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History occurred in front of our eyes

Ram Kelkar | February 02, 2009

Ram Kelkar was in Washington, DC, as a fellow Chicago resident was sworn in as America's 44th President. This is his record of that historic, unprecedented event:

A patchwork heritage truly became a source of strength on a glorious day in January, when a sea of humanity stretching from the Lincoln Memorial to the Capitol steps came together to celebrate the inauguration of the 44th President of the United States.

How could any Indian-American heart not have skipped a beat to hear President Barack Obama [Images] speak of a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus and non-believers, shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this earth?

On another historic day, 11th of September in the year 1893, Swami Vivekananda had stunned the Western world with a speech that began with the following words. 'It fills my heart with joy unspeakable to rise in response to the warm and cordial welcome which you have given us... I am proud to belong to a nation which has sheltered the persecuted and the refugees of all religions and all nations of the earth.'

It was only fitting that Swami Vivekananda's words, spoken over a century ago at the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago, were echoed by a Chicagoan who had become the first African American to be elected President of the United States of America.

Washington, DC on Inauguration Day was a city in lockdown mode, and yet millions of people managed to make their way to the Mall on packed Metro trains past unprecedented security. People were standing in lines to get into the colour-coded gates for entrance to the standing areas surrounding the Capitol steps from as early as 4 am.

However, by daybreak, the sheer size of the crowds began to overwhelm the police and security forces. Crowds of people seemed to be going in completely random directions in search of an entrance to the viewing areas.

By the time the gates opened, the crush of humanity trying to get into the constricted security check areas was creating a dangerous situation. Some people reported that they were so tightly spaced within the crowds that it was impossible to even check the time on their own wristwatches.

One young man ended up entering the security area walking backwards and unable to turn around, as the crowd pushed him along. At one point, the police simply closed down the entrance to the Purple viewing area and turned away ticketholders, to their extreme disappointment.

The excitement continued to build as various dignitaries were announced and made their way onto the stage. Vice-President Dick Cheney and wife Lynne, and President George W Bush [Images] and wife Laura, were greeted with an impolite chorus of boos, while the cheers were reserved for the Carters and Clintons, and for Michelle and the Obama daughters.

A solitary hawk circled high over the crowds, apparently searching for prey and puzzled by the huge crowds of humans occupying the Capitol grounds below. When the Jumbotron finally showed President-elect Obama striding into the entrance and emerging on stage, the crowd erupted into wild applause.

The crowd kept cheering and screaming and straining for the best views, as those in front moved their positions to get a better look at the stage. Cameras were held up high in the air and flashes kept popping as each person tried to record the historic events for their friends and family. Rolling cheers and chants of 'O-ba-ma, O-ba-ma, O-ba-ma' and 'Yes We Can' kept erupting from the enthusiastic crowd.

When Barack Obama began reciting the presidential oath, silence fell across the crowd as millions of spectators huddled in freezing weather with a sense of anticipation for a long awaited dream that was about to become a reality.

It seemed incredible that Chief Justice of the United States John Roberts fumbled the wording of an oath which every school kid, let alone constitutional lawyer knows. He addressed 'Senator' Obama and asked him to execute the office of the President 'to' the United States. He also misplaced the word 'faithfully' at the end of the phrase.

The crowd burst into a frenzy of joy as soon as President-elect Obama completed the swearing-in ceremony with the words '... so help me God' against a glorious backdrop of historic American flags draped between columns of the Capitol.

It appeared that the flub in the swearing-in ceremony initially threw the preternaturally eloquent President off his rhythm, and he spoke his first few lines in somewhat of a rush. However, he seemed to settle down quite quickly, and gave a powerful speech, though it may not have lived up to the impossibly high standards of his most memorable speeches dating back to the Democratic Party's National Convention of 2004, when he captured the public imagination with 'Audacity of Hope', and of his 'A More Perfect Union' and 'Yes We Can' speeches from the 2008 campaign.

While President Obama did not explicitly focus on his race and on the historic nature of his election, he touched upon it in his own oblique way. The crowd burst out into loud applause when he spoke about '... a man whose father less than 60 years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath.'

One of the most vivid memories about the experience of being there in the midst of millions was the diversity and unity of the crowds. For some, it was about seeing the first African-American President while for others it was the fulfilment of a fervent desire for change.

There was a palpable sense of having 'come home' amongst African Americans. Families and groups of African Americans sang 'America The Beautiful', and other spiritual and patriotic songs, and invited everyone to join in. And most people did sing along, with a smile on their face, recognising the uniqueness of the moment and instinctively understanding the reunification of the American spirit that was happening in front of their eyes.

What was also evident was the ubiquity of Indian Americans in the media and amongst the attendees. CNN featured Obama supporter Krupali Tejura, who wrote a letter to Oprah [Images] Winfrey and ended up performing a jingle on her show. And four years after her appearance on the Oprah Show, Senator Diane Feinstein's office gave her two tickets to attend the Inauguration.

At the Illinois State Inaugural Gala Ball, it was a sight to behold to see Krupali Tejura and several other Indian women dressed in saris mingling in a sea of black tie suits and formal dresses, without anyone expressing any surprise.

Along with all the celebratory talk about unity in diversity, President Obama also conveyed a key message about the ongoing battle against terrorism. He spoke about those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents. 'You cannot outlast us,' he said, and added that 'we will defeat you.'

The real test of whether the Indian-American community has truly achieved a position of relevance in President Obama's America will be if he is just as resolute in standing with India in the fight against terror emanating from the networks in Pakistan.

The success of the washingtonchalo.com event on January 27th, organized by a Task Force comprising of leading nationwide Indian-American organisations representing over 2.5 million people of Indian origin in the US, was a unique opportunity for the community to press its case with the Obama administration and Congress.

Having seen history take place in front of our eyes but exhausted after a day of shivering in the cold with frozen feet, we made our way out of the city. As we travelled back to a relative's home in Maryland, we had no doubt that it had been very much worth our while to have come all the way from Chicago to Washington to attend the historic inauguration.

We had reaffirmed for ourselves that 'Yes, We Belong' in the United States of America.

Photograph: Ram Kelkar

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