x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Obama's India visit disrupts Diwali celebrations

I spent Diwali, scouring the streets of Mumbai, talking to people, asking them about Barack Obama's visit. In turn, they told me how Obama had ruined Diwali!

A presidential interruption

It was on extremely short notice that I found out that this year I would be celebrating Diwali in Mumbai. It would also turn out to be the most unique Diwali experience.

The morning I landed, excited children were already out on the streets by 6am, lighting fireworkers and shooting off crackers with glee. At the first unexpected blast I jumped in my seat, then looked at all the brightly decorated homes. Some of the most brightly lit homes were the slums, whose lights twinkled at dawn.

It has been several years, thanks to living abroad, since I have delighted in bursting firecrackers. Now they make me jumpy but this was the first year in a very long time that I did not light a single candle or tea light. Instead, I spent Diwali, scouring the streets of Mumbai, talking to people, asking them about Barack Obama's visit. In turn, they told me how Obama had ruined Diwali! Certain neighbourhoods around the Taj Mahal Palace hotel and towers, better known as Southern Mumbai, turned into a fortress. Entire streets were cordoned off, with police posting notices and warning residents "to counsel" their children to not indulge in Diwali celebrations after 10pm. That night, the police went hoarse announcing on loudspeakers, telling people to stop celebrating and trying to catch the perpetrators. It was seriously funny. The next day, after Obama managed to wish Mumbaikers a "Happy Diwali" and properly pronounced "saal mubarak" or Happy New Year, I retired to my hotel room and watched a magnificent display of colours light up the night sky. Even though the south of Mumbai was under lockdown, the rest of Mumbai seemed to have taken it upon themselves to tell everyone that they were to carry on, regardless of who was visiting. This was the resilient spirit of the city's people that Obama had acknowledged earlier in the day.

The next day, Obama celebrated a belated Diwali with school children from the Holy Name School in Colaba, the same area whose celebrations were curbed by 8,000 policemen who had patrolled the streets. Children who were said to be heartbroken about not being able to burst firecrackers the day before forgot about it all instantly. With huge grins on their faces, dressed in traditional attire, with bunches of flowers in their hair, they welcomed the president, who rolled up his sleeves and was not at all taken aback when the students bent down to touch his feet and ask for blessings.

After all, he is the first American president to celebrate Diwali in the White House, and this year, he travelled all the way to India and braved wishing Indians well in their native language. Looks like he might just have got away with interrupting Diwali in Mumbai after all.