MUMBAI, India — A group of children sit on the hood of a police car, eagerly waiting for U.S. President Barack Obama’s motorcade to drive by.
“Ala, ala, ala,” (He’s coming, he’s coming, he’s coming) a little boy shouts in Marathi, the local language spoken in Mumbai.
At another barricade, hundreds push and shove and jump up and down, trying to catch a glimpse of the president as he leaves Mani Bhavan, the museum where Mahatma Gandhi stayed when he visited Mumbai during India’s independence movement. Old men lean over their balcony railing; boys climb into trees; girls sit on top of shoulders — all holding their mobile phones out, ready to snap a photograph of Obama. When the president steps outside, the crowd goes wild, chanting, cheering and hooting away.
Obama and his Democratic Party have taken a beating this week at home, facing big losses in the mid-term elections. But a long flight and nine and a half time zones later, the president has received a warm welcome in Mumbai, where he begins his three-day trip to India and four-country tour of Asia.
“It’s a great honor for our country that a president of the United States is coming,” said 12-year-old Minal Chudasama, as she waited among the crowd outside the Gandhi museum. The young girl, speaking fast and with assertion, said she wants to one day study in the United States and return to India to help her country grow. “I want to be a big person like him,” she said.
Around Mumbai, people say they are proud of their country for being important enough to host a U.S. president and are excited to get a chance to see Obama, even if from hundreds of feet away.
Municipal worker Nitesh Kasare, wearing a bright orange vest and gloves, pauses from picking up trash on the street in front of the Gandhi museum and says he feels proud to be involved in such a big occasion.
“My family feels happy I’m cleaning for Obama,” he said smiling. He says he hopes the president helps India by providing jobs and food for the country’s poor.
Many waiting near the Gandhi museum say it’s significant to them that Obama is making a special stop to honor the country’s liberation hero. The visit holds personal meaning for 86-year-old Vimal Amladi. Both she and her deceased husband were active in India’s independence movement six decades ago, she said as she waited on her apartment’s terrace to watch the Obama convoy.
“It is exciting to see him coming,” Amladi said. “So many leaders have come here.”
The former freedom fighter, who wore a delicate white and pink sari, silver glasses and her white hair pulled back, said she remembers seeing Gandhi himself visit this home when she was young.
The reaction to Obama’s visit has not been entirely positive, and many Mumbaikars have complained about the timing of the trip and what they consider excessive security.
The trip falls during Diwali, one of the biggest Hindu festivals in the country. Authorities have prohibited residents in South Mumbai from lighting the otherwise ubiquitous fireworks during the president’s stay.
(Of course, not everyone finds the firecracker ban a bad thing. “What is the use of big noise?” Amladi, the former freedom fighter, said as she put her hands up to her ears.)
Street closures have also prevented people from visiting their family members during the holiday.
The caretaker of a Hindu temple near the Gandhi museum, Pramila Pandya, said the trip has prevented more people from visiting the temple during the holiday. Pandya, who sat in her one-room home watching live coverage of Obama's plane landing in Mumbai, said she wishes the timing had been different, but she was still looking forward to the visit.
“We’re waiting anxiously to see him,” she said, before offering her visitors Diwali sweets.
Many hoping to get a glimpse of Obama’s motorcade question the need for security that is by far more extreme that what any Indian leader receives.
More than 5,000 security personnel, including U.S. and Indian security officers and elite commandos, were deployed in South Mumbai, and at least 11 major streets were shut down, according to local press reports. Hundreds of police roamed the streets around the Taj Mahal Palace and Tower Hotel on Friday ahead of the visit, checking IDs and preventing anyone from getting close to the hotel where the first couple planned to spend Saturday night.
Local authorities also removed street sellers and the homeless, “sanitizing” the city, as the press called it, and preventing Obama from seeing what many consider to be the real Mumbai.
Shop owners, street vendors and taxi and rickshaw drivers in areas near Obama’s visit have all complained about the effects on their businesses during what would otherwise be a high-spending holiday weekend.
A man waiting at one barricade wonders if the high level of security sends a mixed message just as Obama finishes giving a speech at the Taj on India’s resilience in the face of security threats. The iconic Taj hotel was one of the sites under fire during the 2008 Mumbai attacks that killed more than 160 people.
Nalin Modi, a local businessman, said it gave the impression that the Americans do not trust the Mumbai police.
Others question why the city faces a lockdown for the U.S. president, but the same did not happen when India’s President Pratibha Patil visited last month.
A woman who had been forced behind a gate said she was annoyed she could stand on the street. The police did not allow any Mumbaikars to line the roads.
“It’s almost like being in the zoo,” Mikki Karekar said as she stood behind the gate’s bars. “We know how the animals feel right now.” And then, as her friend complained about not being able to visit her grandmother on Diwali because of the tight security, a police officer approached and forced the GlobalPost reporter and photographer off the street.
But most seemed to accept the high security as a necessary precaution and did what they can to be a part of the action, even from far away. Dhiraj Bal Dia held his 5-year-old daughter in his arms near one barricade so she could get a view of the president.
“When she grows up,” the father said with a smile, “she’ll say we went to see Barack Obama.”