Barack’s Books

Barack’s Books

The US President’s South Asian connection can be found in books — both penned by him and on him

Barack Obama’s longing for a ‘plate’ in his name when he comes to India,as mentioned in jest by him,when the Indian Prime Minister visited him last year,was an obvious reference to the Clinton (kabab) platter at a five-star restaurant in the Capital. The charismatic and multi-racial US President’s South Asian ‘connection’ has been largely brought out through his food preferences,or fleeting experiences of his mother as she traveled and lived here before marrying her second husband in Indonesia.

His acclaimed Dreams From My Father,published in 1995,when Obama was nowhere on the national scene,has easy references to samosas,several times,in the US (in fact,he describes an uneasy meeting with Mark,one of his half-brothers,at an Indian restaurant in Kenya,where Mark is said to have bitten into his samosa on page 343) and when he goes back to Kenya,to come to terms with his paternal side. The chapati is also something Obama is familiar with,something the Indian-origin Kenyans had established in Africa over hundreds of years. His other brother,Roy,is described as enjoying chapatis in his biography (page 360). In an interview to Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper in September 2009,Obama talks of how he can “cook dal and keema” — something that the US websites wrote about extensively.

South Asia,more specifically India and Pakistan,have found their way into his consciousness in ways beyond menu cards and well before he became President — in ways that probably shaped his ideas of development and its uneven nature in the world.

In Dreams From My Father,Obama discusses a Safari trip he undertakes with one of his half-sisters,Auma,someone he was close to from early years. As Obama describes (page 349) how his sister and he go to a travel agency In Nairobi,which was “owned by Asians; most small businesses in Nairobi were owned by Asians. Right away,Auma had tensed up. “You see how arrogant they are?” she had whispered as we watched a young Indian woman order her Black clerks to and fro. “They call themselves Kenyans,but they want nothing to do with us. As soon as they make their money,they send it off to London or Bombay.” He goes onto write: “Her attitude touched a nerve.” Obama goes onto ask his sister; “How can you blame Asians for sending their money out of the country after what happened in Uganda?”


Obama also goes onto tell her about his close Indian and Pakistani friends he had “back in the States,who had supported Black causes,friends who had lent me money when I was tight and taken me into their homes when I had no place to stay.” However,he goes onto faithfully report,Auma remains unmoved and calls him “naive”.

Another few references to India are there in his biography — the influence of Indian spices on Kenyan food,and the 600 mile-long railway project (between Mombasa to Lake Victoria) built during the British rule,which took the “lives of several hundred imported Indian workers”.

As David Remnick details in his incredibly well-researched piecing together the phenomenon of Obama in The Bridge,(published this year) he was deeply influenced by Pakistan and even visited the country in 1981 (page 112),while he was a student in Columbia. India was not a part of his itinerary,but he spent time in Karachi and (Pakistan’s) Hyderabad. Remnick talks of how “Obama’s circle was multi-racial”,with two Pakistanis,Mohammed Hasan Chandoo and Wahid Hamid,and an Indian,Vinai Thummalapally,though older,were among his closer friends.

Says Chandoo in the book; “We didn’t come with predispositions about race,we weren’t carrying that American baggage,we were Brown.. and we got along with people who were Black and White…I think we had an immediate connection with him because we allowed him to be who he was,someone able to straddle things… .” (page 101).

In the summer of 1981,when he spent three weeks in Asia,traveling to see Hamid and Chandoo,other than the cities,where he took time out “to play basketball in the streets of Karachi during Ramadan” — a slice of how the elite in Pakistan live — he also wanted to visit rural Sindh,he did,and saw feudal Pakistan and the subservience to the landlord; the poverty there and the stratification shocked him. As an associate,Margot Mifflin,says: “It blew his mind”.

His Pakistani friend Hamid of this visit said that Obama got exposed to a lot of nuances of Pakistani life as Chandoo was a Shia and Hamid a Sunni,“so he learnt a lot about the dialogue between the two.”

But as far as the dialogue between India and Pakistan goes and how much of it Obama is having to deal with in his avatar as President and as commander-in-chief,you don’t have to go very far,even a quick perusal of Obama’s Wars,veteran journalist Bob Woodward’s most recent account is enough. The world Obama now inhabits seems far removed from eclectic references to spices or leisurely lessons on colonial history — it’s a very sobering take on how Pakistan’s obsession with India is threatening to creep up on the President’s desire to take control in the war in Afghanistan.

Meanwhile,as books by or on Presidents go,George Bush’s account of his eight years in the White House,Decision Time,due out a day after the mid-term elections in the US.