I logged in to the CBSE-PMT website with sweaty hands and a rapidly beating heart. Within a few seconds, I discovered that I hadn’t made it. Suman Patnaik was nowhere to be found.
“What now?” I told my dad.
“It’s alright Suman, the pre-medical test is difficult to crack. And you lost the seat by just a single mark.” Dad said, later that evening. “Do you want to skip a year and re-attempt it?”
We both agreed for the re-attempt, but the next year too, I missed it by only a few ranks.
I knew my true calling was Humanities and Civil service, but in a society obsessed with engineering and medicine, one had to be either a doctor or an engineer to have some recognition. I was too young and immature to be able to resist the pressure.
Given my contempt for Mathematics, I was left with choices limited to life sciences only. So, I finally enrolled for B.Sc. in Agricultural Science in Odisha University of Agriculture and Technology.
I did well in University. My love for arts found its expression in the form of participation in debates and essay competitions. I even bagged the university award of ‘Literary champion’ and was also a part of the college magazine’s editorial team.
During our final year, we were given a project of going to two villages as a part of our rural agricultural work experience and had the opportunity to interact with farmers and their families very closely. It was a wonderful experience and made me more aware about the condition of the rural areas.
After graduation, I moved to Faridabad to study Geographic Information System and Remote Sensing. The idea was to later apply that knowledge on agriculture. But destiny had other plans.
The whole world was reeling under the effect of the global financial meltdown in 2008 and many of my friends returned home jobless. But, surprisingly, I got selected through campus placement for a job in an electrical utility company in Noida. Even though it was no way relevant, neither to my profile nor my aspirations, I grabbed the opportunity. Something is better than nothing, after all.
That was followed by visits back home over holidays to meet prospective grooms. The girl was educated, had a job, now it was time for marriage!
One such prospect was Shashank Mohanty. He was everything that I could ask for, in a man. He was a feminist, who truly believed in the meaning of equality. He became my best friend and partner in the truest sense.
His job took me to New York. From studying about agriculture to working in an electrical utility company and then landing in New York, it was a journey that I found really odd.
But that’s life. Man proposes, God disposes.
Though extremely apprehensive about moving abroad initially, I finally took the great leap. The first few months were a whirlwind. I was engrossed in all the newness that life had presented to me all of a sudden. New country, new people, new culture. It was all very exciting initially, but then reality struck.
Shashank would be working all day and I would be hunting for jobs. I would appear for interviews, but nothing would materialize. It was depressing, until one lucky morning when I finally got accepted by a consulting firm.
Adjusting in an entirely different and new work environment was challenging, to say the least. I was the only Indian in the office and despite the struggle with the strangeness of all of it, I gradually settled in my new role.
Life started getting comfortable. We would travel to different places every weekend and try different cuisines. From the east coast to the west, from Chicago to Canada, we saw it all. The wanderlust in us was far from being satiated. We even travelled to Europe. Life was bliss.
In spite of all this, I kept feeling some emptiness inside. As if my soul was searching for something. Ideally, this was a dream life that anybody could wish for. But then, what and why was this void inside me? After spending some time looking for ‘real’ happiness, I finally arrived at the answer.
We decided to go back to India.
As usual, Shashank was supportive of this big move.
My parents and in-laws were overjoyed. They were missing us as much we were missing them. Also, with their advancing age, our returning back was like a blessing in disguise.
I did not want to find a job immediately, and I had enough saved to tide over for some time. So I decided to help dad in setting up his long cherished dream- an aromatic oil extraction plant. He had already done the groundwork by finalizing the location and the necessary paperwork.
A few months later, we inaugurated ‘Patnaik Aromatics Private Limited’ in the Balipatna village, about thirty kilometers from Bhubaneswar. Having studied about agriculture and technology, I knew how to carry out the smooth functioning of the factory.
In the next year, we diversified our agro-enterprise to other areas like mushroom cultivation, fodder, poultry, dairy and fishery. From the developed villages on the outskirts of Bhubaneswar, we expanded inwards, to the backward and remote areas.
I was heart-broken to see the condition of the people in these areas. They were living in extreme poverty and they did not have access to the basic amenities and basic education as well. The government had schemes in place, but nothing seemed to be reaching these people or changing their lives.
As I spent more time with the villagers, I came across stories that shocked me.
“Suman dei, me and scores of other women have been cheated in the name of Self Help Group (SHG),” A woman in Narsinghpur cried as she held me by one hand and wiped her tears by the other. Similar victims came forward citing how they lost money to people who were in no way connected to their SHG.
In another village in Nayagarh district, a farmer cried, “Dei, a fraud sugar factory took loans from the bank stating that they would be the corporate guarantors for us, and would provide seeds and fertilizers for our fields, but instead, they used the funds for their own benefits.”
The more I learnt about these farmers and the women, the more restless I became. It gave me sleepless nights. And then, I gradually understood what my next step should be.
With the help of my parents and in-laws, we started an NGO, targeted at skill development and awareness of the farmers, women and their children, which would enable them to be self-sufficient. We named it ‘Utkalika.’
Shashank was a rock solid support through all of this. With his credentials, he found a job in an IT company in Bhubaneswar. During his free time, he oversaw the functioning of our enterprises and the NGO. With him by my side, I knew we would scale higher.
Our efforts did not go unnoticed. We received coverage in the leading newspapers and we also took advantage of social media to create more awareness about these problems. As a result, funds started pouring in and more people started volunteering.
In the next five years, we had covered most of the rural areas across Odisha. Utkalika was now one of the biggest NGO’s in the eastern region of the country. My dream of doing something for my people was finally coming true.
Along with the good publicity, we also received unwanted attention. Local goons started harassing us for supporting the farmers and thrashing their businesses built fraudulently. But, we had become adept at handling them as well.
One sunny morning, as I was enjoying a hot cup of tea while reflecting over my life, feeling content with the way things had turned out, I was interrupted by an unexpected visitor.
“I have come on behalf of Mr. Ramanath Kanungo, president of the Odisha Janata Party. We would be honored if you would join us and help us in making our state better.”
Later in the evening as I relayed the news to Shashank, he said, “What are you waiting for? Your hard work has got you noticed. It’s a golden opportunity. You can do so much more if you reach the top of the hierarchy.” Our families unanimously agreed that I should take the next step.
So I did.
5 years later…
“I, Mrs. Suman Patnaik Mohanty, solemnly affirm… that I will faithfully and conscientiously discharge my duties as Chief Minister for the State of Odisha….”
Utkalika: derived from the word ‘utkal’ meaning Odisha.
NGO: Non-Governmental Organization
Self Help Group: It is a financial intermediary committee usually composed of 10-20 local women or men from the same economical background. Members make small regular savings contributions over a few months until there is enough money in the group to begin lending. Funds may then be lent back to the members or to others in the village for any purpose.
Aspirations Muse: Artoon Sudeepta Mohapatra Sarangi
Picture Courtesy: Nicole Harrington
The above story is an entry into #Aspirations an Artale Greenhorns-2, Feathers Club Exclusive writing event entry.
Check out event guidelines here: https://writers.artoonsinn.com/artale-greenhorns-2/
Check out Arva’s space here: https://writers.artoonsinn.com/author/arva-bhavnagarwala/