January 28, 2015
Sisters and brothers,
We live in an age of easy umbrage, when writers are particularly vulnerable to offended folks. So, as precaution, I decided to snitch from President Obama’s recent Delhi town hall, where he in turn snitched from Swami Vivekananda, and addressed all as ‘Sisters and brothers’ ( evoking Vivekananda’s address to the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago in 1893).
Obama was in Des for 2.5 days and for some moments of those in the warm embrace of PM Modi. When he recovered, two realizations struck him: 1) kuch kuch hota hai is one Bollywood song rich with meaning, 2) a planned visit with Michelle to Taj Mahal ain’t happenin’ on account of an oily dead sheikh.
Indians with presence on social media - practically all one billion plus of us - expressed appreciation for the first, the effects of which were visible during the town hall, Señorita et al, and cheered lustily, and as Air Force One took off, began carping about the second. About the Prez’s double speak, about his lecturing to India about secularism and climate change considering he was headed to a medieval land where the raging hashtag would soon be Michelle_Obama_Not_Veiled.
No person would rue missing the Taj more than Obama - okay, Michelle, yes. A charming man with a twinkle in his eye, the world at his feet, his beloved by his side, has two choices: a stroll through the lush gardens of the world’s finest monument to love, or a condolence stopover in a desert in the company of overdressed men? The fact that Obama chose the latter doesn’t translate necessarily into marital discord (as some papers have hinted darkly) or hypocrisy or arrogance - it is, indeed, good ole realpolitik.
It doesn’t mean that what Obama said in the town hall was sheer baloney. In the town hall Obama was himself: a charming professor who connects with his audience and speaks his mind. In Riyadh he will be the US Prez who has protocol to maintain. (You seriously think he didn’t notice Michelle change out of that floral dress into stern black pants as she transitioned from Delhi to Riyadh?) Or catch the Twitter din proclaiming imminent apocalypse because, la haul vila kuwat, a woman was out and about without a swathed head?
I am reminded of an anecdote that P Chidambaram narrated. A foreign journalist was in India after a visit to China and he mentioned how he was left speechless in Beijing (presumably at the breathtaking pace of progress). Congrats, the minister said, in India you have found your voice! In the town hall, Obama spoke in his voice - India does that to people.
And why are we drawing any comparisons with Saudi Arabia at all? Do we tell our children, ja beta, Saudi mien ja kar apna naam roshan kar? Instead, come admission time, don’t we share the name of the Ivy League - or minor league - US university that our child got into, followed by mile-long exclamation marks, because, Señorita, bade bade deshon mein … you know what I mean?
Aim for the highest standards, India. The world belongs to the nerds - hallelujah to all those engineering colleges, eh?!, and future success will be determined by harnessing the potential of one billion. Oil will run its course, as will medieval oligarchies that closet one half of their population. Education, skill-creation, freedom, opportunity, these will see us through. In the words of Vivekananda himself, “We are what our thoughts have made us; so take care about what you think. Words are secondary. Thoughts live; they travel far.”
As they did that morning in Delhi, they travelled from a September day in Chicago, from the year 1893, to a room full of Vivekananda’s country- men, women, and children, on the lips of a man who reveres Martin Luther King who, in turn, was inspired by Mahatama Gandhi.
Thoughts live; they travel far. Think high, India.