“We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus – and non-believers.”

Speech Wars.jpg
I woke up at 6:30 am today, after less than three hours of sleep, unsure of what to expect on Inauguration Day. Well, that isn’t entirely accurate– I knew to expect considerable delays in my adopted home city along with, and partly because of a guaranteed transit nightmare. But aside from that, I had some hazy sense that I’d be witnessing something important, something I’d regret missing since I live here.

I’ve never been to an inauguration, despite my decade in D.C. So, I set out on a special Presidential Inauguration bus route, via my special Presidential Inauguration Metro card, which took me to the security perimeter. From there I walked in frigid temperatures to get to the Presidential Inauguration Metro train which would, it turns out, NOT take me to my intended destination.

Due to crowd control concerns, WMATA quickly shut down two train stations while I was underground, in transit, and packed in so tightly with other would-be attendees, that I felt assaulted every time someone moved an elbow. Everyone was aware of a different station which had been closed earlier; they announced it was unexpectedly reopening just as we pulled away from it. Too late. At this point, they had closed the last three stations at which we could have exited and we were well past the stop we needed. I started to worry about logistics as previously cheery train inhabitants cursed under their breath.

I hastily exited the Metro the moment I was able to, and I still ended up on the wrong side of the Capitol building. I had just over an hour to trudge through brutal, 11 degree weather, while attempting to avoid idling charter buses spewing exhaust, forbidding barricades, chaotic Police checkpoints and of course, thousands of people who were alternately shivering in their Uggs or shouting “Woooo! Obama!”.

The only thing I could think about was how I was thisclose to missing the whole point of the day, the whole point of the last two years, and it was all because of my bad luck with Metro. I tried to be mindful and prepare myself for the worst; if I was too late to get through security or move through the sludge of confused people faster than one mile per hour, I could say that I tried. That I had experienced the cold and the crowds and the optimism which was muffled by scarves, earmuffs and gloves. Que sera, sera…

I barely expected to make it to my rooftop viewing party in time for pomp and circumstance. I certainly did not expect to see a copy of Obama’s speech before he delivered it. And I definitely did not expect to be in tears when our new President recognized a faith which I respect, but don’t practice.

One thing at a time.

Ugly, numbing cold. I don’t remember ever being out in such cold, certainly not in D.C., nor when I lived in New York, and ran out to the bodega in flip-flops while there was snow on the ground. I’m watching the evening news as I type this, and the weatherman just scoffed “Welcome to Chicago”, as he characterized the way the day felt. “This is not D.C. weather,” he added, and I wanted to thank him for stating the obvious.

It was so cold, I almost regretted my infamous, stubborn refusal to wear hosiery. Almost. I am a Californian, after all. There are some things I will not tolerate. Socks with super cute flats are a bullet point among hundreds of others on my “Oh, HELL no…”-list.

I asked someone in camouflage about the address I was trying to find, amid the chaos. He confirmed information with a superior and then pointed to an edifice two blocks away. I almost sprinted to it, after thanking him profusely. I was, after all, sock-less. And late.

Before entering the blessed building, I saw a freshly-printed sign on the glass doors: “NO PUBLIC RESTROOMS”. I had seen similar on most of the chartered buses I passed. In fact, the “restroom”-issue had dominated almost every conversation I had overheard, on my way from the wrong metro stop back to the Capitol. Whether they were discussing the ramifications of breaking in to non-inauguration-related facilities or fuming over the allegedly plush, hardwood-floored, HEATED port-a-potties reserved for politicians and dignitaries, the masses yearned to be free. To pee. Or not to pee. I really don’t want to go there.

Bathroom information was the first thing I saw at my destination. The second thing? People. Everywhere. They were trying to escape the elements. The building had an extensive lobby with a gift shop, a coffee shop, one of those usurious pay-by-the-pound-and-get-a-$14-salad places and another store I could not see. It was almost impossible to walk to the far-end of the corridor I was surveying, which is where I needed to check in with security, because of all the exhausted and cold people curled up on the tile floor.

I suddenly recalled a prominent “no loitering” sign on the front door, just as a young mother who was sitting on blankets in a corner smiled weakly at me, while bouncing an infant. Meanwhile, the line for coffee snaked through these weary, huddled people and I wasn’t surprised. The idea of a hot cup of anything seemed delicious. Maybe I should have broken open one of the hand-warming things I discovered at CVS. Truly, I am a Left-coast-native because I had neither seen nor heard of such magical plastic packets until this week.

After gingerly picking my way through hundreds of Inaugural attendees, I stated my purpose to a security person guarding a bank of elevators and was whisked through. The wistful looks on people’s faces reminded me to be grateful that unlike a million others, I would be warm, near food and drink, and yes, permanent bathrooms while being a witness to history. I’d been VIP at clubs before in my younger, stupider days, but nothing I’ve experienced felt as elite as bypassing all those people. Forget bottle service; getting invited to an event like this was a real luxury, and I mentally asked my deity of choice what I had done to deserve such an opportunity.

Once upstairs, despite making it in time to see everything, I couldn’t relax. I wanted to continue live-blogging via Twitter, but I suddenly lost service on my wee Centro, which had allowed me to post updates while underground, on the subway but not eight stories up in the air. A million people sending picture mail to friends would derail my mutinous plans. “At least I didn’t announce I would be doing it on SM, so no one will be disappointed”, I muttered to myself. My perceptive host offered me coffee with a liberal amount of Bailey’s in it and I suddenly remembered that none of you really care whether I liveblog. Wheee!

Now I was enjoying myself, but the best part of my morning was minutes away. Mid-sip, I was slipped a copy of the President’s Inaugural address over an hour before he was to present it. I was astonished by what I held in my hands. Remember two paragraphs up, when I talked about the luxury of bypassing waiting in line? Forget that. This was real privilege. I skimmed furiously and then I saw it.

It.

A word.

One word.

One word which changed everything for me, and maybe, you.

For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus – and non-believers.

Don’t ask me why I nearly choked on a far more impressive H-bomb, because I don’t quite know how to explain all the things I felt at that moment. I will try to define it and will almost certainly fail, but I must try because even now, just remembering and writing about it causes tears to cover my eyes.

After spending close to three decades either being mistaken for a Hindu by those who were unaware of the existence of Christianity in India or gently reminding my peers that to conflate “Desi” or “Indian” with “Hindu” was wrong, I was shaking because I felt recognized and included– and all because of the thoughtful, enlightened inclusion of a faith of which I am not a member, in one of the most important Inaugural addresses in our entire history.

Upon reflection, I know why I felt that surge of emotion, which I almost felt like I had no right to. I may not be Hindu, but nearly everyone whom I meet assumes that I am, and perception is a powerful thing. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Japanese-Americans were seen as potential saboteurs; other Asians took to wearing buttons which declared “Chinese” or “Not from Nippon”. My point is not to endorse craven yet understandable tactics but to point to how powerful “perception” is.

You are what you look like. And to the vast majority of the world, I look Hindu. I’m not ashamed of that at all. Today, I felt celebrated for it. I felt included, even though my actual faith was mentioned first, in a group which was organized by a man magnanimous, courageous and heedful enough to include “non-believers”.

This was extraordinary.

I had to tell all of you, so you could witness it too, live, and not on YouTube or a later airing of some news program. I grabbed my phone and prayed that it would work as I tweeted an alert to any and all of you who either know the fail whale or follow Facebook (which Twitter can auto-update). Several of you got the message and when I finally reached my warm home this afternoon and checked my GMail, I was gratified by our shared joy over phrasing.

I don’t think it was a spoiler; I’d like to think it was an opportunity for a mutineer to whisper in your ear a precious secret. Though I knew it was coming, it didn’t dull the impact of hearing a resonant voice announce that list. Knowing of such inclusion in advance didn’t dampen my enthusiasm, nor did it prevent the dampening of my face. Even if he hadn’t hit it out of the park with his right religiousness, these remarks would have done me in:

Rather, it has been the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things – some celebrated but more often men and women obscure in their labor, who have carried us up the long, rugged path towards prosperity and freedom.
For us, they packed up their few worldly possessions and traveled across oceans in search of a new life.
For us, they toiled in sweatshops and settled the West; endured the lash of the whip and plowed the hard earth.
For us, they fought and died, in places like Concord and Gettysburg; Normandy and Khe Sahn.
Time and again these men and women struggled and sacrificed and worked till their hands were raw so that we might live a better life.

And at that moment, though I probably wasn’t meant to, I thought of my parents, who came here separately for a common goal: a better life. My Mother packed the only three silk saris she owned and left India. She wore those saris in the snow, in Oklahoma, palloo drawn tightly around her shoulders because she didn’t yet own a winter coat. Forty years ago, my Father quietly fretted over the “eight dollars” he had in his hand and how and when he’d be able to replace them. With no relatives here before them, surely they knew they were destined to struggle initially. But they fearlessly traveled across oceans in search of a new life.

For me and for my sister, they toiled, sometimes working two jobs to pay tuition for the best schools they could afford. They did settle in the West, leaving the harsh winters of the Great Plains for Southern California, where I was born. Later, when they proudly purchased their first home, they realized with dismay that the garden they had dreamed of planting would not, could not be, because of the clay in our backyard. So they plowed that hard, messy earth, brought in topsoil, composted before it was virtuous and trendy, and grew curry leaves, bittermelon, okra, tomatoes, long flat beans, taro and vegetables I have never seen again, in order to feed us wholesome food without driving hours away to the nearest farmer’s market to procure it.

Four decades of my family’s history refined, magnified, sanctified. Contained within a few lines, delivered via a few minutes of oratory, it felt like a punch to the gut, and that was before I realized that he wasn’t talking about my parents.

I blinked and felt mascara smudge as I realized I didn’t care whom he was talking about, because it felt like he was speaking to me. Me me, the me I’m not sure everyone sees. I had attempted to remain studiously neutral during the election, ostensibly for the sake of this website, but mostly because I didn’t want to be disappointed by one candidate who seemed too good to be true even as another candidate disappointed me with his inability to make sound decisions. “I’m Switzerland,” I often mumbled to myself, recalling the phrase my younger sister and I utilized when we were small and strange.

But when you’re standing there, in brilliantly bright January light, with a clear sight-line of a man who has seen you, really seen you, who has acknowledged not just you, but your entire history, too, it is impossible to be Swiss or neutral. All I could be was American. And humbled. And grateful, to finally be included.

121 thoughts on ““We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus – and non-believers.”

  1. Fallen Jhumki Hindu Kush literally means ‘Hindu Slaughter’ as derived from the Persian verb Kushtar (meaning slaughter). In Urdu, khud-kushi means to kill oneself. This derivation is from the large number of Hindu (?Indian) slaves who perished while crossing these mountains while being taken to the slave markets in Baghdad and Samarkand, in the first few centuries of raids by Islamic rulers. The traveller- writer Ibn Batutah mentions it in his writings from the 14th century, and most Afghans understand it as such. Some Links here

  2. Wonderful! Thank you Anna!

    I read everyone of these comments on this post. To be a Hindu is to be anyone who follows a hindu way of life, like many have said here it’s sanatana dharma. If you follow dharma (righteous living) you are a Hindu. Like Mahatma Gandhi said anyone can be a Hindu. A christian or muslim can be Hindu too if they drop their dogmatic aspects.

    I called my ‘victim of racism’ friend about this post, he said he already included it. Folks, Check it out. Please see the section titled ‘RACISM – ELECTIONS 2008′ following my web site.

    affectionately, Kiran P

  3. Oh my god (or should it be oh my gosh?), my 5000+ year odl religion finally became blessed! An Amru president, though not a gora one, did say my religions name! Maybe a full gora president will say at least an H next time around! My years of existence on this planet earth finally feel worth it. I would have certainly died a shameful death if an amru president had not mentioned my religion’s name. Ever since I was born I was living for this day, when an amru president would drop this word… We live to be validated by amrus and america.. What identity do we have, unless an amru statement qualifies it? oh obama obama.. thank you obama.. thank you..

  4. on second thought, he was not acknowledging the religion.. he was acknowledging the doctors, real estate agents, entrepreneurs etc who contributed to his campaign. that kid who wrote his speech might not have met any hindooos, but would know that some money came from them. gotta keep the vallets open next term too..

  5. 103 · oruvan said

    I would have certainly died a shameful death if an amru president had not mentioned my religion’s name.

    don’t know about shameful, but it’s certainly going to be an early death if you have this much pent up bile. easy kiddo, “amru”s are not out to get you.

    An Amru president, though not a gora one, did say my religions name! Maybe a full gora president will say at least an H next time around!

    and i am glad you have your hierarchy intact – that obama is somehow inferior because he’s not full gora. good to see that you hold firm to the values of the old country.

  6. 104 · oruvan said

    on second thought, he was not acknowledging the religion.. he was acknowledging the doctors, real estate agents, entrepreneurs etc who contributed to his campaign. that kid who wrote his speech might not have met any hindooos, but would know that some money came from them. gotta keep the vallets open next term too..

    it must be easy to be you, though. he mentions it, you win because you can mock him for it. he doesn’t mention it, you can denigrate him for it. win-win, i think they call it.

  7. 52 · ak said

    OT: fellow SMers – does anybody know the word for one who believes in god, but does not affiliate with any organised religion?

    Hindu :)

  8. It. A word. One word. One word which changed everything for me, and maybe, you.

    Okay, I was secretly pleased that we (Hindus / all peopole mistaken to be Hindus) were recognized, but it wasn’t that surprising – it’s part of the new multiculturalism and is to an extent still cynical – he could have said Buddhist and it would have hit a different demographic but would have been done with the same effect (except perhaps on fundraising / international relations).

    But I was ecstatic that he mentioned atheists, because that was NOT necessary but just good, and it was a direct assault on the religious right (in all countries). And imo that does far more for people who are Hindus (especially LGBT, women, poor people, etc.) in the United States than anything else and although I don’t know if I am one, having the space to breathe gives me far more solace.

  9. 108 · Dr Amonymous said

    but it wasn’t that surprising – it’s part of the new multiculturalism and is to an extent still cynical

    I think plenty of comments on this thread indicate surprise, pleasure, gratitude about the inclusion of “Hindus”, just like there are plenty of comments which indicate surprise, pleasure and gratitude about the inclusion of “non-believers”. This post is a personal account of what moved someone. Not everyone is moved or affected by the same things. Except for Oruvan. He’s moved and affected the same way by everything– it’s all Whitey, out to get him.

  10. It’s nice to be acknowledged by the president that I am American, too. I will never forget what then-Vice President George H.W. Bush said to a reporter in 1987: “No, I don’t know that atheists should be considered as citizens, nor should they be considered as patriots.” And I will never forgive.

    In India it’s a common sentiment to respect all religions. Every neta worth his salt knows to sprinkle it in his speech. Jawaharlal Nehru was an agnostic. Even the BJP says it respects and celebrates the “Indian traditions of the Muslims, Christians and Parsis” (link to their manifesto).

  11. Naattaan @ 74:

    I am not sure why many here seem to be so tickled by Obama’s use of the word Hindu. It was meant to show his inclusiveness and perhaps he knew that token symbolism is enough to flatter a billion people around the world,and a subset of whom were probably very generous in their fund-raising for him. Maybe it is time to reclaim the word Hindu by everyone of sub-continental origin regardless of the nature of their faith or beliefs, instead of confining it to it’s narrow present day meaning? For, wasn’t it that uber Muslim poet Iqbal who sang ‘Saare Jahaan Se Achchaa Hindu-staan Hamaara’. Let us all say it out loud, ‘Hindoo is the new Desi’!

    Anna is the new Iqbal.

  12. 109 · GOBAMA said

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    blockquote>108 · Dr Amonymous said

    I think plenty of comments on this thread indicate surprise, pleasure, gratitude about the inclusion of “Hindus”, just like there are plenty of comments which indicate surprise, pleasure and gratitude about the inclusion of “non-believers”. This post is a personal account of what moved someone. Not everyone is moved or affected by the same things. Except for Oruvan. He’s moved and affected the same way by everything– it’s all Whitey, out to get him.

    “If the dominant discourse is the discourse of cultural relativism, questions of power, agency, justice, and common criteria for critique and evaluation are silenced…My insistence on the specificity of difference is based on a vision of equality attentive to power differences within and among the various communities of women.”

    -Chandra Pal Mohanty

    I was not writing to diminish the personal experience that Anna or anyone else had – I was offering my own experience, but moreso making a political argument – that it’s not enough to include ‘Hindus’ without challenging the idea of politicized religiosity or to include South Asians without challenging structural racism. All forms of embracing groups that are not majorities or that were previously excluded are not the same (for example, the way approaches to racial politics by Black people were policed during the campaign – Reverend Wright is not okay, Michelle Obama must prove her loyalty etc. or the ways in which apologies for real anti-semitism in the u.s. turned into mindless and horrific support for rightwing zionism over several generations).

    That’s why the inclusion of atheists was more exciting and consequential to me in context, but the inclusion of Hindus was not so much beyond a personal level.

  13. The point is, its the first NON-ABRAHAMIC religion to make the cut.

    Yup it was great that he mentioned Hindus, but what does it mean that the word came just before “nonbelievers”. Does that imply that any but the toplisted religions are part of that “nonbelieving” mass?

    “Nonbelievers” is such an Abrahamic-religions type of word. It implies “people not like us ‘believers’”. What exactly is the “believer” supposed to beleive in? A poor choice of words. He should have said (or rather, his 27 year old speechwriter should have said) “the nonreligious.”

    Zoroastrians are never going to make the cut– unless a future president says “from Amish to Zoroastrians.” Sigh…

  14. I felt the same thing when I heard that one word in the speech, and I don’t even identify myself as Hindu. For me the whole point was that I wasn’t invisible in my own country anymore. Everything has always been about black and white, and maybe occasionally “Asians” are mentioned, but this was the first time I noticed South Asians being called out (and in a time where a politician wasn’t trying to get votes either!).

    So yeah, as someone who is 100% American, and doesn’t identify with India, it was nice to be considered part of my own country for a change.

    Go speechwriter!

  15. 113 · borderdancer said

    The point is, its the first NON-ABRAHAMIC religion to make the cut. Yup it was great that he mentioned Hindus, but what does it mean that the word came just before “nonbelievers”. Does that imply that any but the toplisted religions are part of that “nonbelieving” mass? “Nonbelievers” is such an Abrahamic-religions type of word. It implies “people not like us ‘believers’”. What exactly is the “believer” supposed to beleive in? A poor choice of words. He should have said (or rather, his 27 year old speechwriter should have said) “the nonreligious.” Zoroastrians are never going to make the cut– unless a future president says “from Amish to Zoroastrians.” Sigh…

    Zoroastrians will be lucky to make it out of this century. I don’t say that to be cynical or mean. I genuinely think it’s a tragedy that one of the world’s most ancient traditions will soon vanish at this rate.

    To think it survived the Islamic conquest of Iran, but what finally undoes it is exogamy and the birth control pill.

  16. Mutineers, please don’t look for malice about religion where there isn’t any, it just derails a thread. Comment has been removed.

  17. 113 · borderdancer said

    Zoroastrians are never going to make the cut– unless a future president says “from Amish to Zoroastrians.” Sigh…

    That may not be a bad thing… It’s always possible that this was an example of negative inclusion. In other words, he included Hinduism for the sole purpose of being able to bash it. You know, like they do in comparative religion classes?