Alok Vajpeyi, a veteran of the mutual fund industry and then the vice-chairman and managing director of Dawnay Day AV, was in the process of selling his stake and closing down his business. On 26 November 2008, he had a dinner appointment. He was meeting his business associates and friends; they had a private table for eight at the Golden Dragon, the Chinese restaurant on the ground floor of the Taj.
When the gunshots began, the hotel staff asked them to duck under the table and later led them to The Chambers, the hotel’s private club. There, huddled with some 200 other guests as the grenades and firearms thundered outside the door, they heard the horror of what was going on inside the building. After one aborted attempt at leaving the hotel, Vajpeyi did not want to go back to The Chambers and chose instead to wait and watch from a small landing in a fire exit.
At around 3 the next morning, shortly after some of his friends managed to escape, he put a calm end to his lonely vigil and simply walked out of the hotel. He reached home, where his wife, two children, mother and in-laws were waiting. He watched TV and then realized the full horror of what was happening. “I had a couple of whiskies and went to sleep after that,” he recalls.
Plan B: Vajpeyi now works with Ashoka’s Youth Venture, a programme for young social entrepreneurs. Abhijit Bhatlekar / Mint
Vajpeyi says he realized that there were three kinds of people: people who were completely shattered, people who came undone and people who somehow still kept it together. He was in the third category. Despite the bravado of that statement, Vajpeyi concedes that the experiences of that night have altered the course of his life. “The point that 26 November made to me was that life is not in your control. People like us, we built our careers and lives wanting to make a lot of money and exercise influence. That game has changed for me. It wasn’t anger at the terrorists, it was just a realization that there are better things to do now,” he says.
He first thought of joining politics, but abandoned the idea when he realized that politics without a party is not a winning game. He then thought of using his experience of working in large, multinational companies to run a big, global NGO in India. Vajpeyi’s wife worked with the education NGO Akanksha, so he knew that world and he wasn’t sure that it would sustain his interest. The third option was to simply write a cheque, but that was the easy way out.
Instead of jumping in straight after the sale and starting his next venture, Vajpeyi took time off to think about what he really wanted to do. He decided on two things. One, that he would start another venture eventually, and two, that he would spend a part of his time working for organizations that focused on youth and women. He discovered Ashoka foundation, a global organization that supports and recognizes social entrepreneurs. He works with Ashoka’s Youth Venture, a programme that inspires and invests in teams of young people to start and lead their own social ventures. Through a friend, he also connected with Dasra, an organization that provides support and various infrastructural services to NGOs.
Despite the events of last November, Vajpeyi remains a staunch capitalist; but because of them he is today a passionate spokesperson of giving to causes. “Today I firmly believe that if you have Rs100, you can easily give Rs10. You can always take out half a day in a week to volunteer somewhere. I know now that it’s possible to do this. Earlier, I would not have focused on it. I would have just given money and paid some lip service,” he says.
In the days after 26 November, there was a huge amount of angst and moral uproar. A year on, the question is what has really changed. “There is a lot of positive change in a minority of people post-26 November. But even today, I see a lot of people who simply refuse to part with their money or time for a cause. They always have some excuse or the other. I want to change people’s mindsets and that’s why I am focusing on youth. The future generation of our country needs to be educated on giving,” he says.
Extracting positive lessons from negative events is usually the preserve of the oversimplifying optimist or a book of children’s stories. And “November”, as Vajpeyi refers to it, is too horrific an event to be broken down into simple wisdom. Still, he feels that the event that cut through class strata and brought a realization that everybody could be touched by the tragedies of life might just have provided the much-needed, much-delayed impetus for social change. Vajpeyi says that if we can forget enough to let the wounds heal, but remember the scars, we could emerge stronger and better.