Saturday, April 13, 2024

Nothing is Everything

Vikas and Vikas Vajpayee had returned some months ago from their annual trip to Berlin and Munich to spend time with their son and daughter and their adorable grandchildren. Their son and daughter were researchers in molecular science, both having qualified from the Indian Institute of Science in Bengaluru and earlier on in life had decided to migrate to Germany for further studies and make a mark there. As providence would have it, their son and daughter had soon found their respective soul mates, who also happened to be siblings, but of German stock, whilst doing their studies. Vikas and Vikas saw it as not just as a marriage of two sets of siblings, but also as an Indo-German fusion of cultures. Their children and children-in-law were making rapid advances as scientists and led a family life of affinity and affection.

Vikas and Vikas essayed a life of joy and laughter. Everything in life was a humour for them, starting with their appellation. They shared not just their names, but their birthdays and alma mater as well, having cupid strike them in Sir J J College of Architecture, where they had studied. A common name and birthday had ensured endless comedy of errors and laughs in social situations as they effloresced in an alchemy of architecture and went about  finding and founding their life purpose. Early on their journey, like minded that they were, they had distributed their time equally between commercial and social practice, giving back to the society in the form of active engagement with several NGOs including pro-bono designing and build-up of  facilities and funding support across humanitarian causes.

Over their two scores span of marital and professional partnership, Vikas and Vikas had nurtured a strong network of friends, nourished NGOs and flourished in their practice of building offices and homes and in the process many hearths and much warmth. They were fortunate to have acquired a cross-ventilated apartment in a central location, with expansive views of the rising sun from beyond the mountains and the setting sun over the placid sea disappearing into the horizon. They had also presciently invested earlier on in a huge parcel of land abutting the Pawna lake in Lonavala, where they had built a small weekend getaway. 

Cognizant of the milieu of disparity and deprivation in large sections of the society and impelled by their own sense of responsibility, Vikas and Vikas had  taken under their wings Manik, an orphaned girl, all of 7 years, responding to an appeal in the papers by the police following the tragic death of her parents in a road accident. Manik, was much younger to Vikas’ own children, who were by that time doing their graduation in faraway colleges. They brought up Manik with all the love and care like biological parents would do and ensured her education in a good school followed by admission into a famed college from where she graduated with degrees in social studies and public policy. They also made conscious efforts to ensure that Manik got to know their own grown up children well and develop a relationship with them through regular visits and travels together. Manik had grown into a confident woman and expressed a desire to work in the social sector and soon took off to work with a well-known NGO based in Delhi, devoted to the cause of child welfare. Manik would stay in touch with her foster parents regularly and keep them posted about all the developments on her social work front. Manik would often travel to various cities and rural areas of India as a part of her work to get a real understanding of issues facing children and how her NGO could help their cause. Not surprisingly, over a period of time, as years flew by and given the itinerant nature of her work and her passion, Manik would go incommunicado for long periods of time. 

Vikas and Vikas were contemplating their own future having got used to an empty homestead with their children having become German citizens and Manik busy as ever in her social work. They had peaked in their profession and had no further milestones to chase nor were they enthused any longer in staying the course. They were in fact getting overwhelmed with all that they had built over the years – a roaring money spinning practice, a palatial apartment in Mumbai, a large land in Lonavala and huge investments – much more than they ever will need in the remainder of their lives nor will their children ever need, successful that they were on their own in Germany. 

Different points of views from friends and well-wishers were more confusing than resolving. Their financial and legal advisors had typical unidimensional views  of what to do with their estate and how to will it right, as though one can control wealth after death. Vikas and Vikas knew that they will have to decide on their own and set a time table for themselves. But both realised that they have to become asset light if they have to see the light in their sunset days. 

For a starter, Vikas and Vikas sold off their practice to a large international firm, who were wanting a footprint in India, for a surprising tidy sum with sufficient zeros in it, thanks to their advisors. They were feeling light enough, with this major decision of letting go their practice, to zip off often to Lonavala for a week to just enjoy everything that nothing can bring about in their lives. They soon followed it up with decluttering their apartment in Mumbai and their getaway second home in Lonavala, by giving away many of their homely accoutrements to friends and relatives and auctioning off their art collection and donating the proceeds to causes that were dear to them. The relative minimalism in their lives, as a result of all these actions, brought about a sense of satisfaction and joy in Vikas and Vikas’ lives that they had never felt before. 

It was the monsoon times in Mumbai and Vikas and Vikas were enjoying the windy sprays of the heavy rains in the balcony of their Mumbai home. They were thinking about their children and grandchildren in Germany and about Manik. It had been nearly eight months since she had last called or dropped in and this was worrying them no end, though they kept reassuring each other. As if thoughts and energies travel, they heard the doorbell only to find a beaming Manik standing at their doorsteps all drenched and cold. Their joy knew no bounds and they just embraced her. After a hot shower and a round of piping hot tea and pakoras, Manik excitedly told them that she had decided to quit her NGO job in a month’s time along with her colleague and start her own not- for-profit organisation in a rural area catering to educating orphaned girls and making them contributors to nation building. She shared with them her well thought out plans and how she will be going about it, starting with raising funds for the project, with the help of her colleague whom she is fond of and trusts. Manik was confidence personified as she explained everything to Vikas and Vikas in minute details, not just about her inchoate organisation, but her prospective life partner as well. Over the next few days of her stay with them, it was apparent that Manik had made up her mind and determined to make her social project a success. Vikas and Vikas blessed her and assured Manik of all their support as she embarks on her new journey. They were exceptionally proud of Manik for thinking of doing what she intends to do and could not hold back their tears of joy. She was in a way giving them a solution unknowingly.

After Manik left to go back to her work and the drawing board, Vikas and Vikas had a long conversation with their children and advisers. They soon called Manik and asked her to come over to Lonavala for a stay at their cosy home and visit the registration office. The Lonavala land was all hers to set up the trust to start the school.

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Nagesh Alai
Nagesh Alai is a management consultant, an independent director on company boards, and cofounder of a B2B enterprise tech startup. He retired in 2016 as the Group Chairman of FCB Ulka Group and Vice Chairman FCB Worldwide. Elder care and education are causes close to his heart.

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