Every trip to Bhubaneswar is a reminder of how much the place has changed.
Bhubaneswar’s position in the growth curve implies a greater change than developed places. And as part of my walks around the city, the lack of this particularly fond Oriya culture of khotti struck me like a blow on the face.
For decades, khotti was an integral part of being an Oriya. As much a part as sleeping in the afternoon and eating a heavy dinner. A khotti had important social implications, it changed the way people looked at you. It was the place legends were created, reputations were built.
A khotti, at its most basic definition, was a congregation of friends in the evening, to chat and spend time together. Every person with a social life belonged to a particular khotti – some to more than one.
The location of the khotti played an important role in its popularity. The most popular ones were formed next to paan shops and Omfed (Orissa’s milk federation corporation) stalls. Some khottis were held near old temples, the more youthful ones near parks. Some were strategically held in front of ladies’ hostels – the men in a constant fight with instincts, attraction, and genes – to win the affection of comely women who lived across the road.
Large grounds worked favouribly for the establishment of the khotti, often lending its name to the organization (Police Ground Khotti, Football Ground Khotti). If there wasn’t a ground around, a tree was the requisite. No khotti was complete without a tree overhead. If there wasn’t a place to sit, bikes and scooters would be made to stand, and on top of them, the members would take their place, passing around cigarettes, or gutkhas, or whatever else the group chose to kill themselves with.
It is difficult to put a finger on why the khotti culture became popular.
But perhaps the most important reason was that there was nothing else to do. Back in those days, Bhubaneswar had no malls, no coffee houses, no book stalls, no pubs. In addition, internet wasn’t available everywhere, and at such breakneck speeds. Gadgetry was restricted to phones that could play songs, YouTube was a website you wouldn’t open if you were on a miserly internet plan.
And since there was nothing else to do in the evenings, every male member of the society attached himself to one or the other khotti. And once you joined a khotti, you lived with it through thick and thin, through earthquake or cyclone.
Khottis gave middle-aged men the freedom from their wives. They could bitch, smoke, chew paan and gutkha, and merrily paint the world red. Youngsters achieved the coveted feeling of ‘belonging’ to something, even if it was a motley crew of disillusioned college-goers.
A khotti had social presence too. Most khottis would have a Ganesh Puja/Saraswati Puja pandal attached to themselves. Cricket was the game of choice among the members of most of them. And after the game was over, the discussions would begin. Most discussions were bi-dimensional – bikes and girls.
With the advent of mobile phones, khottis became centres of hours of discussions around phones. There was always that one guy who had a posh phone, and in an era before Whatsapp, had nothing to hide in it. His friends played games on the phone, while others tried to fix deals with their acquaintances to buy or sell phones.
And every khotti also came with its own set of particularly peculiar characters. There was always the bhai of the khotti. With names like Jacky Bhai, Kalia Bhai, and Tippul Bhai, these bhais weren’t the sort who would organize serial blasts in the city. Not for them such violence. They concentrated on matters like sorting a guy who ogled at one of the khotti member’s ‘girl’ – even if she wouldn’t know of the gentleman’s existence. Or scaring a bunch of kids who wanted to play cricket on the same pitch that they did. Khotti bhais limited themselves to civilized disputes.
And every khotti also had the one idiot. The guy who spoke slowly and was automatically considered dim-witted. The entire evening would be spent in kicking his ass, asking him to get cigarettes from the shop, or laughing at fictitious stories of how small his penis is.
The bhai of the khotti would begin it, and on and on it would go, till darkness began to creep into the day, and everyone began to leave for their homes. If there was a reason to celebrate (somebody got hitched, got dumped, or identified a girl as his own), the night of revelry would begin from the khotti itself.
There was a sense of duty about the khotti. If you didn’t turn up for two days in a row, people would raise aspersions on your loyalty to friends. Everybody from college freshers to middle-aged married men belonged to one khotti or the other.
The khotti was the place where disputes were settled or created. The epicenter of rumours, the black hole of privacy. The most scandalous gossip, the most dramatic of stories – all originated from the khotti.
Of course, everybody else hated it. If you were lucky enough to have a girlfriend back then, you had to lie to her about it. Fathers considered the khotti with as much love as a stroke of polio in the family. And mother grumbled and complained about it throughout the day.
Mother: ‘Where are you going?’
Son: ‘Police ground khotti.’
Mother: ‘All day what you do at that khotti? All bunch of donkeysgettingtogethertoruinsocietyifonlyyouspentthatmuchtimeonstudiesyouwouldbe…’
And yet, in spite of the entire world talking ill of your khotti, you went to it everyday. You shared the laughs and the jokes, the bacteria from the street food, the shade from the same tree. For nearly every male in Bhubaneswar back then, a khotti meant the world.
And yet, I rarely see a khotti these days. There are malls, and the tall buildings that come with ‘development’. Technology has reached a stage where you could have a Google Khotti on your mobile phone. And yet all of these factors have eaten into khottis. Corners in streets have shops in their places. Buildings have sprung up from the ground. Streets are wider these days, shops have been razed to make place for hideous Vending Zones – where a bunch of shops are thrown together with an overarching colour of dirty dark green splashed across them.
Time has gotten dearer, and a million tiny things jostle for attention through the day. And just like that, in a few years, the custom seems like it belonged to an ancient time. A time when you stepped out of your house in the evening to be with your friends. To indulge in their idiosyncrasies, to laugh at their jokes even if they were narrated for the hundredth time.
Back then, your khotti determined your social life. In today’s time, you have to update a status, tag your friends to it, and watch sadly as five people ‘like’ it, three of them being your cousins.