The house sits in the location where I know my uncle's house is in Chennai. It's a large corner plot, situated at a T-junction of a smaller street and a slightly larger one. However, the house itself is slightly different from what I remember. It is set to the back, allowing for large open spaces between the gate and the front door. The absence of a thriving garden gives it a feel of a minimalistic, contemporary house, something that might be in vogue in Sweden or a magazine.
Inside, the feeling of airiness continues and I feel constantly connected to the outside. Even though this is Chennai, the outside doesn't feel quite as bad. There isn't any traffic or pollution or noise, and the weather is cool and pleasant, like Bangalore. While the clear-cut feel of the house extends into its living and dining spaces, with its stark whiteness and ramrod straight lines, this kitchen is peculiarly old-school and homely. It reminds me of kitchens I have seen in houses that were probably built pre-Independence, but that still function perfectly. The spotted floor is yellowed from decades of feet, the black granite counter-tops are round-edged and sporadically splotched with little holes, and there isn't a cupboard in sight. Instead, there is ample storage space under the counter-tops, where all the large vessels are kept, and three or four short lines of shelves on a wall for cups and small plates. The air seems to hang still in the kitchen, but entering it doesn't feel like entering a dingy, musty room, but rather like accessing a childhood memory that is wrapped up in layers of village visits to your grandmother in the summer holidays.
Obama is staying with us. That's right, US President, Mr. Barack Obama, Mr. President, is a house-guest.
There isn't any fanfare. In fact, I don't recall seeing a single Secret Service agent; maybe, they're just that good. A particular incident stands out that illustrates the reticence of the men in dark suits and glasses. There is a thin, rectangular concrete driveway situated between our house and our neighbour's house. My grandmother and I are standing there, waving to my neighbour Arun Krishnan, my first best friend from school, as he rides in with four people on his little scooter. When we come back to the house, one of the many people who stand about in the street points to and warns us of a man entering our gate. It turns out that our intruder needed to access a tree branch or some such thing and hence entered the open space inside our gate. Secret Service didn't make a move.
We don't call him Barack, even affectionately, simply because Obama is a much easier name for all concerned, and it sounds so familiar. It's almost like a Mama (Uncle)--O Mama. He is a nice person to have over. He doesn't feel over-bearing and seems quite without ego. He discussed Tamil serials in Tamil with my maternal grandmother, who, I think, wasn't quite aware who this lanky, genial man was. It seems to run in the family though; my paternal grandfather, who taught me a lot about cricket, once took the Indian cricketer Venkatesh Prasad on a tour of our house, then shook his hand warmly, said he looked familiar and wished him all the very best in whatever he does.
For a little while, Obama and I were left alone at the dining table, eating idlis and red chutney from medium-sized plastic plates containing a floral design, and I thought to myself: Remember this. The high point came when Obama asked me if I'd make him some coffee. I gladly tooted along.
Obama, who didn't seem to wear anything but well-cut suits (except when he was eating idlis--he wore a white shirt with the sleeves rolled back) picked up our phone and began a conversation. I thrilled thinking that he was making important American phone calls from our landline, when I noticed that the other telephone was off its hook. So, I innocently replaced it and immediately Obama said, "Hello? Hello?" I realised that in putting the receiver back on its hook, I had inadvertently cut his call. So, I took the receiver off the hook. But then, Obama had already called back and this action of mine again cut his call. I was mortified. I made his coffee and went to give it to him and, in a torrent of words that crashed over each other, tried to explain what had happened with the telephone. Obama merely smiled and assured me that it was ok, while he kept probably Joe Biden or somebody as important waiting at the other end.
We had fun hosting Obama for a night, and I think he enjoyed his over-night stay at our place as well. It's nice to know that he wastes time watching Tamil serials and morning TV--it really helps him connect with the older generation--although I wish he wouldn't. But overall, he's a nice guy, and if I ever found him on CouchSurfing, I'd definitely recommend him.