Professor-president says books helped him survive presidency, names Jhumpa Lahiri among favourites
GN Bureau | January 18, 2017
Haryana minister Anil Vij believes Gandhi is a not an impressive brand (Modi is), and Khadi and Village Industries Commission believes Gandhi on its calendar and diaries won’t be inspiring enough (Modi will be). But this wisdom is yet to reach Barack Obama.
In the last week of his presidency, Obama sat down with the chief book critic of the New York Times, Michiko Kakutani, and discussed books. He says he survived the trying times by seeking solace from literature.
Asked about difficult circumstances like a series of mass killings and financial meltdown, Obama says, “I think that during those periods, Lincoln’s writings, King’s writings, Gandhi’s writings, Mandela’s writings — I found those particularly helpful, because what you wanted was a sense of solidarity.
“During very difficult moments, this job can be very isolating. So sometimes you have to hop across history to find folks who have been similarly feeling isolated. Churchill’s a good writer. And I loved reading Teddy Roosevelt’s writing. He’s this big, outsize character.”
India has had a few leaders who hopped across history – or geography – and found folks whose writings very helpful. Nehru of course was an accomplished writer too. PV Narasimha Rao, who arguably has been the second-most influential prime minister after Nehru, was a voracious reader, devouring fiction and non-fiction alike in a close to dozen languages.
Obama, via Martin Luther King, has a special fascination for the Mahatma. At the start of the presidency, in an interview with the same publication, he had named Gandhi among his inspirations. In his address to the joint session of India’s parliament in November 2010, he had famously said, “And I am mindful that I might not be standing before you today, as President of the United States, had it not been for Gandhi and the message he shared and inspired with America and the world.”
He also said, “India not only opened our minds, she expanded our moral imagination. With religious texts that still summon the faithful to lives of dignity and discipline. With poets who imagined a future ‘where the mind is without fear and the head is held high.’ And with a man whose message of love and justice endures-the Father of your Nation, Mahatma Gandhi.
“For me and Michelle, this visit has therefore held special meaning. Throughout my life, including my work as a young man on behalf of the urban poor, I have always found inspiration in the life of Gandhi ji and in his simple and profound lesson to be the change we seek in the world. And just as he summoned Indians to seek their destiny, he influenced champions of equality in my own country, including a young Martin Luther King.”
In the latest interview, he also speaks about his late night readings (including works of Indian-origin Jhumpa Lahiri) and giving his daughter Malia a lot of books on the Kindle (including “One Hundred Years of Solitude”).
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