I vividly remember the first time I met Giriraj Rao,
(Giribhai to many!). India American Cultural
Association (IACA) had just concluded its annual ‘ Spelling Bee’ Contest, and Giriraj , who had been helping his wife Carolina in the Contest, stepped into the foyer, saw me standing there and introduced himself, with a vigorous handshake. Since that day, our friendship has blossomed. Such is the magnetic pull of
Giribhai. He is a jovial, genial extrovert, who enjoys meeting people from all walks of life. Ever the gentleman, Giribhai though now in his ripe age of late 70’s, is indefatigable and refuses to slow down and is zesty as ever. His conversation is far-ranging and full of wit and wisdom. He is an immensely entertaining raconteur and a bon vivant, who punctuates his riveting talk with interesting anecdotes, accompanied by his endearing laughter. Giribhai and laughter go together. As Peter Ustinov said, “I was irrevocably betrothed to laughter, the sound of which has always seemed to me to be the most civilized music in the world.” One of the most respected veteran social activist, he would be a God’s gift to TV Talk Show host.
The other shining quality of his is his generosity. He has a heart of gold. Giribhai and his late wife Carolina have been donors for countless worthy causes, never seeking publicity or material gains in return.
He lives in a spacious, elegant house. It is humble and tastefully decorated with Coca-Cola memorabilia; his hand-painted oil paintings of Indian temples, and village life; antiques wood and artwork from all over the world. In the basement is the Gandhi Room, lined up with Gandhi artifacts and books on Gandhi and other subjects to reflect his taste in scholarship. Currently his home is the official address of the Gandhi Foundation of USA.
During most of his adult life, Giriraj has lived a rich, colorful, and exciting life. Starting from humble roots in India to attaining high-status position in the world famous corporate world of Coca-Cola. He was born in Madras (Chennai). After graduating from the Hindu High School, he earned a scholarship to the Madras Presidency College. He was persuaded by his peers to drop his favorite subjects of history and geography at the High School and go for science instead. When ‘Quit-India’ movement was raging in India in 1942, he became part of the movement. He got a First Class Honors in B.Sc. (Chem.) at the age of 19. This proved fortuitous, because the Govt. of India had set up several national research projects under the newly created Board of Science and Industrial Research, to advance research and technology. Prior to his B.Sc. examination results, he was interviewed by Dr Biman Bihari
Dey, the Principal of the Presidency College and a highly respected organic chemist and was offered a 3 month apprenticeship without pay. After receiving First Class he was confirmed as a Junior Sc. Research Assistant. World War II was over. In 1946, out of about 5000 applicants, he was selected for further technical training in Food Technology discipline at the University of Berkley, California.
In September 1946, he set sail on a 28 days voyage to San Francisco. As a trainee, Giribhai had his share of debates and discussions on India’s struggle for independence and social life. He also took interest in learning about other faiths. His roommate was Maruf Shah
Roghani, a Pathan and also one of his classmates and life-long friend was Bazlur
Rahman. He also had Jewish roommates. As students from India were few and far between, he became a popular figure on the campus disseminating information about India and Gandhi.
And then in 1948, he met an attractive Italian-American Carolina
Aquino, born in Paso Robles, California, who also was a student at Berkley. They fell in love, simple as that. To overcome the legal impediments, they eloped to Reno, Nevada, and had a Civil marriage at the Courthouse. Apparently they had not anticipated the opposition to their inter-racial and inter-religious marriage from Giribhai’s orthodox mother and relatives back home and Carolina’s parents. After graduation, she became a teacher and that led to the teaching of English as a second language. Their happy marriage lasted 48 years. After 15 years into marriage, they were blessed with their two sons, Matthew and Shawn who are Georgia Tech. graduates. Sadly, Carolina passed away on January 9, 1997. Gentle, unpretentious, Carolina was endowed with physical and inner beauty. She played an active role in IACA’s functions, inter-cultural festivals and inter-faith conferences. She was an ideal companion to
Giribhai- a sweet and soothing tune.
Back to Giribhai. After marriage, he went back to India (now independent). All he could find was a Government of Madras job in the village of Kodur in today’s Andhra
Pradesh. In this humdrum job, the only interesting thing was his meeting an American missionary , Rev. William Wise, whose mission included caring for lepers. His compassion for the people he served left a deep imprint on
Giribhai. The village life also had a great impact on Giribhai but realizing that he would not find any fulfilling job in India and also that Carolina would not be accepted in his family; he left for California to start a new life.
Like other immigrants of color, he had to initially struggle for a living, doing menial jobs of a lab attendant washing dishes ! But then things improved. He got a job at Mission Dry Corporation, a citrus manufacturing plant that marketed soft drinks-Mission Orange, Mission Grape and even Mission Cola! The job offered him an opportunity to periodically travel to Canada, as well as many parts of US and made him a pioneer in the manufacture of carbonated beverages. Then he moved to Minute Maid Company in 1956. In 1959, Coca-Cola acquired the Minute Maid Company and Giribhai never looked for another job since then. He was by then a most accomplished flavorist and soft-drink technologist. He worked with Coca-Cola for 31 years, reporting to several Vice-presidents, including Dr. Darshan Singh
Bhatia, another Food Technologist from MIT, USA, whose association Giribhai cherishes very much. Coca-Cola afforded Giribhai an opportunity to see the world, become a pioneer in the progress of soft drinks and essential oils manufacturing all over the world. His visit to China in 1991, even after retirement, elevated the credibility of an Indian-American Technologist even for the Chinese. It was during this period that he became associated with Vir
Nanda, Subash Razdan, Dr. Bhatia, Mahadev Desai and many persons of Indian origin and person like Dr. Joy Berry of the mainstream who have been his major sources of support. Subash still is his strongest partner and supporter for the management of the Gandhi Foundation of USA.
After retiring from Coca-Cola, he plunged head-long into voluntary work. It is difficult to encapsulate in a nutshell the Associations he has represented, the Awards he has won and the projects that he has funded. He was Executive Vice-President of 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); and is one of the Founders and currently the Executive Director of the Gandhi Foundation of USA. Since the days of his participation in “Quit-India movement” he has revered Gandhi. This reverence has almost turned into an inexplicable inspiration. Consequently he has galvanized others, particularly the members of the Gandhi Task Force into increasing the awareness of Gandhi in the US. In 1995, he spearheaded a three week exhibition on Gandhi at the State Capitol of Georgia. In the same year, a Gandhi Room was set up at the IACA Center, dedication of which was done by Ms. Coretta Scott King. The installation and dedication of the Gandhi Statue in the Martin Luther King Jr.National Historic Site took place on January 24, 1998-a hallowed venue where Gandhi’s and Dr. King’s birth anniversaries and India’s Republic Day are celebrated each year. The Gandhi Foundation of USA in collaboration with other community organizations like CRY,
RAKSHA, NFIA, and CARE participates in fund raising for worthy welfare projects. The Gandhi Foundation of USA under Giribhai’s stewardship has truly become more mainstream and everyday new bridges are being built to enhance the role of the Indian Americans in this adopted land.
His mission is not over yet. He has ‘Gandhi on his mind’. He still keeps on dreaming about different projects, constantly reminding himself, “I have miles to go before I sleep.” He marches on with support from his companion Elena who is a Russian immigrant and his sons Shawn and Mathew and members of the Gandhi Foundation family. The words from ‘Ulysses’ seem to be truly apt for
Giribhai, “ For always roaming with a hungry heart, much have I seen and known..how dull it is to pause to make an end, to rust
unburnished, not to shine in use.”