Striving hard & reaching the top

Roopinder Singh reviews Becoming by Michelle Obama. Penguin. Pages 426. Rs 999.

A woman juggles so many roles in a life, a married woman more so — daughter, wife, mother, working person, social engagements for herself, her husband and children — imagine that manifold and think of the spotlight of television cameras on you all the time, demanding that you achieve perfection every time. This is what life of Michelle Obama was for the last few decades, and this is what she had to live, which she did with amazing grace. This is her story.

Review of Becoming by Michelle Obama

The world remembers the Obamas for the class they brought to the White House, and now that the former First Lady has penned her memoir, we see much of it as we thumb the pages and get a peek into her life. Yes, it is a peek — a fairly detailed one at points, but a guarded look at the vicissitudes faced by a determined and ambitious woman from the South Side of Chicago, with little to go, financially. The family lived in Michelle’s great-aunt Robbie’s house, her working-class father suffered from the debilitating multiple sclerosis but faced it stoically, and she grew up in a loving family with her brother.

A driven high achiever in school, Michelle did well enough to get to Princeton, where her brother was a football star, and then joined a law firm in Chicago, continuing to stay with her parents while she paid off her student loans. It was there that she was to meet Barak Obama who was “like a wind that threatened to unsettle everything.” The courtship was long, the commitment withstood the two years he went back from Chicago to Harvard, and it was strong.

It needed to be more so when he ventured into politics, and the couple was exposed to the hurly-burly and unforgiving attitude of their political opponents. Barak enjoyed the hustle and persisted on his way to success, and how. She was the partner who forged alliances and helped him, even as she missed his presence as a husband.

The couple’s struggle with having children, and eventually consulting with an expert to get two daughters through in vitro fertilisation, her wish for equality in her marriage and the occasional resentment about her having to shoulder too much, which led to marriage counselling at one time, all make for a human dimension to what had become a remote, inspiring figure for millions of Americans and many beyond the shores of the US of A.

So many biographical accounts are hagiographic. In contrast is this genre of memoirs of western leaders who somehow manage to show more gratitude for those who taught them and stood by them in life. We get to know about her friends. Santita, the daughter of Rev Jesse Jackson, who was her classmate in school, Suzzane, her roommate at Princeton whose pursuit of fun was to give some lessons to Michelle later in life. Real people come through these pages.

The struggle of a mother to be there for her family, and the strain of having a partner committed to a broader vision who has a public life was inevitable, and Michelle is often quite forthcoming with the strife that it led to in the Obama household. Her openness about the problems they had to deal with as a family is so refreshing and so normal.

Much of the book is about the earlier years and the campaigns, the life at the White House does not figure as much. We see how she went to work for the local government in Chicago, of how Obama’s initial years of working on various causes, including encouraging people to vote, helped to steer him into politics. His tending to his daughter’s fever cost him dear politically and exposed the ugly belly of political life to Michelle. She was determined to support him and did so as his career advanced from the state to federal and finally to the White House. A highly accomplished and motivated woman was expected to leave her mark as a First Lady, and Michelle did by taking up the cause of healthy living, fitness and the fight against obesity.

While she made her husband look good, she also developed as a public speaker of repute and was the support that he needed in trying times. The couple set the bar very high for their successor, but then they got one whose mark on the US presidency will never be about grace.

This review was published in The Tribune on November 18, 2018

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