A drop in the sea in the making of history

Last week was a momentous time in history. No matter whom one supported politically, it is undeniable that the election of a person of color as President, in the nation with the most power and influence in the world is a tremendously historic and significant moment. It was not until it was done and over with – that is, the votes were counted, the winner was announced and all the outpourings of worldwide expression had begun, that the full magnitude of this turning point hit me. And that I had had a little something to do with it!

I was born in the U.S.A, and raised in India. My parents did their graduate studies in Physics in this country, and always spoke highly of their experience. They also worked in the U.S. for a while, but were committed to returning and contributing to the land that had raised and provided for them, so they went back to India when I was two. So despite being a U.S. citizen by birth, I was raised all-Indian. I trained as an Indian classical vocalist, and unlike my school and college peers, had limited exposure to Western popular music or movies. I was a dedicated Bollywood fan, an ardent cook of Indian delicacies, and passionate about Indian traditions, festivals, culture, and history. Yet I was also raised to have a questioning mindset, was simultaneously irreligious and deeply secular, and thrived on intellectual curiosity. I gravitated strongly to Gandhian philosophy, and my connection to India’s freedom struggle was so powerful that every time the Tagore-scripted national anthem was sung or played, I felt the sting of tears in my eyes.

Yet suddenly, at age 18, I had found myself at an unusual crossroads – I had to choose my nationality. Since I had grown up Indian and was born of Indian parents, I could simply be a naturalized Indian citizen. In fact, I had already received my Indian Voter’s ID card and had an Indian driver’s license. But this was the time to choose whether or not I wanted to exercise my birthright and adopt American citizenship. (At the time America and India did not have a reciprocity agreement for dual citizenship.) I became exceedingly confused. The same parents who had been insistent on returning to their homeland, advised me that I could have a very different life, especially as I was interested in graduate school in the U.S., if I chose American citizenship. I recall my father saying, “By holding an American passport, you can have a global life. You can visit, live and work in so many places in the world. Your reach will be larger and wider.” I remember being so conflicted that I was close to tears a lot of the time, making up my mind. It seemed to have such an air of finality to it. And even though my heart felt heavy, I submitted to the practicality of my father’s advice and chose to carry an American passport. Suddenly, I was American, while my parents and younger sister were still Indian. How could I reconcile to this?

Nearly sixteen years since this choice, and after eleven years of living, schooling and working in America, I finally exercised the most important of all my citizen’s rights – the right to vote. All these years, although I knew I was American, I had not felt quite so American. Also, having grown up in a multi-party, parliamentary democracy (the largest in the world!) I did not feel any resonance to the two-party system, the electoral college system, or the issue-based politics of America. And for a long time I did not feel like I understood enough of the ramifications of various bills and laws to make an informed choice. And perhaps I also did not feel like a real stakeholder.

Then two things happened – 9/11 in 2001 and my divorce in 2004. One caused world politics to take a sharp, grievous turn, with the U.S.’s stance affecting everything globally. The other caused my personal world to completely shatter and then transform, and quite suddenly, I had made a new life and home in the United States of America. A new self was born, and now when I said “home” I did not mean just India anymore, but also my little condominium staring at Mt. Rainier in Seattle. In fact sometimes, I meant only the latter. I felt grateful for having many things American society had to offer to my new existence – the right blend of connectivity and anonymity, the support and resources at work and outside, counseling help, and in general, an openness that could confront divorce without guilt or shame.

As the current government’s policies continued to have a huge impact on global political instability, the economy and the environment, my stake in the choice for U.S. government steadily grew. I began considering registering to vote, not just to exercise my birthright, but to ensure that I play my part in shaping a global future rather than sit back and watch in dismay. The final push came when I watched the first Presidential debate in a packed downtown bar and restaurant in Seattle. Hundreds of young people were standing shoulder-to-shoulder crying out in unision in response to Barrack Obama’s call for hope and change. It is not simply Obama’s message that shook me. It was the response and resonance I witnessed in young America. All around me, kids younger than me were coming out of the woodwork to finally care, to speak up, to act. For some reason it made me think of the spirit of young Indian freedom fighters, such as Bhagat Singh or Subash Chandra Bose.

I watched the debates and discussions closely, and registered to vote. A few days before I had to leave for an international trip, my absentee ballot arrived in the mail. My life’s first! I worked on it for several hours, reading and thinking through everything. I was in London on November 4th when the unbelievable happened. America had a new President … the world had a new President. With this they had hope for change. A change, I hope, from war, from a black-and-white political rhetoric and religious divisiveness. A change in economic and environmental policies. A change in the way America, my country, is seen in the world.

As I watched the jubilant and emotional outpourings in cities such as Chicago and New York, the congratulatory messages from leaders all over the world, and overheard people’s positive comments in London’s tube system, I felt a new kind of resonance with this historic moment. I found myself relating rather emotionally with the redemption Black America felt with this turning point. Most of all, I realized that change had already happened – because huge numbers of Americans had emerged to voice their choice, and elect a President everyone would have thought unlikely even a few months ago. And as one of them, I finally experienced the larger, wider reach my father had talked about. Thanks to my difficult choice at age 18, I was able to vote in one of the most important and historic elections of our time, and help choose America’s next President.

Last 5 posts by Shahana Dattagupta



8 Comments

  1. Dora

    Great post, Tana. Maybe African American is a better term than colored which has some slavery connotations!

  2. Anonymous

    As a naturalized citizen, this was mr first vote too. Pretty powerful. Somehow here i feel my vote counted for more than in India though i am proud of the Indian democracy too.

  3. Khushi

    Somehow I feel part of this election too – though I am not even a citizen. I guess that speaks to what you say about global reach.

  4. Pry

    I felt so proud to caste my vote for Obama.. I became a citizen only 2 years back and didnt realize the value of it until the 4th…

  5. Yasmin

    It was probably the first time everybody ‘wanted’ to vote. I was so excited, and proud to be part of this historic event.

  6. Indrani

    Lovely post. I was also moved with Obama’s acceptance speech at Chicago after he was elected. My connection with America is primarily through my son who holds an American passport and remotely through my husband who works for an American company, yet I had a lump in my throat hearing Obama. God Bless him and America.

  7. Tana

    Thank you all for also sharing your thoughts and comments. Obama now faces a huge, unprecedented challenge on how to honestly participate (rather than simply direct) in the security and economy activities of the world…

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