defuse versus diffuse.

Her rise and rise, and mighty fall

But the nitpicking apart, the biography brings alive many facets of a bygone era that we must not forget. Coming alive in the pages of the finely produced book are many characters who helped shape the future of Odisha, spelt Orissa earlier. Malati Devi, Rama Devi, Sarala Devi...the book is an essential primer for anyone interested in Odisha politics and its evolution. Pallavi’s brave effort uncovers many facets of the times and surroundings Satpathy inhabited.

Her own uncle, Bhagirathi Charan Panigrahi, was a Communist who died in British jail when he was just 32 years old, possibly due to custodial torture. And while her close relative died during incarceration, Satpathy as the I&B minister, helped free Bangladesh by helping set up a radio station that espoused the cause of Bangladesh during its liberation struggle in 1971. Not many of us remember that Satpathy was the force behind the radio station that surreptitiously transmitted below the radar of global scrutiny from an address in Ballygunge of the then Calcutta.

Page after page of this Satpathy book holds many such hidden gems, including when Satpathy travelled to Paris for a photo shoot so as to be featured in Vogue. The book also details her rise and rise — from a Rajya Sabha MP to Indira Gandhi’s trusted confidante who, after serving the Union cabinet, became the Odisha chief minister before her mighty fall during the Emergency for not wholeheartedly supporting its stringent measures. She never recovered from that.

Though not complete, Nandini Satpathy: The Iron Lady of Orissa fills important gaps in Odisha’s political and social history. There still remains a lot to be covered in the captivating life of the lady who had few parallels. Yet, we need to be grateful to the author for reminding us of Satpathy — a personality par excellence. As a politician who displayed motherly instincts and a creatively sensitive side in equal measure, Satpathy shone like no one else even after the spotlight deserted her. She shines brightly in our hearts — the many who had the good fortune to know her and share a slice of her joys, sorrows, struggles and successes.

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