‘Overwhelmed and touched' were the perfect words to describe the Obamas after their 40-minute visit to Mani Bhavan, the museum and research centre on Mahatma Gandhi, here on Saturday afternoon. After spending some silent moments in the room where Gandhiji had stayed, Mr. Obama wrote in the guest book, “He [Gandhiji] is a hero not just to India but to the world.”
“I am filled with hope and inspiration as I have the privilege to view this testament to Gandhi's life,” he wrote. He also read a message written by Martin Luther King Jr. during his visit in 1959.
First Lady Michelle Obama was equally moved. “This visit will be one that I will always treasure. The life and teachings of Gandhi must be shared with our children and the world,” she wrote.
“Visiting Gandhiji's room was an inspiring experience for both of them. They paid a lot of attention to everything there. They were silent and were trying to absorb the exhibition,” Usha Thakkar, Director of Mani Bhavan and the only person accompanying the Obamas throughout the museum, told the media. “They were most inspired by the simplicity of his [Gandhiji's] living,” she said.
She also said the U.S. President and the First Lady were very well-informed about Gandhiji's life. “He [President Obama] knew about Gandhiji's concept of ‘trusteeship'. Both of them had deep knowledge of Gandhian philosophy and were very scholarly,” said Yogesh Kamdar, trustee of Mani Bhavan Gandhi Sangrahalay.
Usha Trivedi, a septuagenarian Gandhian, welcomed the Obamas saying, “In 1959, I had welcomed Martin Luther King Jr. Now, I welcome both of you.” They both shook hands with her. “Both of them were very warm,” she said. She said that King had stayed at Mani Bhavan for a day-and-a-half during his visit.
She also showed his autograph dated February 28, 1959 which said, “Wishing you every fulfilment in life. Warm regards.”
Mani Bhavan trustees and the Director gifted the Obamas two books: Mahatma — A Golden Treasury of Wisdom, which is a compilation of Gandhiji's thoughts and glimpses of life, and Women in Indian Society authored by Neera Desai and Usha Thakkar; one audio cassette: ‘Samar Geet — Song of Freedom' in the voice of Shubha Mudgal; and a documentary ‘Mahatma' by Vitthalbhai Zaveri.
“This documentary is very special because it has rare actual footage of Gandhiji,” Mr. Kamdar said.
Ms. Michelle Obama gave a warm hug to Ms. Usha Thakkar towards the end of their visit. “She was very informal. She looked so delighted,” Mr. Kamdar said.
Everyone was visibly overwhelmed by President Obama's visit. “He bent backwards to make us feel comfortable,” J.V. Naik, renowned historian, told The Hindu.
“He doesn't confuse humility with timidity. His visit to Mani Bhavan, which is a place of pilgrimage to many, is very important,” he said.
Mr. Kamdar seconded his opinion. “The fact that Mani Bhavan figures so high in his itinerary proves how highly he regards Gandhiji,” he said.
Mr. Kamdar had a word of praise for the U.S. security personnel as well. “They weren't at all obstructive. We could not make out who were the security and who were the staff. Everything went on so smoothly and naturally,” he said.
The trustees and the members present at Mani Bhavan added that they understood the security concerns. Some neighbours had expressed displeasure at the tight security arrangements.
“Those were different times. There were no human bombs then. We need to understand that things have changed now,” Mr. Kamdar said.Mr. Obama autographed two of his books: The Audacity of Hope and Dreams From My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance. “I continue to find inspiration from Gandhiji's teachings,” he wrote.