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En route to our roots

Barack Obama’s ancestors may have been a Guinness-swilling lot, but there could be nasty surprises for others.

india Updated: Nov 20, 2011 11:29 IST
Hindustan Times

There seems to be no end to US President Barack Obama’s longing to belong. Scarcely were we done with accounts of his boyhood days in Indonesia from his former barber, that we scanned the intricacies of his extended family in a Kenyan village, pausing for breath only to pore over the details of his ‘live birth’ in a Honolulu hospital. Recently, Mr Obama decided to revive the Kansas-part of his connections, tracing an ancestor Fulmouth Kearney, who had come to the US 160 years ago, back to the 300-strong Irish hamlet of Moneygall. There, in an intense, epiphanic moment, he declared: “I’m Barack Obama, from the Moneygall Obamas”.

Now that Mr Obama has kicked up such a storm of multicultural root-tracing, we can only expect other heads of state and government to embark on similar journeys. The Americans are blessed in being inhabitants of a relatively young country, and in going to Ireland, Mr Obama was merely doing what John F Kennedy, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton had done earlier. Not all our movements involve sea-faring voyages, so Prime Minister Manmohan Singh would have to satisfy himself with just stepping across the border to sneak a peek at his native village in Pakistan’s Punjab, while the former Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf’s mission would stop right here in a Delhi haveli.

While Mr Obama is fortunate in having Kearney, a humble shoemaker’s son, as an ancestor, others might not be so lucky, given that our history is a catalogue of colonisation, wars and genocide. No Brit worth his curry, for example, can risk finding an ancestor who looted Indian maharajas in 1857, and it would be extremely unflattering to trace a great grand uncle who might have been one of the early inhabitants of a penal colony in Australia. To avoid such damning disclosures, one might as well let sleeping ancestors lie.

First Published: May 25, 2011 21:46 IST