When US president Barack Obama paid a tribute to Gandhi at Mani Bhavan on Saturday afternoon, Usha Trivedi, a 75-year-old trustee of the museum, could not help make parallels with a similar visit in 1959.
That was the year when US civil rights leader Martin Luther King Junior, another figure who shaped Obama’s political views and ideology, visited and lived in Mani Bhavan for one and a half days.
“It’s a historic connection,” said Trivedi, who worked as a librarian at the museum in 1959. “I told the President that I met Martin Luther King 50 years back who stayed here and that we hired furniture, and today I am meeting you. ‘Good good’ is how he responded. And went on to say that he hoped he could follow in his footsteps.”
Obama and his wife Michelle entered the austere two-storey Mani Bhavan building at 2.55 pm and spent close to 40 minutes inside.
Situated in south Mumbai’s quiet Gamdevi area, the museum was the epicentre of Gandhi’s political activities whenever he visited Mumbai between 1917 and 1934. This was the place from where he initiated Civil Disobedience, Satyagraha, Swadeshi, Khadi and Khilafat movements.
The US first couple visited the picture gallery on the first floor, the Doll’s Museum that depicts Gandhi’s life through mini figures on the second floor and also Gandhi’s own room and workplace on the top floor, which has been preserved in its near-original setting complete with the Mahatma’s spinning wheel and mattress.
“I am filled with hope and inspiration as I have the privilege to view this testament to Gandhi’s life. He is a hero not just to India but to the world,” wrote Obama in the museum’s visitor’s book.
“The glimpse of Gandhiji’s room was the most important aspect of the trip. Both were very delighted to be here and said they were inspired by Gandhiji’s ideals. It was a personal tribute to the Mahatma,” said Usha Thakkar, a trustee. “And they made such a good couple.”
On the ground floor, Obama paused for a time at a large bronze bust of Gandhi, which was surrounded by floral tributes for the occasion, and saw Dr King’s signature in one of the guest books. “Pretty cool. 1959,” he said. “What a great book.”
The president also placed a garland of khadi threads around the Gandhi bust.
According to Yogesh Kamdar, another trustee, the informal and friendly Michelle described Mani Bhavan as “a wonderful place for the city’s younger generation”.
The trustees said Obama – who has mentioned that Gandhi has had a major influence on him and whose portrait hangs in his senate office – didn’t speak too much but devoted every moment to Mani Bhavan. “He knows so much about Gandhi that it didn’t seem like anything was new to him. He seemed familiar with everything,” said Thakkar.
Meghshyam Ajgaonkar, executive secretary of the museum, said Obama appeared to be very impressed on seeing Gandhi's simplicity when he went to his living room. “He took interest in almost all the exhibits. Usually this museum can be seen in 20 minutes, but Obama spent double the time,” he said.
The trustees gifted the couple with two books – Women in Indian Society co-authored by Neera Desai and Usha Thakkar and Mahatma, a Golden Treasury of Wisdom, which comprise alphabetically arranged thoughts of Gandhi. They were also gifted an abridged version of a 2 ½ hour documentary film titled ‘Mahatma’ by Vithalbhai Jhaveri. The documentary that was originally shot in 1969 is rare and consists of actual footage of Gandhi. Swadheenta Samar Geet, an audio cassette listing songs from the Indian freedom movement by singer Shubha Mudgal was also presented.
“We didn’t gift them personally because it is against protocol. But they will be sent to the White House via the consulate,” said Kamdar.
While the US ambassador bought a 6 ½ inch bronze bust of Gandhi for Rs 6,000 for his office, an order for the bust was placed that will be dispatched to the White House.
On being asked what they would like to remember about the visit, the couple said the visit in itself is memorable. Obama also spoke to museum officials as he left the library and told them he would return one day with his two daughters, Malia and Sasha.
His parting gift to Mani Bhavan were inscriptions on both his books – Dreams from My Father and The Audacity of Hope that has been sitting in their library – that read “I continue to find inspiration from Gandhiji’s teaching.”