The New Global Indians
December 21, 2009
There was a time in the old days in India when it was regarded as almost sacrilegious to cross the oceans, and to leave one's homeland was to leave it forever. Now, hopping between continents and countries and cities has become commonplace and there's a new breed of global Indians who think nothing of breakfast in one country and dessert in another, with homes, networks and emotional ties in multiple cities.
Vikram Gandhi, an international banker, and his wife Meera epitomize this new breed of global Indians – highly successful Indians who are at home in many parts of the world. They belong to a fraternity where friendships are global, wining and dining is cosmopolitan, and interests, issues and concerns are international – but the heart is firmly anchored in India. Vikram and Meera Gandhi came to the US from India in 1986 to go to business school – Meera to Boston University and Vikram to Harvard. In fact, their first child was reared in their dorm at Harvard. A decade and three kids later, the couple moved back to India for three years before the US and business beckoned once again.
The Gandhis have lived in India, the US and are now in Hong Kong. In each country, homes, friendships and relationships have been sculpted so that to be in Mumbai or in London or in New York means having social connections and places with memories and a past. In each place they have got involved in the cultural life as well as in giving, so that each city becomes personal, a piece of home. There's an emotional ownership, what one calls in Hindi, apnapan.
While Vikram is more private, the gregarious Meera is somewhat of a people collector, enthusiastic about human connections and reaching out to new possibilities, new ideas. And their beautiful homes in New York and Hong Kong reflect this, though in very different ways.
In New York, home is a historic townhouse on Madison Avenue that once belonged to First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Her spirit lives on in that house, with pictures of the iconic First Lady during her India trip on the walls of the foyer.
The Gandhis have hosted many fundraisers here supporting causes from fighting illiteracy to the building of homes for Habitat for Humanity. The house has 17 rooms and, including the roof garden and barbeque space, encompasses about 10,000 sq feet of useable space. When the Gandhis first saw the house, it was deteriorating and they spent over two years restoring it to its former glory.
Says Meera, "I loved the facade and even though we were not looking for a home as huge as this one, we ended up buying the beautiful building – as much for its history as for the open spaces it offered." In replenishing the house, Meera says they felt almost a responsibility for keeping its past alive. She became a trustee of the board of Val-Kill (Mrs. Roosevelt's summer home) and is on the Board of Governors of FERI (Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute).of Val-Kill.
"Mrs. Roosevelt always said 'light a candle rather than curse the darkness' and this home has been a candle for so many charities and causes since we have owned the house," says Meera. The illustrious home has seen famous guests from Senator Hillary Clinton to Kerry Kennedy to the actress Uma Thurman.
And yet in this interesting swirl of celebrities, guests have also included dreamers and activists and unknown artists. Indeed, social events at the Gandhi home mean a vigorous mix of east and west, of different nationalities coming together. At one dinner it was possible to see not only the Kronos Quartet and Asha Bhonsle, but also Zakir Husain and his wife Antonia Minnecola, and the culinary expert and actress Madhur Jaffrey, besides American artists and performers.
All the socializing is generally for a good cause. Meera is on the boards of several nonprofits and has helped raise funds for causes as diverse as computer literacy for the underprivileged and housing for battered women. A lot of Meera's time is now devoted to the newly formed family foundation, and she is working on a coffee table book on people in philanthropy as well as a documentary on people who give, to be accompanied by a music CD.
Now based in Hong Kong, home for Meera and Vikram Gandhi is a beautiful contemporary villa, full of light and air, in Stanley Bay, a heartbeat away from the ocean. It is a world away from the concrete canyons of Manhattan and the South China Sea stretches out endlessly, offering stunning, scenic vistas. This warm and welcoming space is once again being thrown open to cultural and social causes in Hong Kong, a recent guest being England's former First Lady Cherie Blair.
Where will home be next? As their three children Kiran, Kanika and Kabir move into the world, that's an open question but the family turns every new place into home by embracing all cultures and connections in this ever-shrinking new world.