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Alone at the Inauguration--in India

New America Media, Mark Schurmann Posted: Jan 23, 2009

Editor's Note: Journalist Mark Schurmann watched Barack Obama's inauguration from a bar in Dehradun, India, far from the Washington Mall. But he nonetheless felt inspired by the solemnity of the event and the historic nature of Obama's achievement.

DEHRADUN, India--I watched Obama's inauguration alone in India.

The sea of people in and around the Washington monument on CNN contrasted starkly to the indifferent Indian bar I had come to, to watch the event.

A German tourist and her Indian friend sat with their backs to the TV, as if determined to ignore the inauguration.

I asked the manager to turn up the volume.

A table full of tipsy Indian businessmen looked interested for awhile but left well before the ceremonies began. So did the German woman and her companion.

The bar was empty. I suppose I expected it on a weekday in a small city in the foothills of the Himalayas.

But my spirits were high. There was still the TV, the booze and the courteous staff to keep me company (consistent companions of lonely bar patrons everywhere).

"They're all so happy," I kept saying to the bar manager, a young Indian dressed in a formal blue blazer, shirt and tie, referring to the millions of excited people standing in the cold in Washington.

I should have said "we" instead of "they." Empty bar not withstanding, I imagined the entire world watching this moment, sharing a sense of relief and wonder, and maybe a little cynicism, too. On the eve of this new era, if only for a night, the possibilities seemed endless.

I asked for a martini to celebrate but the bartender didn't know what it was and the manager didn't trust me to make it myself. Besides, there was no vermouth and no olives. I settled for a shot of Indian Scotch.

Never having bothered to watch an inauguration before, I was impressed by the solemnity of the occasion and by the pomp and ceremony, which didn't seem overly ostentatious, yet carried the same gravitas as a coronation. The crisply dressed marines at attention stood out.

Standing behind the bar, the manager made note of the media saturation of the event. "Why do they need to show Obama in his limousine?" he asked me. India is the most media saturated country on the planet, so I wasn't surprised by the question.

I told him media wanted to cover every moment because it was an historic event. "It's the first time in a thousand years that someone with brown skin is the most powerful man on the planet, and not the last," I said, pointing at his face.

That got his attention. I ordered another Scotch and moved closer to the TV.

After so many years of condemnation, it felt good to see San Francisco--my hometown--so strongly represented at the inauguration with Pelosi and Feinstein as escorts to the President-elect.

I imagined that the Rev. Rick Warren's surprisingly moving invocation was directed at the city, a peace offering to his most outspoken critics, themselves having long endured his criticism, and maybe a promise to embrace those he so strongly vilified in his ministry. I hoped it was true.

I was relieved at the brevity of the swearing in. As a writer and journalist I've often been told that less is often more. Also, because I was the only patron left, I knew the bar would close early and I wanted to hear the address. The little hitch by Justice Roberts didn't bother me. Obama handled it beautifully.

I've never been so attentive for a political speech. Clinton was always embarrassing and Bush unendurable. For me there was only Nelson Mandela to go by for comparison.

With the world watching, I wanted to hear Obama embrace the world. He did. I wanted him to speak on Gaza and Israel. He didn't. I didn't expect a repudiation of the previous administration but was glad to hear it and glad Bush and Cheney were there to hear it, too.

The speech was sober, reassuring and, by the end, inspiring. It felt like the end of an era and the beginning of something unprecedented. I was happy that a black man delivered it.

At the end of the address, I finished my beer and my Scotch and turned around to see the manager standing directly behind me. "This is a historic moment," he agreed and shook my hand.

I settled my tab and left the bar a little tipsy. With no public transportation available, I walked four miles back to my home in a small town on the city's outskirts. I didn't mind, the night wasn't cold and the sky was clear.

I was welcomed back to town by what can only be described as a symphony of a hundred stray dogs barking at my arrival. Even the dogs higher in the hills were howling. It was louder than midtown Manhattan at rush hour.

For some reason it felt perfectly appropriate.

Yes We Came, And Yes We Will!

Ethnic Media Answer Obama's Call for 'Remaking America'

Inauguration Inspires Hopes and Dreams

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