There couldn’t have been a more disparate audience for the first public address of the US President Barack Obama on his maiden visit to India on Saturday.
A five-star chef, constable of the Railway Protection Force (RPF), a taxi driver’s wife all listened raptly, many not understanding the words but getting the import of his message, as Obama spoke at the Taj Mahal hotel terrace with the backdrop of The Gateway of India monument behind him.
Outside, the entire Gateway of India to the Radio Club stretch at Colaba had been swept away of people and things for the arrival of the US president. And, inside the luxury hotel had been turned into a security fortress.
The few, who got a chance to speak with one of the most powerful men in the world, were among those who had lost their loved ones or fought and defended others at the risk of their lives.
For many of them the event was emotional as they relived the tragedies of 26/11 terror attack. A dozen people got a chance to meet with the Obamas and share their stories.
Others got a chance to shake hands with the US President and his wife, who personally met each and everyone after the speech. They took autographs and posed for photos with the couple.
US national from Virginia, Kia Scherr was among those who met her President in the city, far away from her home, on Saturday.
“It was a meeting of the heart, it was not about words. He looked into each of our eyes and shook our hands. And, I felt he understood out loss,” said 54-year-old Scherr.
She lost her husband Alan and daughter Naomi, at the Trident during the 60-hour siege at the hotel, two years ago.
Scherr said she could connect deeply with the families who lost their loved ones and will try and keep in touch with them.
Karambir Kang, the general manager of Taj, who lost his family and became the face of the 26/11, met the Obamas separately. The US President praised the staffers and the Taj Hotel manager for doing their duty and escorting guests to safety at the risk of their lives.
Moumina Khatun, whose husband Mohammad Umar, a taxi driver, was killed when the vehicle in which the terrorists had planted a bomb exploded at Vile Parle, did not understand much of what Obama spoke.
“I didn’t understand what was being said, but I know I got an opportunity to meet a very important person. I attended the event in memory of my husband,” Khatun said.
Mahesh Naik, who works as a cleaner in the Trident, was thrilled to get the President’s autograph.
“I was proud when he said that I had done a good job. I think the autograph that I got today and a chance to meet Obama at such close quarters is very memorable. They were really down to earth,” said Naik.
During the attacks, Naik, who was carrying hampers of soiled sheets, when the terrorists struck at Trident hotel, went out of his call of duty to herd guests away from the line of fire.
Two city heroes, whose bravery saved many lives during the 26/11 attacks, Central Railway announcer Vishnu Zende and Jillu Yadav a Railway Protection Force constable, said they were honoured to meet the Obamas.
“It’s a great feeling to meet the President of the United States,” said Zende, who for 25 minutes had warned commuters about the terrorists through announcements in his cubicle not far from the shooters.
Yadav said his family was proud of him and he would never forget this moment.