BEN & JERRY’S ice-cream has a new flavour: Yes Pecan. My son Rohan says if we had lived in the olden days, they’d have commemorated an African-American with chocolate flavor. But today, on the steps of the US Capitol, once built on the broken backs of black slaves, Martin Luther King’s legacy comes alive as a coloured man takes the highest office in the most powerful country in the world. Children held aloft on shoulders patiently for hours are told that in this land where dreams come true, anything is possible. Once the oath, the music, the song, the poem and the speech has the audience in its grip, the sea of hopeful faces breaks in waves of relief. Strangers hug strangers. One half is crying shamelessly. The other half is wearing goofy smiles. Older African- Americans are mobbed by young ones for anecdotes. The clichés ‘historic’ and ‘charisma’ are bandied about. There’s nothing one can compare it to, really. Woodstock? JFK? Nah. This has political wattage and emotional heft beyond belief.
Though sharp and sombre compared to earlier clarion calls of hope, Barack Obama’s speech has the roiling rhythms of a Black pastor’s oratory. We are ‘humble’, ‘grateful’, ‘mindful’, and utterly swayed by his sense of purpose. Not since I heard Toni Morrison two months ago have I had such goose-pimples.
Goose-pimples are expected. It’s as absurdly crowded as it is cold. In an acute case of yes-we-can-itis, Rohan left home today at 5 am, dragging his father and an orange razai to the Washington Mall. On the way back, he walked miles. His nose ran. He is down with a barking cough, and will miss his eighth grade reviews tomorrow. “Sooo worth it,” he croaks. I tug at his unthawed clothes: “It is time to change.”
My husband’s back is out. I tell him to lie back and think of Obama: the President went through seven dances in seven inaugural balls. I urge him: “Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America.”
Children held aloft on shoulders for hours are told that in this land anything is possible
My daughter Shahana has spent all day glued to the TV and her cellphone. She has commented on Malia in periwinkle, Aretha’s hat and the pheasant served for lunch; screamed bulletins on Senator Ted Stevens’ health; made the pinky-andthumb Aloha sign at the Hawaiians at the parade. She has also recognised the Justices we were lucky enough to watch debating real cases up close last month at the Supreme Court. (I admit it: I go on jaunts with a Republican who dated Arnie Schwarzenegger and sups with Justice Alito’s wife. But it’s all for the higher good.) At midnight, Obama-mania over, Shahana is in cold panic: she is in the middle of her junior year finals. “I’m flunking my Chemistry and French Honors!” It’s ok, I tell her: when her grandchildren are around her knee, she’ll pass her History, so help me God.
Actually, the reality-show-like countdown to history begins way before. Sidwell Elementary School parents in Bethesda (where I live) chat about onthe- fly snaps of Michelle Obama at school, Sasha’s Uglydoll keychain on her magenta camouflage JanSport backpack, the organic tortellini for lunch. Shameless gawkers, I sniff. Only to find the US media is no better, and has done worse.
The first couple’s stay at the barricaded-off Hay Adams Hotel is a mixed blessing. It makes my cab take detours, so I am late to a tea at the iconic Willard Hotel, whose guests included Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, the Duke of Windsor, Harry Houdini and Mae West. This was where Lincoln was smuggled in after assassination threats. I am about to sneak off to the bedroom in which FBI bugs picked up sounds of illicit sex in 1964: Martin Luther King beating white prostitutes with cries of “I’m f — ing for God” and “I’m not a Negro tonight!” Then I remember that in 1963, also in a bedroom in this hotel, MLK wrote his “I Have A Dream” speech. My higher self wins. I demurely chew my cake.
In the afternoon, I see a huge blimp of Bush being stoned by countless size 10 shoes
If my brain is full of history, DC has been full of out-of-towners all January. My neighbours have rented out basements to visitors at a premium. Metro, cab, car, on foot: it is impossible to get anywhere. On my way to a TV premiere of Toni Collette’s United States of Tara, the Metro is packed like a Mumbai train. I see an “Om” symbol with the sign “Ombama”. On my way to a play Next to Normal (by the director of Rent), I wade through a bottleneck of Obama beanies and flags. I wear the Obama button I bought before the elections.
Obama’s speech at the Sunday concert is brief. Jack Black and Steve Carrell don’t make a single gag. Beyonce doesn’t jiggle her booty. Tom Hanks drones on. Everyone is overcome by a sense of history. After U2’s Bono throws in Ireland and Gaza, the crowd claps. He holds out his mike mid-song, the crowd stays silent. Awkward! But when Pete Seeger bursts into the patriotic “This land is your land”, everyone sings along.
I ATTEND AN Asia Society Inaugural Ball in a salwar kameez, my ankles hurting in heels, my eyes blinded by chandeliers, and the occasional blonde in sari or kimono. Obama’s sister makes a nice speech about the new President’s win: it’s globalisation. A cellphone rings out. We look around in horror. She says in her mellifluous voice that it was hers. Much relief. People hope it is her brother, cry out “Barack! Barack!” But she doesn’t call him back. Obama’s Secretary of Energy, Berkeley’s Steven Chu, is told by lawyers he can’t speak yet, but “I can tell a joke”. When he told his mom about his Nobel win, she said, “That’s wonderful, Steven, but when are you coming to see me?” Former US ambassador to the UN, Richard Holbrooke, quips: “I didn’t know you had a Jewish mother.” Laughter. This is covered by The Washington Post. Before this, a stand-up comic talks of Asians doing calculus in nursery, then pretends to be a dumb Bush talking to Cheney: “But men don’t have anginas, Dick.”
More laughter awaits. I watch the Inaugural-themed Capitol Steps, the hottest political satire in DC. Between feet-tapping Abba rip-offs “Obama-mia” and “Dance McCain”, a Sarah Palin lookalike defends her foreign policy experience: “Did I not serve Russian salad dressing? Did I not meet Cheney’s daughter, who’s supposed to be Lebanese (lesbian)?” A Bush look-alike ends his funny Bush-isms by shrugging: “I’m just being self-defecatory.”
In the afternoon, I see a huge blimp of Bush with a Pinocchio nose being stoned by a Dupont Circle throng. Only they aren’t stones, but countless size 10 shoes. Bushwhacked by the relentless Bush-bashing, Rohan says, “Now I’m beginning to feel sorry for the poor guy.” Om, bama.
Nandini Lal is a Washington-based writer and critic