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Remembering Giriraj Rao

May 2008
Remembering Giriraj Rao

By Parthiv N. Parekh, with reporting by Mahadev Desai

“Gandhigiri” is an increasingly used pop culture term in India, and it describes any act that is of a Gandhian quality. The late Giriraj Rao, our beloved community veteran, pioneer, and leader often regaled in it, quipping with characteristic verve that he had been doing Gandhigiri for decades. Yet, grounded as he was, he consistently denied wearing the “Gandhian” label till the end.

Paying a farewell tribute to a multidimensional man such as Giriraj Rao (“Giribhai” or just plain “Giri” to many) is a daunting task. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about him was the ease with which he traversed the polarity of our hyphenated lives as “Indian-Americans.” Many of us seem to be tilted to one extreme or the other: we either remain insular in our Indianness, or seem to want to disown it in our quest to assimilate. Giribhai showed us that it is possible to embrace both fully; and that one does not come at the cost of the other. He was a classic American: an immigrant who came to the land and embraced its society and culture without any native inhibitions. Yet, he was also the quintessential Indian: always concerned about Indian and Indian American issues.

Giribhai was a pioneer in so many ways. For one, having immigrated to the U.S. in 1946, he was amongst the first wave of Indians who made this intercontinental leap. Bucking trends seemed the norm with him. Even in a new country and culture, he pushed the envelope. In an era when interracial marriages were a rarity, he married Carolina Aquino, a Californian. The marriage lasted decades—till death (of his wife) parted them.

Here’s a man who had participated in the independence movement of India, was brilliant in academics, had an enviable track record in his professional life at Coca-Cola, and had traveled the world around. He was a man of intellect, wit and wisdom. He was an entertaining raconteur with an endearing laugh. He was known for his generosity and supported many worthy causes without seeking publicity or reciprocation. All of which would have justified a peaceful retirement dotted with well earned comforts and self-satisfaction.

But that was hardly the case. Giribhai’s life took on a renewed vigor in his post-retirement years when he could once again give expression to his irrepressible idealism and activism. In a phase of life when most people are content doing little, Giribhai, through the Gandhi Foundation of USA (GFUSA), was a tireless champion of the Gandhi-King legacy, and of building bridges between various ethnicities and communities of Atlanta. He was also instrumental in promoting Indian arts and culture at mainstream venues such as the Rialto Center at Georgia State University.

He had played a role in Mayor Franklin’s efforts to secure the King papers for Atlanta. He had met presidents of the U.S. (Harry S. Truman, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton) and was known to many of Atlanta’s leaders and officials, including the late Coretta Scott King. He was amongst the officers of the GFUSA who had exchanged felicitations with His Holiness the Dalai Lama during his recent visit to Atlanta at the Emory University.

Yet, he was ever gracious and respectful of all, whether young or old, and irrespective of their worldly stature. In the demise of Giribhai, the Atlanta Indian community has taken a collective loss that is only compensated by his inspirational legacy.

Chronological highlights:

1924: Birth

1942: Influenced by Gandhi, joined the Quit India movement in India’s independence struggle

1943: Appointed Senior Research Assistant by the newly created Council of Scientific and Industrial Research.

1943: Received a master’s degree in biochemistry

1946: Selected by the Indian Government out of nearly 5000 applicants for advanced technical training in food technology at the University of California, Berkeley

1949 and onwards: Established himself as a pioneer in the field of soft drinks

1959 and onwards: Started an illustrious 31-year career at Coca Cola till the time he retired as Principal Investigator in the Corporate Research and Development division of the company.

1995: Organized a three-week exhibition on Gandhi at the State Capitol of Georgia.

1998: Co-founded the Gandhi Foundation of USA (GFUSA).

1998: Served as one of the two key principals of GFUSA responsible for having a life-size bronze statue of Gandhi installed at the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site in Atlanta

April 1, 2008: passed away at the North Fulton Regional Hospital.

Awards, Offices, and Citations:

· Executive Vice President, India American Cultural Association (IACA) (1986)

· Chairman of the Board, IACA (1989)

· President, Asia-Pacific American Council of Georgia, APAC (1989)

· Trustee, National Federation of Indian Associations, NFIA (1992)

· Served on the Georgia Human Relations Commission, the Interfaith Coalition and on King’s Holiday Commission.

· Co-founder and Executive Director of the Gandhi Foundation USA

· Recognized as one amongst the Legends, Heroes and Heroines by The Friends of Sweet Auburn (2006)

· Community Service Award from the National Federation of Indian Associations (2006)

· Featured as an Exemplary Community Activist in Carolyn Miller’s photographic exhibit, “Bridges: Human Connections” at the Rialto Center for the Performing Arts (2007)

· One of ten “Humanities Heroes” and the first Asian American to receive the prestigious Governor’s Award in Humanities from Georgia Governor Sonny Purdue (2007)

· Presented a khata (a ceremonial Tibetan scarf) by His Holiness the Dalai Lama (2007)

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