The Bhubaneswar airport was still the small five roomed building, the hangars of the flying club and the state aviation in the far corner. I used to get up early, cycling all the way, picking up the weather report from the Meteorological office. The Pushpaks had no radios and all the communications with the ATC was with the Aldis lamp which they aimed at us and flashed. Before making the touchdown, at base leg, we had to take a peek at the wind sock, to anticipate the wind direction on the ground which usually caused a shear just before touchdown.
Many a sortie was cut down only because Nabaghana had been sighted, even from the height of 1200 feet, trudging with his wares across the field, making his way towards the flying club, his aluminum pans visibly glinting in the early morning sun. I recollect one sortie when I had six circuit landings planned for the day- on the base leg approach of the third landing, my instructor had seen Nabaghana ,and after touchdown, when I had nearly pushed the throttle for full power for another take off, he had pulled back the throttle and asked me to taxi back.
We flying cadets would crowd around him for his singadas, aluchops, baras, nimkis, pakoris and ghughuni. I also remember he used to get melt-in-the-mouth chenna gajas, the likes of which I have never tasted anywhere else. Danadars were dried up rasagollas, grainy in texture, coated with caramelized sugar. Even the poories he got were crisp and light. Some days, he would get a still steaming Chenna Podopitha, fresh from the embers he had put it on for the whole night.
His signature dish was the ghughuni with nimkis. He would take a raw green chilly, crush it on the plate, add dollops of ghughuni and then crumble two nimkis, sometimes topping it off with a few pakoris. Viola, this was served with a flourish- we hungry cadets could just never have enough of it. His singadas had a filling of potatoes, groundnuts and bits of coconut. His aluchops had hints of ginger and dhania seeds. How he kept tab of who had eaten how much remains a mystery. There were many among us who short-changed him, but he would take it all in his stride, saying that boys will be boys At times, the Indian Airlines pilots and hostesses flying in would ask the ground staff to fetch Nabaghana’s stuff. They would take it back with them; Nabaghana’s singadas had been eaten in Bombay, Madras and Calcutta from the sixties to the eighties.
Nabaghana was a friend of Biju Patnaik. I never got to know when the friendship started, but he told me tales of the time when Biju Patnaik flew Tiger Moths and Chipmunks at the Flying Club. Nabaghana had set up shop inside the airport in 1954. He had seen the Bhubaneswar Aerodrome graduate from the early Dakotas to the Avros, the Fokker Friendships and then the Boeings and Airbuses. His brother was employed in Indian Airlines and he had flown in every type of aircraft on the family pass. He has been up on joy rides and cross country flights in every aircraft of the Flying Club.
Biju Patnaik had often taken him up on joy rides. They shared a very amicable relationship, calling each other by their first name. Whenever Biju Babu visited the club for a morning stroll, I used to walk back with him. Very often we used to meet Nabaghana, who would be making his slow way to the flying club, laden with his goodies. Biju would make him stop, the lids of all the pans would be opened and Biju babu would get to taste everything. After the tasting session, Biju Babu would wolf down the baras and ghughuni. I remember that Nabaghana would keep count by the number of pieces left. Biju Babu could easily polish off two dozen baras, with three or four generous helpings of the ghughuni. They would then spar on the number he had eaten. I distinctly remember Biju Babu paying him every other time with a hundred rupee note.
They called each other names, and quite a few times even engaged in shadow punches and back slapping. Nabaghana was a very good friend of the veteran pilot, and told me many stories about him. He was a frequent visitor to Naveen Niwas and well known to Biju Babu’s men.
Even after I had left flying, I would often go to visit Nabaghana in the small shanty he had set up near the old terminal. However, when the airport expansion was planned he was asked to move away. Biju Patnaik intervened and asked the Airport Authorities to allow him to continue near the CISF Barracks. Whenever there was a change of head at the Airport, the new officer would throw out Nabaghana, but each time Biju Babu would intervene and ensure that Nabaghana continued his business.
Eventually, due to security reasons, Nabaghana was evicted from the airport premises. Biju babu tried but could not do much, as strict rules had been put in place. He ensured that Nabaghana got a small room inside the Meteorological Staff Colony on the periphery of the Airport. Once again Nabaghana would take his wares in the shoulder-slung pans, twice a day. As he was getting old, he switched to a cycle, carrying the pans on a rear carrier, slung on the handle bar and saddle bar.
After he was removed from the airport, I had lost touch with him for years. I chanced to meet him once while returning from the airport in 2010. He had set up shop near the new entrance road to the airport, just 100 metres from the hospital junction, his wares on a bicycle, with a few of his pots and pans on the sidewalk. I recognised him, even though he had aged in years- the telltale twinkling eyes and the patient smile were all in place. I bought two singadas.After the very first bite,there was an explosion of memories. Nabaghana’s singadas took me down memory lane, the joyful youthful days when life centered on the half hour early morning flying.
I looked at him and asked him to give me ghughuni, then asked him if he had nimkis. “Yes” he said, taking them out from a bag slung on the cycle handle bars. When I asked him to crumble them, he paused. He looked at me searchingly, trying to place me from memories of years gone by. Nobody asked him these days to crumble nimkis! I do not know if he placed me correctly, we were meeting after nearly 15 years, but he did shoot of a few names of my fellow trainees who had gone forth and become pilots. From the very next day, I started visiting him every morning, exchanging stories about good old days.
He was into his eighties,and brought his wares on his bicycle, sticking upa big umbrella and did business from 7 to 9 a.m. His customers were no longer the flying cadets and airport staff; but taxi drivers who came every morning for a hearty breakfast which came cheap at twenty rupees. Nabaghana and I shared many stories of the flying club and Biju babu. He told me about the days when tigers and elephants regularly strayed into the airport from the Chandaka forest. I had myself seen rabbits and hares, foxes and wolves, and once a full grown python which was killed on the runway under the wheels of a landing Fokker. When they cut it open, they found a swallowed fox in his stomach.
Till his death, Biju Patnaik kept in touch with his old friend. Very often someone would come from Naveen Niwas and take back baras and singadas which the old man wanted. Nabaghana too had a free access to Naveen Niwas, and would often visit his friend. He told me that more than half a dozen times,even when he was the CM, Biju Babu would stop his car and talk to him. His only regret was that Biju babu had promised that he would get his son a government job when he came of age, but died before this could happen.
Nabaghana told me that his son had suffered from cancer in 2008. He had gone to Naveen Niwas but was turned away.However, some old timers recognised him and he was given a personal audience with Naveen Patnaik, the son of his old friend. Nabaghana told the Chief Minister of the olden days and his friendship with Biju Patnaik. The Chief Minister sanctioned an amount of Rs 1 lac from his relief fund and later another tranche of a similar amount. His son was cured with the right treatment. Nabaghana was deeply touched by this gesture. He told me that after he had gone to thank the CM, Naveen Patnaik had called him twice to Naveen Niwas and heard him talk of his days with Biju babu.
In 2014, I wrote a piece on Nabaghana along with his photograph. This article found its way in the social media and was posted in Facebook. I got a deluge of e-mails from all over the world, so many pilots recollected him. Many also wrote of his association with Biju Patnaik. After the article was published in the local papers, quite a few readers would land up at the airport gate in the morning to see him. Nabaghana was embarrassed by his new-found popularity, but it certainly did boost his business to a great extent.
Nabaghana had never fallen ill all his life. In March 2015, he complained of abdominal pain. Treatment at the Capital Hospital did not help; the doctors at Cuttack diagnosed it as cancer. He still maintained a stiff upper lip, never giving up hope. I took him to the AIIMS at Bhubaneswar. He was given the best of treatment, but I knew that my friend was dying. When I asked him if he wanted to meet Naveen Patnaik, he refused. Nabaghana died two months later. He was a true karma yogi who believed in selfless service, accepting destiny as it came. For 65 years he had proudly engaged in humble service. If there is ever an honour roll for the builders of modern Bhubaneswar, Nabaghana’s name should surely figure on it, just as his friend Biju Patnaik’s name is enshrined as the builder of modern Odisha.
Anil Dhir, Historian