Book Review: ‘Looking for America’ unravels Barack Obama phenomenon

Book: ‘Looking for America’, Author: Avirook Sen, Publisher: HarperCollins-India, Price: Rs.299

Veteran journalist-writer Avirook Sen`s book, ‘Looking for America’, is inextricably linked to the much-awaited India visit of the US president because it helps unravel the phenomenon called Barack Obama from an Indian`s point of view.

Launched by HarperCollins-India, the book captures the story of the journey of America scouting for change - in the heat, dust and heady excitement of the pre-Obama days when everyone in the rainbow land was working for a cause - "Obama for America" - as the donation-seekers called their mission, treating the presidential poll pitch as their karmic "battleground".

"Sample one of these I got in my mailbox a few days after meeting a black man in downtown Chicago," says Sen in his book.

The mail, "Avirook, I never asked you to make a donation before. But I`m about to make some major decisions about deploying field staff - and volunteers to key battleground states...Please donate $ get out the vote - and win the election."

"We are stretching every dollar and doing everything we can with what we have. But every day I see first hand how more can we do and how far your donation will go...," the mail from Joe Cameron, Obama for America, adds.

In the six years between a fateful September in 2002 when Sen visited the US on an assignment to cover the UN General Assembly and May 2008 when he returned to write his book flush with a kitty of Rs.2 crore - a settlement amount paid by a media organisation for unceremoniously throwing him out - America had changed beyond recall.

Gary, a small town in Indiana, was an inescapable metaphor, Sen says in his book launched Friday evening.

"It had elected the country`s first black mayor and held the country`s first National Black Political Convention," he says.

Sen quotes the black mayor of Gary to home in on the change, "I`ll tell you what`s changed from then (in 1972, when the mayor was running for the state Senate) and now. Then we had approximately 800 African-Americans elected officials - but now we have almost 8,000. So, that`s a big change in terms of numbers. Now you gave Barack Obama knocking at the door..."

Sen explores the coloured history and psyche of the American landscape - Kentucky, Alabama, Tennessee, Georgia, the deep south with its blues and memories of hundreds of years of slavery; and even the prairies.

In 2008, Sen meets Coleman Smith, the tough security officer at the Montgomery Area Transmit Systems bus terminus.

Smith told Sen that he had been following the election more closely than any of the others who had in 63 years.

Why was that? "Because of Obama, I guess," he says.

"What`s special about him?"

"He`s black," Smith says.

Sen writes, "Forget running for president, it is easy enough to overlook the fact that blacks got the unfettered right to vote in the world`s greatest democracy less than 50 years ago."

"They have voted freely in the last 11 of the country`s 56 elections so far. By standing in Montgomery, which played a pivotal role in winning that right, I wasn`t about to let Smith go," he adds.

The coaxing yields fruit. Smith makes a point: "It isn`t the white man who keeps the black man down - it`s other black men."

"That is the recurring theme, wherever you travel across the US," Sen says.

Written in Sen`s breezy yet piercing style, the book reads like a travelogue till one reads the subtext.

In 17 chapters, it sweeps across the continent to capture the story of a metamorphosis at the grassroots - Obama`s political cradle and destiny.

And manages to mail deliver a nation on the move to a new era to readers across the world.