He is half-black," Nadine Gordimer said in a conversation in Kolkata in the November of 2008. Barack Obama's just-concluded election as US President was the biggest thing in the air. Of course he is half-black, I told myself. Surely the Nobel laureate had a more original comment to make? And then came a typical Gordimer one-liner: "He is also half-white." Later, to wider hearing, she elaborated the nuance: "Obama has been celebrated as a black man. But he's half black and half white. To me, that symbolically represents a kind of advancement in recognising the human tribe as one."
Gordimer's assessment was simple and profound. Mr Obama was half out of a world that thought small, half into one that could think, be big. He was advancing; he was, in a sense, the advance. And not just that of the American people, who advanced with his advance, strode with his stride, but that of a politically evolving world. Obama, the fact of Obama, the promise of Obama, the freshness and directness of Obama, rejoiced the human tribe so mixed as it is in its composition and so mixed-up.
Changing without disturbing
Mr Obama's head started to show salt almost immediately after the inauguration. The strain of sapping engagements with a quizzing, invasive, corrosive media, cynical and disparaging critics, curious observers watching everything about him as a person, exploring the last rock, stone and pebble in his life's track to explore, excavate, exhume everything, anything, about him that could be dug, from what he wore, ate, drank, to how he gestured, his sports, his hobbies, his friends was telling on him. As was that ultimate bunch of grapes that the vineyard vandaliser wants to get his hands to - his family. 'Obama is ageing already,' was felt, said, with care for the man. For Barack Hussein Obama was a phenomenon - a man who had to affirm his black roots without denying white America its own deep and broad embedding. He wanted to change things, but without disturbing too much. He wanted to transform predispositions, but without troubling too many predilections. Could he architect a new vision without engineering new designs? He wanted to try. Try 'for real'.
He showed this by a frank desire to be liked by white Americans by being tolerant, even hospitable, to views antithetical to his own, a trait that had been noticed even when he edited the Harvard Law Review. And then, more specifically, as President, by being tough - even rough - in defending US interests leading to foreign policy disasters such as in his compromise on Syria for which Syria and much more than Syria is paying a bitter price to this day, and in his going along, cruising along, one might say, with the British and French on Libya. There are two Obama 'negatives' which will haunt his legacy. The first is his acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize soon after his first inauguration, in what seemed like a first birthday gift to an eight-month-old. If Mr Obama had said 'Thanks, but no thanks, I am yet to deserve it', he would have electrified the world. The second is the sickening use by his administration of drone warfare in which huge numbers of civilians were killed. Nothing can wash that karmic stain from his legacy. The Osama bin Laden denouement will generate a different lore in many tracts of 'the world of sand' but to the terror-stricken that was a moment that signified relief.
Showing America the mirror
In observing all that Mr Obama did, whether in good earnest or in questionable wit, whether with disappointment in his compromises or dismay in his misjudgements, the world saw him as reaching out, with great effort, to a bigness that destiny awards to all 'firsts'. And that was in bringing America to a new order of its sense of self. Say 'Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln', and you will think of his Gettysburg address. Say 'Nehru', and you will think of 'ï¿½ the tryst with destiny'. Say 'Obama' andï¿½? A mist of current dust-haze hangs over what is perhaps the most stirring statement that Mr Obama ever made, shaken, almost quaking, with his nerves being brought resolutely under check, on the shooting at Charleston's Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in June 2015. The suspect, Dylann Roof, 21, had just been arrested. "Mother Emanuel," President Obama said, "is, in fact, more than a church. This is a place of worship that was founded by African-Americans seeking liberty. This is a church that was burned to the ground because its worshipers worked to end slavery. When there were laws banning all-black church gatherings, they conducted church services in secret. When there was a non-violent movement to bring our country in closer line with our highest ideals, some of our brightest leaders spoke and led marches from this church's steps". And then with the responsibilities of an Executive President he went on to say, "Until the investigation is complete, I'm necessarily constrained in terms of talking about the details of the case. But I don't need (to be) constrained about the emotions that tragedies like this raiseï¿½This is not the first time that black churches have been attacked, and we know the hatred across races and faiths pose a particular threat to our democracy and our idealsï¿½ (And yet) I am confident the outpouring of unity and strength and fellowship and love across Charleston today, from all races, from all faiths, from all places of worship, indicates the degree to which those old vestiges of hatred can be overcome."
Why do I believe that statement will ring true and right in times to come? Because rising above Charleston, above what we in India would call "the local cause, the local compulsion", he said in it: "But let's be clear. At some point, we as a country will have to reckon with the fact that this type of mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries, it doesn't in other places..." The President took the people of America again and again on thorny journeys of reflection - on race, on police-community relations, on gun control, on America's world role, what it should and should not be - and made white, black, Hispanic, Asian and Muslim Americans examine their inner selves, feeling both shame and pride, one being incomplete and dishonest without the other.
Backlash and the bequest
In trying to weld the divided, did Mr Obama miss noticing the unhappiness of a white working class in the hinterland? Did he fail to see that American, no less American than the rest, being sidelined by the US's demographic shifts, globalisation and the technological revolution? Of course, he did. And he has paid for it in the way his country voted for not just a Republican replacement but an ideational displacement. There can be no doubt that the backlash against his presidency was racial and a factor in Donald Trump's election. But ironically, and this is what may be called the 'Gordimer principle': the election of the USA's first black President is the beginning of the change the USA needed, the world applauded, and is the change the USA has reversed and the world is regretting. Will the change outlast its attempted reversing?
We must hope it will for the USA's sake, but no less for the world. As an Indian who celebrated his victory and cherishes the change that he marks, I see the Trumps in India's life unchallenged by an Obama. I miss an Indian Obama, with an impartial if sometimes unsteady hand at the helm or at its counter-helm, telling us how to move away from old vestiges of suspicion and hatred.
The Obama legacy, like the light of a candle fighting the damp within and the dark without, will yet glow by contrast. And the world will recall it with a pang of regret at the power that political shaman have over the human tribe.
Gopalkrishna Gandhi, a former Governor of West Bengal, is distinguished professor of
history and politics, Ashoka University