Vikna Raj: An extraordinary, ordinary guy

* Told by Barani Krishnan, Founder and Americas Editor @ neverforget.cloud

The call came at around midnight New York time.

It was Vikna Raj. He said he was working on a deal he felt was a strong suit for me. Can I fly you down to complete this, he asked.
I contemplated for a while. I had never taken an overseas trip before on a whim. That too, some 10,000 miles across the other side of the world to Malaysia. Yet, the more I thought of it, the more compelling it felt.
Hours later, I was on a plane to KL — leave wasn’t a problem, fortunately. It was the first of two trips to my native home for me that year. Over the next few days, between catch-ups with my pleasantly surprised siblings, in-laws and 75-year-old mother – whom Vikna insisted I spend as much time with as possible – I tried to devote energy to what had brought me there.
CALCULATED BET

I had spent nearly two decades in the news business in Malaysia, building certain expertise, before moving to the U.S. Vikna had made a calculated bet it was what his project needed. To my relief, he was right and his deal progressed. But even if not for me, I’m sure he’d have managed fine on his own.

Why?

Because he had more influential connections than me, that’s why.

In the few days I was by his side, I found Vikna’s mental rolodex of businessmen, politicians – even sports celebrities – beyond anything I had imagined. With such an A-list of people on his speed-dial, I was surprised that he chose me at all for this. 

It eventually dawned on me that it was the reassuring presence of this “aannae (big brother) from New York” – as he introduced me to his network – that really mattered to him. I became Vikna’s sounding board in those few days for ideas. In return, I learned more about the young man before me, whom I took to calling aiyyah (my choice term for younger “brother”).

In the five years since my time with him in KL – and after his shocking death a month ago, five months short of his 37th birthday – I’m still learning about Vikna.

ILLUMINATED MANY LIVES

I’m learning what he meant to people who knew him even casually, and how he had illuminated the lives of many others blessed to be in his inner circle during his relatively short time on earth.

I’m also realizing how little I knew of him despite our near 20-year relationship.

I first met Vikna in December 1997, after his father’s help was sought by the promoters of a concert in KL featuring India’s fusion pop duo, The Colonial Cousins. As the event’s publicist, I formed a bond with the great Hariharan and his soulmate Leslie Lewis, and also Vikna’s family, which feted us with a post-concert celebration.

The Vikna I knew then was 17, a quiet, shy boy unlike his colorful and vocal Dad. What impressed me most was his humility, even at that age. The family lived in an affluent suburb in PJ, a city close to the capital. On my first visit, I counted six lux cars — mostly Bimmers, Mercs and at least one Daimler — in the driveway. There were no other visitors that day. Where most Malaysian teens his age would be happy to have a bike, Vikna had a BMW coupe. 

But the boy was barely affected by the wealth around him. Lankier than the average teen – he was more than six foot tall – he stooped slightly when he stood before elders, particularly friends of his father, a typical gesture of deference in Indian culture. The eldest of three sons to his parents, he spoke softly and respectfully.

FROM TEEN TO ADULT, HIS HUMILITY HADN’T CHANGED

By early 1998, the full impact of the Asian financial crisis hit Malaysia, and most of us were busier than ever, trying to keep the roof over our heads. I saw less of Vikna’s family in the subsequent months, and we lost touch altogether after my work took me to the States. 

We reconnected in mid-2010 during one of my trips to KL, nearly 13 years after that Colonial Cousins concert. Vikna was 30 by then, had a gorgeous wife and an angelic son called Akshay. Yes, he still drove a BMW and was as humble as I remembered.

Upon my return to New York, we linked up on Facebook and chatted on the phone periodically. Like most Malaysians, Vikna was fascinated to learn about life in the U.S. and I gave him the honest perspective of an Asian immigrant (I later learned he had a relative in California too). 

Vikna, on his part, filled me in on the deals he was doing in Malaysia, and whom they involved. That he was enterprising like his Dad didn’t surprise me. What struck me was how he told his stories: very matter-of-factly, without a trace of conceit. 

While he lived a high-flying life on Facebook, he was self-effacing on the phone, sounding just like the dude-next-door. I also realized something else: Vikna was a self-made guy who took nothing from his Dad. Whatever he had, he pretty much got on his own. Despite our long relationship, the only time we worked together was during that summer of 2012. 

A NEIGHBOR REMEMBERS: HE WAS A GOOD MAN

This determination to stand on his own was even acknowledged by his former neighbor Augustus Tan, who was among the hundreds who paid tribute to Vikna on Facebook after his death. I’m going to quote extensively from that post by Augustus, because I believe on many accounts he understood Vikna better than I did.

“He was not a friend exactly, but somewhere between being a friend and an acquaintance,” Augustus said of Vikna. “He was humble, honest, knowledgeable in some areas, and always willing to ask about and listen to subjects he didn’t know of. He was a good neighbor, never bothering anyone and always willing to help if he could.”

“He worked hard and handled his own issues, never depending on anyone though I’m sure he could have. He would always stop and ask about you and how you were doing even if he didn’t know you well, no matter how busy he was. I can vouch for that personally. He even remembered my actual name and didn’t introduce or call me ‘Augustine’ like some people do.”

Among others, this neighbor recalls being invited to Vikna’s wedding and being told of Akshay’s birth, both of which surprised him given that they weren’t family or that close.

“I saw then that this was a man who really loved the family he had been blessed with and most likely do anything he could for them,” Augustus wrote.

Those who knew Vikna knew that his wife was his rock and his boy his little pebble of fortune. The three — actually four, including family pooch Sparky — were rarely apart. If Vikna was traveling for work, missus and boy — and, sometimes, dog — would be holidaying beside.

When Vikna bought an apartment, again Augustus got an invite. “He made me come over to ask for my opinion on the layout and lighting as he wanted an artistic point of view,” recalls the neighbor. “I didn’t have anything to add ‘cos he had everything covered and I liked what he had done and planned. It was tasteful and presentable yet comfy… What more could you want from a family home?”

“EVEN IF YOU’RE PENNILESS, YOU’RE MY FRIEND”

Besides being a self-made guy, there’s another description that comes to Augustus’ mind when he thinks of Vikna: honorable.

“Throughout all the time I’ve known him, he was one of the people I never had issues with, or had anything bad to say about if anyone had asked. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure he had his faults. But compared to all the good things, the faults are little. In my eyes, anyway.”

“People like him touch a lot of lives and I believe, only for the better.”

Indeed, Vikna had a textbook-like philosophy on humanity and relationships. It wasn’t unusual to see him buying lunch for a business associate and later tea for a homeless man, into whose pockets he would stuff some extra money for dinner. “We’re all born equal laa, aannae,” he told me once. “Whether you’re rich, or whether you’re a pitchakaran (penniless), if you’re my friend, you’re my friend.”

AN OVERZEALOUSNESS TO PLEASE

If he had a fault, it was an overzealousness to please. During our mission five years ago, his phone was constantly buzzing with calls and messages from people counting on him to do this or that.

Many whose lives he touched – from his wife’s personal stylist to the talents nurtured by the couple at their voice and modeling studio – could barely contain their grief at his passing.

“A very dark and painful day,” Hariharan Arasu, the stylist, wrote in a Feb. 11 post. “A big part of our life, Vikna Raj, passed away early this morning … Really unable to accept or take this.”

“I still cannot digest the fact that you are gone … the person that brought my identity to another level,” said Hardee Bee, whose career in boxbeat pop flourished after he performed at a KL concert by South Indian film music composer Anirudh last year, staged by Vikna’s company. Soon after, Bee cut a song in a movie scored by Anirudh.

“A true superhero who has touched hundreds of hearts…the swarm of people today was for real,” said Abiramee Ramalingam, citing the carnival-like crowd at Vikna’s funeral.

Some reflected with bitter sarcasm on a life taken too soon. “Shit must be so messed up above that they need a joker like you up there,” wrote Dinesh Kumar. “RIP neh Vikna Raj. The boys will continue to do what you started. See you soon!”

My last conversation with Vikna was about a week before his passing. A friend of mine was arriving from London to promote an investment idea involving alternative currencies. He needed to present to some attentive minds. Can I count on you to be one, I asked Vikna. “Sure, aannae,” he replied. “I will make time for him.”

Concluding, I quote again from Augustus, who reflected on the privilege of having had Vikna in his life, regardless the span. “I will raise a glass to the memory of a man I actually like and respect, and thank God for the blessing He gave me by allowing me to know such a man, no matter how brief.”

Vikna Raj

1980 – 2017

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