This item is an audio file.


Oral History Interview with Vikram "Vik" Dewan



DESCRIPTION
Oral history interview with Vikram "Vik" Dewan, CEO of the Philadelphia Zoo, conducted by Dr. Amber Abbas on June 2, 2014.

AUDIO
Duration: 01:23:02

ADDITIONAL METADATA
Date: June 2, 2014
Subject(s): Vikram Dewan
Type: Oral History
Language: English
Creator: Amber Abbas
Location: Philadelphia Zoo, 3400 W. Girard Avenue, Philadelphia, PA

TRANSCRIPTION
Interviewee: Vikram “Vik” Dewan
Interviewer: Amber Abbas
Location: Philadelphia Zoo, Philadelphia, PA
Date: June 2, 2014
Recording Format and Equipment Used: Marantz PMD 620
Length: 83:02
Transcribed by: Amber Abbas and Eesha Sheth
Version: Lightly Edited

Context Notes: I met Vikram Dewan at the Philadelphia Zoo, where he is the Director. It was our second meeting. I had contacted him to determine if he would be a good fit as an interviewee for my class at St. Joseph’s University entitled “Oral History, Migration and the Archive” in which students interviewed South Asian American immigrants. As it turned out he was not a perfect fit for that project, but I was compelled by his story and his public role in Philadelphia, particularly his philanthropic activities. We shared the experience of an international childhood that led to friendly and open conversation. I asked if he would be willing to record an interview for the South Asian American Digital Archive and he readily consented. I met him in his office on a Monday afternoon in the early summer.

Narrator’s Full NameVikram “Vik” Dewan

Interviewer’s Full Name: Amber Abbas

AA: Testing, Testing. This is Amber Abbas, I’m here with Vikram Dewan at the Philadelphia Zoo. Today is June second; we are in his office, and we’ll be speaking a little bit about his life and experiences. Would you start by telling me your full name?

VD: Yes, it’s Vikram Dewan.

AA: And you go by?

VD: Vik.

AA: Generally, okay. And what about your parents names?

VD: (0:00:28.5) My father’s name was Madan Lal Dewan and my mother’s name was Sudarshna. Her maiden name was Mercandia, Dewan.

AA: Mercandia? Where does that come from?

VD: (0:00:38.0) Himachal [Pradesh]. (AA: Ok.) And she and her parents migrated to East Africa and so she grew up in Nairobi.

AA: Alright. I’ve just never heard that name, Mercandia. It’s beautiful. Can you just tell me a little bit more about them, who they are, what their professions were?

VD: (0:00:58.5) Yes, my father was born in 1922. He was the third child of seven of my grandparents. My grandfather grew up in Northwest Frontier Province. My father was born in the city of Kohat in the Northwest Frontier Province. My grandfather was a lawyer and so he was very focused on the education of all of his kids. My dad went to Government College in Lahore. And then at the time of independence got a scholarship to study agriculture at Cornell University in Ithaca. (AA: Aha! Ok.) So in 1948 he went to Cornell and completed his Ph.D. in Agriculture, and then came back in 1950, back to India, and got married to my mother. My mother grew up in Nairobi. She was the youngest of six. Her parents, my grandfather worked for the railroad in Kenya. He was part of the group that came from India to East Africa when the British were building the railroad. She left when she got married, but my entire mother’s side lived in Kenya and Uganda until the Idi Amin period and then they all moved to England.

AA: Do you have a sense of—your mother’s father migrated—

VD: (0:02:49.1) In the ‘20s.

AA: In the ‘20s. So he still probably had family in India? So it was important to him to have her married within India?

VD: (0:02:59.4) Yes. And he still had family and my grandmother also still had family in India. And so it was his desire that my mother would marry in an arranged marriage back in India. So that happened in 1951—when they got married.

AA: And when were you born?

VD: (0:03:24.3) ’54. I’m the second of their children. I have an older sister who was born—so, my dad came back from the U.S. and started working in Bihar for a agricultural agency of the Bihar Government and the National Government. They moved out there, that is where my sister was born. And then, in 1953, two years later, my dad joined the United Nations. And moved to Iran as his first assignment. That’s where I was born.

AA: Okay, you were born in Iran. And how long did you live there?

VD: (0:04:03.6) Five years. And then we moved to Italy. And we were in Italy for seven years, and then we came back to Iran, which is where I completed high school. And then I came to the United States—well, I actually went to India for a year—and then came to the United States. My parents went back to Italy and then they were posted in Bulgaria, and then my dad did a Visiting Professorship at Cornell—I mean they moved around quite a bit until he retired in 1985 and moved back to India.
AA: And where did they settle when they went back to India?

VD: Delhi.

AA: After having been gone for so long.

VD: (0:04:46.9) It was always their intention. They—even while they were living overseas, they had a home built in India because all of my dad’s side lived in Delhi. His mother, by then his father had passed away, my grandfather had passed away. But his mother was still alive and lived in Delhi and all of his brothers and sisters lived in Delhi. It was always his intention to move back, to be there.

AA: So they felt very connected, still, to India, even though they had moved around so much. Did you visit there when you were kids?

VD: (0:05:23.2) Yes. So one of the really wonderful things about growing up within the United Nations’ system was that although we lived all over the world, every two years, we would always go back to India on home leave. Home leave included not only a trip to India every two years, but also a trip East Africa to see my mother’s side. So I was always very close to my cousins and my aunts and my uncles and knew them. At that time, so, we’re now talking about the early 60s and into the mid-60s, international travel was not that often. There were three flights a week, kind of thing, from major centers into India. To fly into Nairobi you had to kind of make four stops along the way to get there. And so we would go, we would spend a solid part of the summer. We would be there for two months! Not just for a couple of days at a time! We would get to see everybody. I remained very connected, on the one hand, to India, and on the other hand, very connected to my mother’s side, particularly in Nairobi, although she had brothers and sisters in Entebbe and Jinja and in Mombasa. I mean, so, we got to see a lot of East Africa as well.

AA: Right. And both of your parents come from fairly large families so I imagine you have a host of cousins!

VD: (0:06:54.3) Exactly. Exactly. A ton of cousins! That’s right.

AA: I can relate to that, I do too. What do you remember about your childhood—first in Iran, and then in Italy, like, even things like: what was your home like? What was your neighborhood like?

VD: (0:07:10.3) I have pretty vivid memories. I mean, this year I’ll be 67, so we’re talking about memories that have dulled over the years but I do remember. I have pretty clear memories of my first couple years in Iran. So, I had a nanny. My sister and I had a nanny. We lived on the second floor of an apartment in a pretty residential part of Tehran. We’d do a lot of being out with our nanny so I spoke Farsi pretty fluently. We were very much multi-lingual in our family. We spoke multiple languages at all times.

AA: Which ones?

VD: (0:07:59.9) My parents always insisted that we speak Hindi, but Farsi and then English. So there would always be three languages going in our house at almost all times. But it was a very comfortable existence. Iran at that time was starting to really develop as a country, having gone through a lot of political turmoil. My dad had a job as the chief agriculture person for the United Nations into Iran and that was his academic specialty. Even as he went on in his career, it would always bring him back to arid climates and desert agriculture. That was really his specialty area, which would take him to Egypt and it would take him to other parts of the world: Northern Africa and other parts that had large desert climates. I remember quite a bit about Iran. I don’t have quite as much memory of going to India very early. In those times to get from India to East Africa you had to go on a boat and I remember some of those times, but I do actually remember my grandparents on both sides.

By the time we moved to Italy, that part is very clear in my head. I started school, I went to an English school. Both my sister and I went to St. George’s English School. We wore blazers; we stood; we ate communal lunch. Everything was with fountain pens. (AA: Huh!) Handwriting and all that was very, very much kind of the way that it worked. We were in a school that was a very interesting school. At that time, Rome had probably three or four schools for expatriates. This was the main school that taught in the English system.

AA: So it wasn’t just an English language school, it was a British school?

VD: (0:10:00.9) It was a British school. It was a British school and it was largely for expatriates. So my best friend was from Ghana, the other friend was from Ethiopia. A few people were Italian, a lot of people were British. You know, so it was everybody. It was a very, very interesting school. I was there through, I guess, what would have been the equivalent of sixth grade. Within the British system, and my sister was there with us as well.

AA: I have some questions about that community, which you have mentioned already in Italy. You had told me already a little bit, the last time we spoke about what it was like in Iran and the community of South Asians who was there. Can you tell me a little bit more about that and who your family associated with?

VD: (0:10:49.1) Yeah, it was a very small community, in Iran and even in Rome. And then, when we went back to Iran. It was a small group of folks. There were folks from the Embassy, there were a few people in business and then everybody else was kind of here or there professionals, or the station manager for Air India, something like that. I mean, that’s kind of the group. They would get together reasonably often to do things together. They would cook together. Food and finding spices was really hard in those days. So if somebody had, you know, somehow been able to bring into their home some okra or some bitter gourd (AA: Uh-huh!) or something, everyone would descend on their house and have a communal meal with them! So it was very much built around food as the core experience. It wasn’t as much around religion. It was much more around celebrating festivals, but then the food side was really, really important from that standpoint.

(0:12:01.2 ) Iran was different than Rome. Rome was a much bigger expatriate community. Much bigger and because it was the headquarter city for that specialized agency of my father’s work, there were a lot of folks that were colleagues of his that worked at the Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome. And so that was frankly a bigger community of South Asians, but unlike Iran both times, my parents had a lot of friends who weren’t South Asian and they had kind of a different circle that they were involved in.

AA: And do you have a sense, this was in the ‘50s and early ‘60s, very recently after the Indian partition. Did you have a sense whether or not there were people in that community who were from the “other side?” From the Pakistan side? Did it matter?

VD: (0:12:52.9) No doubt about it. No doubt about it. I think that partition was such a deep emotional experience for my parents that it was next to impossible for my sister and I to really understand it. It was really difficult for us to understand it. But, while there was a social interaction with individuals who, at that time, would have been from Pakistan—because there was no Bangladesh at that time, not until much later—it was clear that it was a social interaction, it wasn’t anything more than that. There was never ever going to be a marriage across religious lines, that was never going to happen. It was a very deep feeling. And one that, to my sister and I, was almost impossible to understand.

AA: I was thinking about your father joining the U.N. in the early 50s when a lot of those tensions from partition would have been very pronounced, whether or not those might have been related—that decision to leave?

VD: (0:14:03.4) Well, because his ancestral home is in Kohat, his whole family was actually involved in partition and actually moved to Delhi. (AA: Ah-huh. I get it. Sure.) So for them it was a very live experience, sort of. He would talk about the day—they were in predominantly a part of Kohat that was mostly Muslim—and they were one of the few Hindu families in Kohat and when partition occurred, there were those families that ended up—according to the legends of the family—that ended up helping save my grandfather. My grandfather had to dress up as a woman and had to go from this part of the city to that part of the city in order to be able to escape. We used to hear those stories all the time and as kids we would sort of roll our eyes after a while, because those stories went on and on and on, but it was clearly etched in that generation’s mind as the seminal event that helped shape their values, their outlook and what they thought.

AA: And then they went and lived in a Muslim country so it wasn’t—it seems that it wasn’t about religion in that sense, but more about the—I don’t know? What do you think?

VD: (0:15:12.6) I, I, it’s funny that you should mention that. I don’t know that that was it. It wasn’t that, that, you know, living in Iran, in an expatriate community really immersed themselves in the way that they would have lived for example, if they had moved into Delhi into a part of the city that was predominantly Muslim. That would have been, those would have been two different experiences. So, yeah, Iran was predominantly a Muslim country, fine. But that wasn’t the experience they were reacting to. It really was the India-Pakistan partition that they were reacting to.

AA: Well, yeah, and having lived through it in Delhi, and been through it. It certainly created huge amounts of disruption for people on both sides.

VD: It did. It did.

AA: That’s a lot of what my research is about, and something I think about a lot, how families process those experiences and how the memory gets passed on of what it means. But of course, being in an international citizen, being an expat is always a fundamentally different experience.

VD: (0:16:26.4 ) It is different. It is different.

AA: You mentioned that your grandfather was a lawyer. Do you have a sense of whether there was a history of civil service in the family or how your dad chose this career in international service?

VD: (0:16:41.5) Yes, yes, absolutely. My dad’s older brother joined the IAS/ICS1, the Civil Service. I think many of his sisters married into that same profession with their husbands; my grandfather was very much about service—

[Viks’ assistant alerts him to a guest waiting downstairs and he leaves the room. I turned off the tape.]

AA: Alright, we’re back.

So I think we were talking a little bit about being expats, being international, and sort of going back and forth. And you had also mentioned that your mother’s family was in East Africa. Did you feel that when you were visiting your father’s family in Delhi versus visiting your mother’s family in East Africa that those communities functioned in different ways?

VD: (0:17:32.9) Very different. Very different. The East African community was an enclave of South Asians within an African community. Very clearly. And they stayed very, very insular. The professions, what they did, what they were involved in, were very much within that community. The people we would spend time with, the people we would visit would be other South Asians. Whereas, with my father’s family, you were really within the Delhi community, and you were spending time meeting everybody, not just a narrow enclave.

AA: And what was your grandfather’s work in East Africa?

VD: He was with the railroad.

AA: Oh! With the railroad, you mentioned that.

VD: (0:18:30.5) But by then he had retired so it was really my uncles who were working to maintain and they lived in an extended family situation. A big house with everybody sort of living in the same house, eating together, kind of doing everything together. My father’s family was not that case. They were spread out. They didn’t sort of live all together. Now my grandfather then, when he really started to get older, he then bought a home in one of the towns on the Ganges River and then that sort of became where we would all get together for family reunions as kids growing up.

AA: Ah, ok. Did you, as a child, doing all of this traveling, because you were in these two communities: both a distinctly Indian one in the African context and then in this cosmopolitan environments of Delhi, think of yourself as an Indian person living outside--? I’m just curious about those identity questions? How did you see yourself? What did people tell you that you were?

VD: (0:19:35.6) Yeah, I mean, you know, I think, as a kid, you tend to be pretty self-centered. You see everything in relation to yourself and I don’t think—it’s much, much later that you begin to see your identity within another context. [AA: Sure.] I mean, I always knew that wherever I was, I really wasn’t part of that community. Even though we spoke Hindi at home, it was really clear to me that the Hindi that I spoke was not the Hindi that most people spoke in India. You know, it had a different kind of—I didn’t have the breadth of vocabulary, I didn’t have the idiomatic expressions that others had. I didn’t learn to write it and read it, even though I had a tutor who got me to the second or third grade level. I never was really good at it, I couldn’t read a book, for example, in Hindi. I could carry on a conversation, but at some point, if it was an academic conversation, I would lose it. [AA: Yeah.] Because my vocabulary wasn’t broad enough. And so, I kind of always knew that, although in every which way I was Indian: what I ate, my passport, everything, I really wasn’t. And so when I was in Iran or Italy, that was perfectly clear- right? When I was in East Africa, that was perfectly clear. But in India, it wasn’t until I was a teenager and I had graduated from high school that I really felt my affinity with India. It really was a place to visit, because you had relatives there and you went for a couple of months every couple of years and that was pretty much it.

AA: Yeah. I ask partly because, for us, growing up as expats in Arabia, we were always told “You’re American,” and then we got to America, we were like, “Really? I’m not sure if we are!” And so you kind of think, that exact thing that you’re describing, I wasn’t quite sure what place I supposed to belong—I didn’t really belong to any of them. Any of those places. Anyway. Is there a place that you’ve considered home, in the midst of all that?

VD: (0:21:49.7) I sort of take little pieces of different parts of the world and I create a sort of a patchwork quilt; that’s what feels like home to me. On that patchwork quilt is the place where my mother lives. I mean, that home, has a bedroom that is clearly my bedroom when I am there—[AA: In Delhi?] in Delhi. It has photos of my kids and me and so forth. That is clear, that’s home. And that’s clearly a home. Here. In Philadelphia. Very much feels that there is a piece of that that’s home. I spent a lot of years in Italy, and I am actually fluent in Italian and I have a home in Italy as well. That very much feels home. When I’m there, I feel very much at peace, at rest, you know, when I’m there. There’s parts of London. I definitely feel the same, it just feels like—it feels right, it feels connected. I was recently in South London for the funeral of my mother’s older brother, and that home was a home that—gosh, I don’t know how many times I went there when I was in college and high school and then went back there visiting my uncle with my daughter, who he was very fond of—and so that felt very much like, you know. I knew my way around, and I knew the high street of that town and could feel very much at home there. So it almost feels like there’s sort of a patchwork of places. No one place feels like Home.

AA: Yeah. Speaking of Philadelphia—how you came to the United States. You already tipped me off earlier that your father had been at Cornell, and you did your Bachelor’s degree at Cornell.

VD: (0:24:03.1) Yeah, it’s not that simple a story.

AA: Yeah, so tell me about that.

VD: (0:24:06.3) Yeah. So, when I graduated high school—and I graduated in pretty good academic standing, although I was pretty young. Let me think back now, I think I hadn’t quite hit my seventeenth birthday when I graduated. So I was still sixteen and change when I graduated high school.

AA: And you finished high school in—

VD: (0:24:28.0) In Iran. In Iran. So my parents and I had been talking for a couple of years leading up to that, and we had sort of decided that—you know, back then you didn’t really have guidance counselors in high school, and so you kind of made stuff up—my parents and I decided that I was going to go study engineering. And how we reached that conclusion is still a total mystery to me.

AA: Because it’s not where your father was?

VD: (0:24:56.3) It’s not where my father was, and if anybody was really paying attention to who I am, that’s not me! But, we decided—and back in the late 60s, early 70s, this was a time of space exploration, incredible advances in aeronautics, and things like that and engineering was the path that made all these incredible advancements possible. And so I got accepted to the only school I applied, The Indian Institute of Technology, in India.

AA: In Delhi?

VD: (0:25:30.3) No, in Kanpur. And the reason we picked Kanpur was because Kanpur was affiliated with Princeton University and a number of other American schools, colleges. So, I went, I got accepted and went, and I gotta say, it took me all of about five months to figure out this was not going to work out. This was really not me! My sophomore year in high school, my junior year in high school, every vacation I had, I went on an archaeological dig in Iran. I loved archaeology. That was the thing I loved more than anything else. How I ended up in an engineering school, I have no idea! So, in any event, I end up—and Kanpur is not a very cosmopolitan city. Wasn’t then, isn’t now. And it was—and the school was a good twenty kilometers out of town. It was, it was not the right place for me at all. That was the same year—we’re talking about the fall of 1971—that the war occurred, yeah2. So I came home over Christmas, right as that war was ramping up. It hadn’t quite reached that point yet, but it was definitely heading in that direction. I said to my parents, “This isn’t it. This is not me.” And, to their credit, they said, “Ok. What do you want to do?” And I said, “I’m not sure. I’m really not sure what I want to do, but I want you permission to go back and take a bunch of other courses that are not engineering courses. It’s a great school, lot of interesting things going on at IIT that I’d really like to do.” They said, “Okay, that’s fine.” So I went and saw the Dean, and the Dean said, “Sure, you can do that, but you can’t stay past this semester. This is the way that it works, and we are graduating people with a Bachelor’s degree in engineering.” So I said, “Okay.” [AA: And it’s competitive.] Yeah, it is. So I ended up taking a fifth year course in Political Science and a third year course in History of India and a couple of other things and I loved it. I absolutely loved it. The professor I had for Political Science was a graduate of Cornell, and he was one of the best instructors I’d ever had, and then this other individual who taught a History course was off-the-charts great. (0:28:09.4) I not only loved that year, where I didn’t take a single math, engineering, drawing, chemistry course, not a single one, I also traveled. Extensively. I would go to the train station in Kanpur on a Thursday and buy a train ticket to somewhere and I would spend the weekend in Banaras; I went to Nepal; I went to Calcutta; I went to Cochin. I went everywhere by train, and I loved it. I absolutely loved it. It was probably one of the best five or six months I ever spent.
(0:28:49.1) And then in the summer, I came—by now my parents were in Bulgaria. [AA: ok.] So I came to Bulgaria. So they said, “So, like, what do you want to do.” And I said, “I think I need to get back to school.” And they said, “What do you want to do?” And I said, “I really want to study Political Science.” So they said, “Okay. Where?” So I said, “I think with this recommendation I can get from this professor, I’d like to go to Cornell.” So they said okay. So I flew to the U.S. and I got to Cornell, and Cornell said, “This is all fine and good, but we don’t take transfer students like this. You’re gonna have to go, you’re gonna have to make sure you’re academically in good shape—“ So I think I may have mentioned this to you, Amber, but you know, you look back on your life, and I spent a year and a half in upstate New York, in Clinton, New York, at Hamilton College and I have no idea how my path got me there, except that’s where I met my wife. Yeah. So I went to Hamilton College, got accepted there with a full scholarship and spent a year and a half there, and then transferred to Cornell where I did my last two years there. I did my Junior and my Senior year and then graduated.

AA: Right. That Hamilton piece is hidden in your resume.

VD: (0:30:13.3) It was a great experience, although, it was a very small school. Also, very remote. And very quickly I realized I needed a bigger school and so then moving to Cornell made a whole lot of sense for me.

AA: Can you tell me a little about literally the first couple of days, or few days when you came to the US? [VD: To the U.S.? Oh! Yeah!] Was there anyone there to meet you? What do you remember about that?

VD: (0:30:41.6) No! No! Tell me if I’m boring you. So I flew into New York and I had instructions from the Cornell Admissions Office about what to do. And I remember landing in JFK and just, you know, there were things that struck me as so strange. I mean, I knew that American cars were big, but I had never seen a limousine before! I’d never seen a stretch limousine—and here is a stretch limousine, like an eight door—and I’m like, “Wow! That’s a big car!” And I remember being so struck by that and going “Oooh, this is really strange!” So I had to get from JFK over to LaGuardia to catch the flight up to Ithaca. So I make my way over there, and buy the ticket and get on the plane and go to Ithaca and land in Ithaca, and somebody really nice who sat with me said, “Do you know your way around?” And I said, “No idea. No idea what I’m doing.” And they said, she said, “My boyfriend’s meeting me. We’ll kind of get you settled in.” Really nice person. She was studying at Ithaca College. And so we land, and sure enough her boyfriend’s there and they kind of get me kind of situated in this motel/hotel kind of thing. (0:32:08.7) And so there I am, my first night in the U.S., and I turn on the TV, and I watch Monday Night Football. Okay. Just to kind of give you a context: I actually played football. So, it’s not like its something I didn’t know. I played football for three years, I captained our football team in Iran at our school. So I knew a lot about football. What I didn’t know was NFL type football, and Howard Cosell and watching Monday Night Football! I was jet-lagged beyond belief, and I’m sitting there and I’m watching this and I’m going, “I can’t believe this! This is the strangest experience. I feel like I’m having an out-of-body experience, watching this TV thing.” So anyway, the next morning I wake up and I go up into College Town for breakfast and I walk by this diner, and the sign says, in the window “Two eggs any style, bread, you know, toast, coffee, whatever, 99 cents.” I look at that and go, “That’s me. That’s definitely me.” So I walk in there, and I sit down, and the waitress comes up and she says, “What will you have, Honey.” And I’m like, “No one has ever called me Honey before! Never ever called me Hon before!” So I said, “I’ll have the special.” And just to kind of put it into perspective, having spent five or six years in an American school, I had absolutely no accent. So I was like—So she said, “Sure, how would you like your eggs?” You know, in most parts of the world, you just get your eggs! [AA: Right!] And I looked at her, like, God, this has got to be a trick question! I was totally stumped by it. And I looked at her and I said, “I’m sorry?” And she said, “How would you like your eggs?” And I looked at her, and I said, “Cooked!” (laughs) She looked back at me and said, “Don’t be smart! What do you want? Do you want them boiled; do you want them cooked; do you want them over-easy?” I had no idea was over-easy was, so I said, “Over easy.” So she said, “Ok. What kind of bread?” Never been asked that before! You always got whatever bread anybody had! And I looked at her again, and she goes, “You don’t know, do you?” And I go, “Uh-uh. No.” And she goes, “White, wheat, rye, blah blah blah.” And I go, “White.” And I remember, sort of like, this is like asking you questions that in other parts of the world, nobody would ever ask. Nobody would ever ask.” (0:34:48.3) So anyway, great meal. Ate the breakfast, went to the admissions office, had a great conversation with them, and that’s when they said, “You know, you really need to go somewhere else and kind of polish up your academics before you transfer here. But you can. Definitely you can transfer here, and they gave me the roadmap for all of that.” And then I spent a couple more weeks in the US. I visited a whole bunch of schools, including Hamilton, and a number of schools. Then I went to Chicago, where my cousin was, and I spent some time in Chicago and I really got to see a much bigger city and I really enjoyed that. I left there, and went to a small village outside of Halifax, Nova Scotia, which is where one of my uncles lived, while I was waiting to see what school I was going to get admitted into.

AA: Sure, yeah. So you were able to just stay here until it all got resolved.

VD: (0:35:50.8) Until it all got resolved, so I wouldn’t have to fly. I’d never ever seen a winter like that. I’d never seen snow of that amount. I wasn’t properly dressed for it, or equipped for it. I didn’t have the boots and the shoes and I remember that winter, that was a really tough winter. But I learned about ice hockey, I learned about curling! But I was really ready to go back to school at that point. Those first couple of months were—my first Thanksgiving, here in the US, there was a family in Kanpur who were from Princeton, New Jersey, associated with Princeton University and they invited me to have Thanksgiving with them. The first time you ever see a Thanksgiving table, it’s like, where did all these things come from? [AA: Mind blowing.] Is anybody going to eat this or are we just going to look at it? It was a very different experience—driving on the New Jersey Turnpike for the first time—never seen the six lane highway. I knew the US quite a bit, I studied in American school, most of my teachers were American, lots of the kids that studied in the school were American, but those things were not what I remembered or thought. I remember saying to some one that, “The picture you get in your head is either New York City or Hollywood,” and you don’t get that most of America doesn’t live in those places. [AA: In between.] So that was really interesting. I was there when Nixon beat McGovern. I was at I-don’t-remember-who’s house, watching the election returns, and then going “This is not even close.” Kind of just being blown away by all of that. But just watching the whole country gear up for an election was really interesting. Really interesting.

AA: Do you think that having those experiences right after you came affected your engagement? Thinking about a big political event like that, did you have an expectation at that point that you thought you might stay or did this seem temporary?

VD: (0:38:25.7) I didn’t know. I mean, I didn’t know. But I didn’t feel like I needed to go find some other Indians to hang out with. That wasn’t it, at all. I was like, “Tell me more! I want to watch Walter Cronkite. I want to understand what’s going on.” I was really deeply immersed in it. I think the first thing I did when I had even the smallest amount of money in pocket, was to get a daily subscription to the New York Times and I really wanted to read, and kind of to be into all of that.
(0:38:56.5 ) So I got admitted to Hamilton College that January and so I came in as a transfer student. Again, a really small school but great professors, great, great professors. Really interesting and really interested in sort of, what I might—so right away I took a whole lot of Political Science courses, and learned a whole lot about the American political system and really got into it, but couldn’t get into the social scene. Frankly, just was really disappointed by that, “It’s Friday, everybody’s got to drink.” You know. The, you know, the best thing about going to a hockey game is that you can bring a drink underneath. Everything was about drinking and partying and that wasn’t really me. And so, it wasn’t going and hanging out with a bunch of Indian students, it wasn’t hanging out to go drinking, so it didn’t feel like home or something I was comfortable with at all. [AA: Not part of that patchwork.] No. But Cornell did. Much bigger school. Ithaca is much more diverse. I really began hanging out with graduate students and all. I always felt like, having graduated high school at sixteen, and having graduated with people who were eighteen and nineteen, that I was always kind of like, two or three years behind everybody else, I was always hanging out with a set that was always older than me, so when you hang out with your own age, it felt like, “You know, whatever.” [AA: Not working.] No, not at all.

AA: Do you feel like those social challenges were the biggest ones that you faced when you first came, or were there other things that you look back on and think, “That was the hard part.”

VD: (0:41:00.3) You know, the thing is, I never—I’ve heard this from so many other folks—I never, ever felt discriminated against, ever. Ever ever. And, um, and, um, so that was never a challenge. It was never a challenge academically. While I didn’t like the frat scene and the drinking and other things, I had, um, um—this part you can turn off, but, I was able to interact with others, um, and date and go out and do all of that very regularly. That was never an issue or a problem. I actually felt like there were parts of the experience that I fit in really well with, but there were others that just didn’t, uh, feel right at all. I think in part it was that there was nobody who had had exactly the same set of experiences I had had. You know? They either had grown up in the same town their whole life and been part of that, and knew they always wanted to go to Hamilton, or whatever, or they came from the American School in New Delhi to here and they had grown up in India their whole life. I didn’t have much contact with that life. It never really felt like there was any one of those that felt, um—

AA: So tell me about meeting your wife because clearly that experience at Hamilton, for you, is deeply connected with that experience.

VD: (0:42:36.3) It is. I think it was my last semester there, so, and Jamie was a sophomore at Syracuse and she was dating an individual who was living in the same dorm hall as I did. And we got to know each other. And as she would say, I “stole her away” from that guy! I did! We very much fell in love and um, and um, so she came, she stayed on at Syracuse University and I moved to Cornell. And then we continued, obviously, to stay in touch, and then we moved to Philadelphia together.

AA: Did you have a sense, because she’s from this area, you told me, so coming here was sort of natural progression. Did you have a sense, when you were finishing college, any moment when you felt like you knew what you wanted to be, or do? Having spent a lot of time shifting around, trying engineering, trying Hamilton and then trying Cornell, did you ever feel like there was a moment of clarity when you saw your future?

VD: (0:43:53.7) Yeah. I think that the game plan that I had in my head was that I would complete college, get my undergrad, and then decide whether I would get my MBA or get a job. That was a pretty tough period, economically, and so I went straight into my Master’s program and Jamie went into hers, and we moved to Philadelphia. The game plan that was in my head was, I would do 3-5 years in the private sector in some kind of job in the financial sector and then I would go join the World Bank.

AA: Uh-huh. Yeah.

VD: (0:44:34.1) That was the path that was in my head. [AA: Sure.] So I started working at the Philadelphia National Bank, had a extraordinary couple of years there, learned so much more than I ever expected. I thought coming out of my MBA that I would go to one of the big money-center banks, and ended up, actually going here ‘cause what they essentially said was, “Yeah, you’re coming in as an the entry level person but, within a year, after you’re done training, we want to send you to our representative office in Iran.” [AA: Oh!] Wow, you know. You know, I’m a young kid, I could run my own office, Instead, that is exactly when the revolution occurred. Exactly when the revolution occurred. And I ended up having the most incredible learning experiences of my life, and navigated through that whole thing. The bank, at that time, had lots of assets in Iran.

AA: But you didn’t actually go—

VD: (0:45:37.7) Oh, yes I did! I did! So I helped untangle all of that, and in that period from when the Shah left, until when the hostages were taken, which was a nine-month period, I did go once, to help close down the office that was there, and settle in the staff and wrap up the assets. Then the hostages were taken, and then I was involved with probably a year of negotiations with the Central Bank of Iran—representing our bank—and flew to London multiple times. It was a phenomenal experience. [AA: Wow!] It was a great learning experience. And at some point through all of that, the CEO of the bank said, “Before this guy burns out, let’s get him out of that job, let’s turn it over to the lawyers and send him somewhere where he can go do some real banking instead of cleaning up messes.” [AA: Sure, yeah] So in 19-uh-81 or 80—I’m drawing a blank now—80, we went to Singapore. We, yeah, it was early 1980, Adam had just been born. Our son had been born. And we went to Singapore. And that’s after having traveled around a little bit, through South Asia, and other parts. By now, I’m covering India for the bank. So I’m traveling to India now as a representative for the bank, based out of Singapore.

AA: So they were really happy to leverage your international experience.

VD: (0:47:04.5) No doubt about that. And I loved it! I absolutely loved it! The bank had a very, very narrow presence in India, India was really beginning to do some interesting things. Singapore was really booming. Malaysia was booming. We moved to Singapore at a time where—I have one sister—and entirely by coincidence she was living in Singapore. [AA: Oh, good.] I have one cousin whose mother had died in a car accident and when he was relatively young, he spent a lot of time with my parents, so he was like a brother to me. He was also in Singapore [AA: Oh, nice.] So the three of us, with our spouses and our kids, were all in Singapore at the same time. And it was a fabulous four or four and a half years. Business was fantastic! Ended up in four years being the best office the bank had anywhere in the world. So it was really, it was fantastic. Really enjoyed that. And then came back to Philadelphia in 1985. Sort of after spending about four and a half years in Singapore.

AA: Which you said was about the same time your father retired, and your parents settled back down in India.

VD: (0:48:16.7) Exactly. That’s exactly right. That’s exactly right.

AA: And did you feel, I’m assuming by the time you--

VD: (0:48:27.3) Oh! To close the story—I’m sorry—[AA: Sure.] so at that point I applied to the World Bank!

AA: Okay! Right, yes, of course!

VD: (0:48:30.2) So I applied to the World Bank, and they basically said, “We love your experience, we love everything, but we’ve got lots of Indians already, thanks.”

AA: Oh!

VD: (0:48:40.1) So I was like, “Ok, that’s an interesting response.” They were very much about geographic diversity and all that. Had I been Croatian or something, they might have said yes. So then I was like, “Oh, okay, fine, I mean, I’ll come back to the US.” So I came back to the US, at that time the investment banking world was really taking off, so I came back to the same bank and joined the investment banking area and kind of—so my career took a different turn from that point on.

AA: Ok. That’s funny because the question I was going to ask you before you mentioned, reminded me of the World Bank, was, at what point you chose, or if you ever did choose to settle here? And then what you think the advantages were, and what you gave up by making a choice like that, to stay here?

VD: (0:49:28.9) Yeah, I think, at that point, as we left Singapore we had two choices. One was, we could have continued on as permanent expats. The bank at that point had twenty overseas offices. I could have spent my career going from overseas office to overseas office. Jamie would have loved to have done that. She was like, “I’m really cool with this, we can go now to another country and live there for a couple more years.” I was like, “No, I really want to get back to the US, I really want to be part of what’s happening in the consolidation of the Financial Services Industry. I’m really interested in that, and I really want to learn investment banking.” At that time I was really interested in learning financial instruments and kind of what was happening.

AA: Sure, Sure.

VD: (0:50:13.1) So, at that point, I think, in my head, it was always kind of, something to do with Philadelphia. I got very heavily recruited for McKinsey, and I chose not to do that. I think I had been here a year and a half or two years and McKinsey came after me in a big way, and I was like, “I don’t think I can do this, I don’t think I can leave my family and travel ten months out of the year and be based out of New York and all that, I don’t think I can do that.” And, you know, we’d had Maya by then, and so, we had Adam, we had Maya, um, and they were starting to go to school and so I wanted to be in investment banking but I didn’t want to do what I thought was a very different path at that point. So I think it was at that point that I made the conscious decision, “This is what it’s going to be.” This is what my life’s going to be. And it’s probably going to be right here. Probably going to be right here in Philadelphia.

AA: And so your kids grew up in a more settled environment. Substantively, how did that choice to settle down affect who you are or how you see the world?

VD: (0:51:33.1) I think—I think—I think it began to shape—it shaped me a lot, there is no question about it. Up to that point, I couldn’t sit still for two or three years in a row, right? This notion of being in one place, with that sort of circle, was not me! Beginning to really engage in that in a deeper way was really a different experience. Some of which came naturally, a lot of which didn’t. For example, Jamie will say that I didn’t spend as much time with the kids, knowing their teachers or being involved in the schools although we very consciously picked a home that was walking distance to their school so that we could be more active in that. I continued to be really actively traveling, though. I think that was the balance I always needed. I needed—not like I had to smell jet fuel or something like that—but I needed to, you know? It was like, a time would come and there would be this thing in me like, “Okay, you gotta go do something!” [Both laugh.] You know, my parents were now back in India. By then, I’d bought this home in Italy, and so I was spending a lot of time there.

AA: Were you able to travel with your kids? To take them back to India—I guess “back” to India is sort of a mis-, mis-used idea, but—

VD: (0:53:12.2) Yes.

AA: --to be with your parents?

VD: (0:53:15.8) So, what I would do, what Jamie and I agreed upon was that every year I would spend time with one of the kids. They would go somewhere with me, just the two of us alone. Sometimes it would be two of the kids, every once in a while it would be all three. But generally, we would go somewhere together. So every year, or every other year, Adam would go with me to India. Maya loved going to England to see my maternal uncle. Tara really loved—actually they all did—loved going to Singapore. So we would travel somewhere all the time. We traveled as a family to Brazil, with the kids. And Jamie was not much into traveling, so I would go with the kids, to different places, and as they got older, they would start to pick the places. So they would, you know, my son is a master diver, so he would pick a place that he loved to go diving and we would go there and spend some time. But India oftentimes figured into it. All the way until, frankly, until really recently, they would be really happy to go with me and spend some time there.

AA: Were there specific things about your upbringing, or the values that you feel like you got from your parents that you felt strongly you wanted to instill in your children? What were those things?

VD: (0:54:39.2) Yeah, my dad really believed strongly in the concept of stewardship. He always really believed that it was your responsibility to leave the world in better place than you found it. He would always ask that question. He would say, “Did you leave it a better place? Okay, you’re doing this in investment banking, got it. Did you leave the world a better place than you found it?” I think one of the big disappointments that Jamie and I have, was that he got so busy with his own life, that he wasn’t able to do as much with the grandkids, but if you look at my three kids, that’s where they are. They are very much in a life of “What do we do to serve?” And I think that was shaped a lot by my dad, in particular. (0:55:30.7) Jamie’s parents had a different kind of shaping on the grandkids. Jamie’s father was very, very much outdoors oriented. Spent a lot of time outdoors. Would take the kids fishing and hiking and all that kind of stuff. So that gave them a different kind of balance. But, my dad’s values were always about that. My mother, not so much. She always felt like all those folks my dad was trying to help were actually duping him. And trying to take advantage of him. So she was always like, “Now, are you sure that’s right? Da, da,da—gotta do this, gotta do that and make sure you don’t kind of, bend over backwards. Make sure people, kind of, help themselves,” and things like that. But not my dad. My dad was just unabashedly, if I get eight out of ten right, then I’ve helped eight more people. There may be two that may not have been that good but eight is better than zero.

AA: Did your mother ever work outside the home?

VD: (0:56:37.3) No.

AA: Her role was to raise the family. (VD: Always. That’s exactly right.) Keep you fed. What were your favorite foods that she made?

VD: (0:56:45.1) You know, it’s a funny thing because, as you get older you, sort of, realize what foods you like, and how they agree with you, and how they don’t. And so, one of the great jokes in our home is people say, “Oh, you’re Indian!” “Yes, I’m Indian.” “Let’s go eat Indian food!” and Jamie will say, “He doesn’t like it! Don’t bother to take him to Indian food.” She, on the other hand, loves Indian food! And I think part of it is, and I learned pretty early on in my life, is I don’t like onions. And so, a lot of Indian food starts with a base of onions, and a lot of food you eat out starts with a base of onions. And so, you know, I’d go out, and we’d eat and I’d get, whewh, you know, and whatever. But in our home, that’s not what we eat. Nine times out of ten it’s vegetarian food and nine times out of ten it’s vegetables that have been cooked a particular way and not with a deep curry kind of thing. And so, I love that. I think what I love the best is when I’m back in India, and it’s my mom and I now, my dad’s passed away, we’ll go to the market and you know, food is fresher and brighter in color and tastier. You know the food that comes in the vegetable carts that comes by your home I mean it’s only six or eight vegetables but they’re great and they’re so fresh.

AA: In season.

VD: (0:58:22.3) And they’re in season. They taste so good – so I love that. You know my mom doesn’t cook quite as much as she used to before. But that’s the food I like the best.

AA: Does she ever imagine – or do you imagine a scenario where she comes to this country or goes to live with her sister?

VD: (0:58:45.4) Not unless she gets ill. I think we’ve all cut across that boundary pretty clearly with her. When my dad died – I mean my mom went to India kicking and screaming, she did not want to go to India. Her family all was in London. I think she convinced my dad to purchase a flat in London so that she would have that, I don’t think she ever lived there. I think at the end of the day they sold that flat because she ended up really liking living in Delhi. The circle that she has around her, the things she gets involved in, the things she does are really meaningful to her and she’s like, “Why would I give all of that up if I don’t have to?” And then the whole weather thing. She came for my niece’s wedding in Canada in December and she was like “Ah, forget this. I’m not going to do this again.” So not unless her health really starts to decline. She really loves where she’s at and between my sister and I – I mean we speak to her everyday.

AA: Which is such a big change from the past, to be able to keep in touch that easily.

VD: (1:00:04.9) She’s pretty good at e-mails and those kinds of things so she stays in touch easily.

AA: I just have a few more questions about this transition from banking to where you are now. You mentioned stewardship and your father’s emphasis on that, I came across a couple of his books when I was preparing for the interview, talking about his work in development and the titles of his books and the orientation of them struck me in a way as very Gandhian. Knowing about Gandhi’s emphasis on engaging youth and the value of physical labor and working with your hands and making a contribution to society – am I getting that connection right?

VD: (1:00:54.0) Absolutely, you got it right. That’s exactly where it was.

AA: So I don’t know, I’m sort of curious about that, the ways in which those values came into his life and into yours.

VD: (1:01:10.7) I think that as many years as he worked with the UN, there was always a sort of deep hankering in him to go back to India and do something. He knew that he was helping all these countries around the world do some amazing things but he always felt like “Gosh, I wish I could get the chance to do that in my own country.” Again, the Himalyan area around Himachal and that part, Uttarkhand and that part, was never really where he grew up but that was where his love always was. He always, always, always talked about finding a way to rejuvenate that part of the country. He built a home in the mountains about, maybe, four, four and a half hours outside of Delhi – I mean a long drive. You’d get to Rishikesh and then you’d climb up into the mountains, it would take several hours up into the mountains to get there. The roads were always kind of – it had landslides and other things. But he loved being there and until he couldn’t travel anymore. It was a beautiful home and that’s where he also wanted his ashes scattered when he died. The home, to give you a visual image of it, was at the edge of this village and it looked out from the most furthest point on the horizon to your left to the furthest point on your right was the entire Himalyan range. It was a spectacular spot and the sun would rise and it would sort of pick one peak up at a time and they would turn pink. He loved that part. He did a lot there. He really helped that area, he helped the agricultural university that was there, he helped farmers and other people and then he really started looking at that Gandhian philosophy that you described of helping people become self-sustaining and get the skills. (1:03:08.6) He brought computers up there and helped people learn about computer technology and helped people do small crafts and other things that they could sell. So, that was always kind of his vision and in some ways, we would always talk about things that I was working on and things that I would do. But I think in his head, it was always “I mean that’s fine but at some point you’re going to do something else. You’re not just going to simply amass stock options and things like that. You’re going to do something else.” It was never overtly stated that way but I think that was always a sense that I had.

AA: What he was looking for for you.

VD: Yes.

AA: You serve on the boards of a number of organizations so philanthropy clearly is something that has become important to you at this point.

VD: (1:04:07.2) I think there’s a couple ways of sort of looking at that. I think that I got to the place of service to community by being really disillusioned with what was happening in the for-profit world. I got to the place of saying, “The financial services industry is an industry going through consolidation. I know that in 1985 that’s what I wanted to be a part of but now all I’m seeing is layoffs, branch closures, reduction in services and if I have to lay off one more person, I’ve about had this – I’ve about had all I can do of this. I want do something different, something more meaningful.” I don’t think I ever thought that this is what I was going to do. I actually thought I was going to do something really quite different. I thought I was going to run a foundation, be involved in grant-making, that kind of stuff – that I’d take the financial skills I had and help others be able to do that. This came really unexpectedly. I’m not sure that I had that in my head that this could happen.

AA: Can you tell me a little bit about how it did happen?

VD: (1:05:30.6) I think that at its very essence, if you make such a big change in your life, there’s some things that pull you to it and some things that push you to it. What pushed me was what I just described – I just basically had enough of the financial services industry. I was traveling four days a week and I wasn’t liking the value systems that was coming out of it, it was not feeling right to me. So in January of 2006, I took the second – I may have mentioned this to you. For the second of my new year’s resolutions – I’ve only taken two in my life, this was the second one. So that was: come January of 2007, I’m not going to be doing this, I’m going to leave this industry and do something different. I was very open to thinking about something and very open to looking at something different. And then about March of that year, I’d been talking to people, “Tell me about foundations. How do they work? What I can do?” Buh, buh, da, da, dah. I was offered the opportunity to run the foundation for the bank in this area because I’d made it clear that I was ready to move on. I was offered the community development role for the bank for this region.

AA: For Wachovia?

VD: (1:06:49.1) For Wachovia at the time. I wasn’t sure that that was right. I thought the value systems are still the same value systems, I mean you can change the stuff underneath but it’s still going to bump up against those systems so I wasn’t sure about that. And then somebody approached me from the board here and said, “Our CEO is retiring, would you consider it?” I was like, “Nope, not interested. I don’t think this is what I had in mind.” And then I started meeting some of the people here – I met some of the other board members, I started talking to others. What I always loved was that this is a place where every single part of the community is welcome, it’s one of the very few true nonprofits of this area that serves everybody. That meant a lot to me and then I thought I could actually make a difference here, that this was a place where I could—it’s been an incredible seven years, I’ve loved every minute of it.

AA: Every story I read about your transition here mentioned first seven, and then eight, and then nine dogs!

ZD: (1:07:57.8) Yes, and all are true.

AA: I was wondering about your love of animals and how that connects to the work here and where that comes from in your life.

VD: (1:08:07.2) I always had dogs growing up, always, always. I think when we got to Rome in 1960, we lived in a small apartment for a couple of years and then my parents built this home out in the countryside outside of Rome and so we were in this really wide open area and my parents were always worried about something happening, so they always put dogs with us. My sister and I always had dogs with us. We loved our dogs. The dog we had then moved with us back to Iran. So anyway, here—after we got back from Singapore, once again we started getting a dog. So we started out with three dogs and they were three rescues, always cocker spaniels. So we had these three dogs, [and then] my daughter got this really sweetheart of a dog, puppy, and she took him to college with her and he died tragically. We were all heartbroken and so she went online and found this other dog and then they were going to ship this dog to her, and the day they were going to ship this dog to her, they called her up and they said, “Would you mind if we sent this dog’s sister with him?” Somebody that was going to take him didn’t want her. So anyway Lily, the sister, came into our lives and she still lives -- she’s twelve years old now and she is absolutely adorable. So Jamie decided that [since] she loved Lily so much, she wanted Lily’s puppies. So then Romeo arrived a year later. Then Romeo and Lily had puppies and we agreed that we would always give the puppies away. They had four puppies; we kept all four. And then after keeping all four, Jamie’s father who lived with us in the last year of his life passed away and we got his dogs. So we have today only eight. (AA: Only eight.) One has passed away and her father’s dog passed away – it was a little Shih Tzu who thought she was a cocker spaniel. (AA: Well, when in Rome.) She ran with a couple of the big dogs and she thought she could run with them. But she died at sixteen or so. So we now have eight. Maya, who lives very close to us, has two: the brother – Lily’s brother and one of the pups. So when we put them all together we have ten that are (AA: related) in someway all related. Thank goodness they’re all fixed and all whatever. So we have lots and lots of dogs and we also have lots of cats and lots of other pets.

AA: That seems to be a development that was independent of your connection to the zoo.

VD: (1:11:10.7) Actually two things that when I interviewed here. So I went through this interview process and they called me back the next day and they said, “Gosh, we really, really would like to continue the conversations with us and so forth.” And I said, “Okay, but I have all these questions.” So it took probably another thirty, forty-five days from that first conversation until I finally accepted. I’d also kept the bank informed because the zoo was one of the bank’s clients and I didn’t want that to be an issue. So all that’s going on and after all of that happened and I wrote my resume and somebody said, “You have all those dogs,” and I said “Yeah,” and [they said] “Why didn’t you tell us that? We could’ve quickly gotten to the offer the first day.” And then the other one was, I started ties, all my ties have animals on them. And they were like, “You have a hundred and ten ties with animals on them. You could’ve told us that. We could’ve given you the job and everything would have been great.” It’s been a terrific transition, I’ve loved every minute of it. Kind of back to that spirit of service, I really think what we’re doing here is reaching people in a very different way and I think in a way that’s very true to them. One of the things I always worried about my dad’s principle of service, he knew how to serve people and not very often hearing how they wanted to be served. I think it’s a generational thing, sort of like well I’m the expert and I’m going to tell you everything you want to know. I think the big difference – because I have a lot of my mom in me, I’m a lot more discerning and a lot more skeptical probably than he is. I think a part of that is also learning what it is that people want, it’s not just simply what we want. I think that’s sort of the new world that we live in.

AA: It seems really critical, especially in an environment where communication has become so much more immediate all the time.

VD: (1:13:18.3) So true, so, so true. I think it’s true ever-more-so in India now too. I think in some ways, that was part of his frustration at the end – why can’t I get more involved? You got to get them involved, you have to get them buy in – not just simply tell them what to do.

AA: I just have one or two closing questions for you.

VD: Okay, sure.

AA: I really appreciate all the time, so rich to hear your life stories.

VD: (laughs) I don’t know about that.

AA: No, it really is. It’s a wonderful story and I think it’s a lot about being parts of many different communities and becoming adaptable to those environments. It’s important, it’s really rich. I often ask people to do this, it’s kind of a tricky question. I’m going to ask you to identify yourself in three nouns. To finish the sentence: I am a ____ or I am an _____. How would you describe yourself? Sort of three sentences, I am a___ [or] I am an ___.

VD: (1:14:23.9) Wow, that’s a tough one. You saved the tough one for last. I’m a family person, and a grandparent and a parent. I love being a grandparent. (softly) I’m a leader who loves change and changing things. I don’t know, the last one is something around someone who’s very connected with my faith and what defines each of us in our relationship to God. I don’t have a noun.

AA: (laughs) That’s okay. Speaking of saving the big things for last. You dropped faith right at the end, I didn’t even ask you any questions about that. I had some but I didn’t ask them. Do you want to say anything about that?

VD: (1:15:50.8) I consciously made a decision to change my faith in 2001. So I was sort of a non-committed Hindu; the rituals and other things, I just couldn’t understand and it didn’t mean anything to me. In 2001, I decided to convert to Catholicism. Some of the most incredible experiences in my life emanated from that. I had a chance to have a private audience with John Paul II. (AA: Oh my gosh.) It was one of the most amazing—just he and I—it was one of the most amazing times. I’ve traveled—one of the reasons I loved being in Italy is that I love that part of being in a country that has so much of that there. That was not an easy choice for my parents to hear. But by that time we were fifty years old, I was like “Psh.” I think for them it was just because that was one thing they couldn’t connect with and couldn’t understand. It’s not that I believe in things being preordained but I do believe that there’s a purpose for life and there’s a purpose to what we do. I think ours is to discern that purpose and be part of it. So it is an important part, I think it shapes my values and gives a different side to how I look at decisions and issues than I think I did before.

AA: I often ask a kind of summing-up question, but I think you did that summing up right there. But I guess my question is what do you think is the important thing that I as someone asking the questions should understand or could understand about your life about your choice to have migrated and settled in this country—maybe something important that you’ve gained by being here? I’m at a bit of a loss at how to phrase it. But do you have a kind of summing up thought?

VD: (1:18:28.3) One of the things I love about the US is that until recently, there was always this sense that the future was going to be better than the past. I think one of the most difficult things of these last four, five years is the sense that maybe that’s not going to happen anymore and that the future is actually going to be more difficult than the past for our kids and grandkids. I never had that feeling – never. I always feel like tomorrow is going to be an even more incredible learning and things that will happen. There is many amazing, amazing things that have happened in my lifetime—seen things, been involved and experienced things and met people. I really believe that there’s still more exciting things yet to happen. I’m amazed by how that has proved to be true. I have never ever felt that gosh the best years are behind me, they’ve always felt like they’re still ahead. And I love how that gives me energy for things that I do everyday, it really does. I never ever feel defeated or beaten down. I think in part it’s because growing up, I always, always had uncertainty in your life. I never knew if dad would come home and say, “Okay, we’re moving to wherever.” And you go, “Really? Okay.” You’d make friends all over again and you would learn everything all over again. And that, in a world that’s changing as rapidly as it is now feels like a tremendous gift, it feels like a huge gift. I watch other people, like, “Wait a minute here, that’s not what I signed up for!” It doesn’t matter what you signed up for, you know. This is the world and this is the one we live in. The question is how you’re going to embrace it and how you’re going to be a part of it and how you’re going to love it and enjoy it and not feel like something happened to you or whatever. So even in the most difficult of circumstances, there’s always something amazing that comes out of it and you look back and you go, “Wow, I would have never had expected that to come out of that situation.” And that happens every time. AA: It’s that mobility and flexibility. Before we started recording, talking about the changes you’ve made at that zoo and the mobility of the animals that seems to be in a sense that kind of mobility to keep moving.

VD: (1:21:07.4) I hope so. I think that for a people this notion of ever-higher aspirations, ever-higher goals. At one of our staff meetings, one person said, “You’re sort of like an Asian parent.” (AA laughs) I go, “Uh, yeah. But I don’t think it’s just me. I think it’s the world, it’s where we live, it’s what we do.” Now to see that in my kids and grandkids, it’s fantastic and it’s really neat. The gift we’ve gotten in our grandkids, they are great fun to be with and I really enjoy being with them. I don’t know that we ever, when Jamie and I dated back in Clinton, New York, we never imagined that would happen that we’d have these incredible grandkids.

AA: I can see their faces all in your photos. Well thank you so much for sharing all of that, just a really rich history and a bit more about who you are. It’s really a pleasure to get to learn those things.

VD: Well, thank you. I know you do a lot of this, I hope it’s been helpful to really begin to give another dimensionality to the experience. South Asians are shaping this country in an incredible way, in an incredible way. And yet, the way that they’re often times stereotyped in people’s brains is 7/11, physician. And yet, there’s so many; we’re doing such incredible things. It’s exciting to watch, it really is exciting to watch the impact this community is having in this country and actually around all over the world, the UK and Europe, everywhere.

AA: Well thank you for sharing.

VD: No, thank you. (1:23:02.7)
1. Under the British the Civil Service was known as the Imperial Civil Service (ICS), after independence it became the Indian Administrative Service (IAS).

2. The 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War in which India entered the war on the side of East Pakistan and helped to end the war quickly.

PROVENANCE
Donor: Amber Abbas
Item History: 2016-06-05 (created); 2016-06-06 (modified)

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