Obama Comes Home


Senior Member
Aug 13, 2009
Bangalore Byte
Obama Comes Home
And now meet Barack Obama in a short story in Kannada, in which he features as a distant superhuman character - the master of economic destinies in a globalised world
Sugata Srinivasaraju

Barack Obama has surely heard of Bangalore, but I am not certain if he has heard of Kannada and Karnataka. But like the way he has entered the folklore of languages and regions of the globe he has perhaps never heard of, he has entered the Kannada world too. Hope, like light, travels quickly and Obama, who has been its unrivalled mascot in recent months, has travelled along. What is truly special about his entry into the Kannada milieu is his breaking into the fictional space by way of a distant superhuman character in a short story. He is seen as the master of economic destinies and the narrative, in which there is no let up on irony, unfolds in a remote unnamed village of Mysore district.

This story, by a little known writer called Tukaram S., was published in a popular monthly magazine called Mayura (a Deccan Herald group publication) recently, and what caught my attention in the first instance was its stark title - 'Circle AaLu mattu Obama' (Circle Coolie and Obama). I first mistook it to be a story on the familiar theme of social discrimination, but soon realised that it shunned the beaten track.

I wish I had translated this 3,000-word nugget and sent it to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh before he left on a state visit to Washington DC. When there is an undercurrent of mistrust in the Indo-US relationship, Singh would have had a marvellous occasion to tell the American president yet again that "all my countrymen deeply love you and here's proof of it." The last time, when Singh uttered the 'love' line to George Bush, he had had to scurry around for proof. It is one thing for a leader to get into regular journalistic prose or hurried texts of contemporary history, but to get into fiction is, arguably, a deeper penetration into the consciousness of a culture. And that seems to have happened early for Obama, almost at the speed of his Nobel prize. I am pretty certain that the Chinese or even Pakistani fictional writers aren't so generous with Obama yet.

The first time I realised that Obama can make an interesting 'character' was when my brother, living in the US, had played around with Obama's jumbo ears for a poster during the 2008 presidential campaign, to make him look like Mickey in Disneyland. However, the Obama fantasy in Tukaram's story is of a different variety.

So, what is this story about?

This is a tale of a lazy, laid-back village that gathers pace and begins to transform wholesomely after a bus service is introduced to connect it with the city (Mysore). Once a 'seamless' contact is established between the city and the village, a good majority of the villagers are seen giving up their traditional vocations and turn coolies to serve the city. People who worked in the fields become construction workers, security guards, domestic servants etc. They empty out the village at the break of dawn and return only after nightfall, catching the last bus back, of course. The Sunday conversations at the 'lazy benches' around the Peepal tree (araLi kaTTe) in the village changes colour. There is either a hushed exchange of 'city adventures' or an active networking for better-paying jobs. In fact, the Peepal tree, a symbol of community dialogue, loses identity and gets denoted as a 'circle', around which the bus would take a sharp turn and park facing the direction of the city. The tale is poignantly told in figurative prose, using an acrid dialect of Kannada, specific to the Mysore-Mandya region (South Karnataka). The two main protagonists in the story are 'Depot' Raja and Papaiah. While the loquacious and streetwise Raja is the 'radical' experimenter who smells opportunity in the city, Papaiah is a passive protector of the independent value systems that have held the village together for ages. The characterisation is not so black and white as this urgent summary makes it out to be, because Papaiah, who opens a little tea stall after the bus starts plying, is himself an indirect beneficiary of the city contact.

Just sample some rather clumsy lines of translation to get a mild flavour of the story. Initially Raja tries to get the villagers excited about Mysore: "You dull heads, why are you getting so excited about the bus coming to the village? Have you ever got into it and been to Mysore? That city is facing the skies and growing like mad. You should see the roads there; each one is as smooth as washed and well-laid charcoal. Buses, cars fly like crows and leap like frogs. And those youngsters move around from one end to the other on their motorbikes like free-fall of dry leaves... Each road has rows of cloth shops. Ask for whatever colour and whichever size and for whomever - men, women, aged, fat or thin, you'll get it in an instant. You can actually take off your old clothes, then and there, and walk out with a new pair."

After the villagers have become familiar with the city and gone some distance, here's an anxious conversation that takes place between Raja and Papaiah: "'There is truth in what you say Papaiah. Fridays and Saturdays are especially difficult. These fellows go in search of rotten things in the city. I see them in all kinds of places. They slip away and vanish the moment they see me. I don't really mind what they do, but what if they contract some deadly disease and destroy the entire village? This is something that I really fear.' Papaiah picking up the cue, says: 'That is why I keep saying that it is better to stay in the village, do coolie on our farms and eat humble gruel.'"

Even as we begin to think that the story is trying to tackle issues of migration; of villages turning into colonies of cheap labour; the crisis of a small farmer; the debilitating seductions of city-life etc., there is an unexpected twist rendered by the storyteller. He makes an intelligent connection to global recession and the propelling effects of the recent credit crunch. That is when Obama makes an entry.

One morning, two men get down from the bus and make enquiries about Raja's house. The villagers get naturally curious as to who they are and about the purpose of their visit. It is revealed that they are from the bank that had given a loan to Raja to construct his house. Raja has defaulted on his payments for six months and they have come to serve him a notice: pay up immediately or face confiscation of the property. In other words, the foreclosure process is to begin. When the villagers ask Raja about this, he puts up a brave face and gives a splendid spin to his woes by giving a crash course in global economics: "It seems banks have been emptied of their money in America and other countries. They are apparently closing down banks everywhere. This is the reason why banks here too want to collect their money back. It is not about my defaulting the loan, the bank is just desperate to keep itself afloat and is hence pleading with me to repay urgently." The moment Raja says this, there is a supporting voice from a man who has been working as a guard at a bank's ATM machine in the city: "What Raja is saying is true... I have witnessed it myself. Not long ago a lot of young people would come to the ATM, draw money, stuff them into their pockets as if it was some puffed rice and go. But these days none of them is to be seen. There are no crowds at the ATM now."

As the mood gets sombre Raja steps in to bring in some hope: "Don't get panicky guys. The news has come that everything is getting alright. A blessed soul called Obama has become America's president and he is about to set right things. There are too many machines called computers and all the money is apparently stuck in them. Besides, some people took away lakhs and lakhs as salary every month."

When villagers want to have a date by which things would get normal, as many of them too have lost jobs, Raja speaks with a dash of confidence: "Obama is a good man, but he has just taken his chair. It is not like you guys making some space and sitting at this 'circle' bench. The whole world is waiting with bated breath for him to sit down [in local idiomatic usage it would read 'waiting with drops of oil in their eyes']. Why don't you give him some time? He is not a white man you see... The whole world is waiting to hear what he says today, then tomorrow and the day after. They are waiting for him to tell them where he'll get the money and to whom he'll give it first. When so many countries are waiting in the queue, why can't you guys at the 'circle' wait for a couple of more months. Your problem is not as severe as theirs."

When Papaiah, who has become vary of Raja's convoluted explanation, tries to bring the subject of the home loan back for discussion, Raja escapes the bait: "Why don't you keep quiet Papaiah. If those American people loosen their wrists and start giving money, the problems of our country will be solved in a wink. Obama has been watching our country closely, after all he has a lot of respect for Gandhiji. He has been saying in his speeches that the land of the great soul would get priority. He has been giving a lot of salary to our boys working in his country. What else do you guys need?"

All of this conversation written in English may sound commonplace, but wrapped in the pungency of the local dialect and spiced in the untransportable idiomatic context, they let out a different aroma. Although Raja's words may look contrived and designed to save himself from embarrassment in his immediate surroundings, the undertones of a globally connected world in the story cannot be missed. This story also reveals what has become a native ploy in recent years - when local affairs get too messy, hot to handle and complex, then blame it squarely on globalisation, the ubiquitous ghost. So, Raja's problem with his home loan will not be solved by his immediate friends or elected members, but by a genie called Obama.

If Obama happens to hear about this story, a better idea then would be to discuss its nuances with India's foreign minister S M Krishna instead of Prime Minister Singh. Not only is Kannada Krishna's mother tongue, but he hails from the very area that this story is set in.

www.outlookindia.com | Obama Comes Home

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