I’ve lived in this softly explosive city (okay, in the suburbs, but less than a quarter mile from the border line) for 12 years now: the sum of my time in the United States. I consider myself a Washingtonian, just as surely as I consider myself a Bombayite. Two cities could not be more different. Bombay is often compared with New York, a bustling city of millions. Washington, with a population of half a million and with an area of just 68 square miles, is a quieter city, but one toward which the whole world’s eyes are constantly riveted. (The Washington metropolitan area made up of the city’s Maryland and Virginia suburbs adds up to a population of more than 5 million).
The city is filled with contrasts. As respected as Washington is for being the nation’s capital, it is also often reviled for being a hotbed of murky politics. The city is home to the extremely rich and the extremely powerful, cossetted in mansions so large, you cannot see one in its entirity without a full sweep of your head. On the other hand you have the inner-city areas where crime is rampant and poverty lurks relentlessly.
The city is filled with museums that contain some of the most significant relics of the world’s history and such well-photographed buildings as the White House and the Capitol. The museums, all run with an endowment from British scientist James Smithson, line the grounds of the National Mall.
The National Mall, to anyone not familiar with the city, is not, as an airheaded shopaholic relative once assumed, the nation’s biggest string of department stores. It is a glorious strip of grass and reflecting pools on which stand the Lincoln Memorial, the Washington Monument, the Jefferson Memorial, the Roosevelt Memorial, the World War II memorial, and the Vietnam Wall. From the Washington Monument, a tall obelisk piercing the sky, is a clear and magnificent view of the beautiful Capitol building where, of course, Congress meets.
Over the years, the National Mall has been witness to some of the greatest moments in our history. This is where Martin Luther King, Jr. made his famous “I have a dream” speech. Even today, important events happen here almost every week. As a rookie reporter for a city newspaper, I had the “mall beat” every weekend where I’d be sent off to cover some event or the other on the mall. There was always something going on.
On Veterans’ Day, families of fallen Vietnam soliders converge at the Vietnam wall, inscribed with the names of every dead and missing soldier from that war, to remember their loved ones. On Memorial Day, Vietnam veterans roll into the city on their motorbikes in a parade, and collect on the Mall.
I have seen war-protestors converge here to protest the beginning of the war in Iraq. I watched President Clinton break the ground here for the World War II memorial, which has since been completed and opened.
Yesterday, not as a reporter but as a resident of this great country, I saw history being made at the “We are one” concert to kick off the inaugural celebrations for President-elect Obama’s swearing-in.
It was a ball. Four-hundred-thousand people converged on the Mall – a fraction of the 2 million that will be there for the inauguration tomorrow. It was cold, so cold my feet felt like stumps of wood by the end of it all. All around, people tried to keep themselves warm by swilling hot chocolate — bought after hour-long waits at the vending stalls– and by stomping their feet. It was crowded, like being back in a local train in Bombay at rush hour. But it was also enthralling to be part of this throbbing, pulsing mass of humanity, each one uncontainably excited and hopeful about the future.
The concert itself was a star-studded event, featuring some of the greatest singers of our times: Bruce Springsteen, U2, Stevie Wonder, Garth Brooks, Jon Bon Jovi, Sheryl Crow, John Legend, and many, many others. But the loudest roar from the crowd draped in Obama blankets and sporting Obama hats, Obama T-shirts and Obama scarves, was reserved for the biggest star of them all. Each time the president-elect’s face came up on the jumbotron, the crowd erupted. When he finally addressed the crowd, every word he said was lapped up with unabashed adulation and applause.
Desi and I were far, far from the dais, and we watched the concert mostly on the jumbotron. We almost froze to death and were nearly suffocated at times by the milling crowds. But it was all worth it, because we couldn’t possibly have given up a chance to be part of the beginning of one of the most momentous eras of our times.
Cherry on the icing? Just a couple of arms-lengths from where I stood at the concert was a woman who sported a green button in her hat that said “Go Vegan.”
In a country where it is estimated that only around 0.5 percent of the population is vegan, that was — for this animal lover — a great sign of hope and change.