‘He believed in the community, when our
community did not believe in ourselves’
Mika Rao Kalapatapu reflects on two decades of friendship and community activism with Raj Shah
It’s hard to believe it was 17 years ago that Raj Shah and I first became friends.
gram. Just a few months prior, he and his future wife —
Shivam Mallick Shah — had founded the fledgling organization Indian American Political Awareness Committee.
They had begun speaking at community organizations urging the parent generation of ‘aunties and uncles’ as well as
younger people to vote and participate in civic life. My parents met the duo at a community function and raved about
them to me.
“You must meet them,” my mother urged. “You have so
much in common.”
Activism had long run in my blood as well. My parents
were well-known figures in the Philadelphia Indian com-
munity and had formed and helped lead numerous local
organizations. I had finished up a term as the president of
Penn’s South Asia Society and had become a committed
advocate of South Asian Americans having a voice in poli-
tics and media. So, when Raj and I sat down in the com-
puter lab of Wharton’s Steinberg-Dietrich hall to compare
notes an instant connection took place.
But then, Raj is the kind of person everyone immediately
As Raj and I talked about politics and apathy, about the
pressure our generation faced to forgo their passions and
pursue only medicine or engineering, I felt like I’d known
PHOTOGRAPHS COUR TES Y: MIKA RAO KALAPATAPU
SPONSORED B Y
Left, the Project IMPACT executive board in 2000. Back row from left, Ahalya Nava-Majmudar, Mika Rao Kalapatapu, Shivam Mallick Shah,
Purnima Menon, Rithu Singhal Kathpalia, and Gail Dave. Seated, Raj Shah, Anuj Gupta, and Vinit Dhruva.
After nearly two decades of friendship, however, I now
know that nearly everyone who meets Raj comes away with
the same feeling of familiarity. It has less to do with you,
and more to do with him. As my husband recently pointed
out, when you are talking to Raj — no matter the topic —
you get the feeling that he is 100 percent tuned in to you
and understands where you are coming from.
Within a few weeks, I met Shivam, and a sisterhood that
would take us through marriage, motherhood and cross-country moves was formed. From that moment on, the
three of us were inseparable. Whether we were pulling all-nighters in Raj’s Philly condo putting together packets and
poster board presentations, or taking our show on the road
travelling to New York, Washington DC, or Rhode Island,
we were usually found together.
Although Shivam was a financial analyst at Bear Stearns,
I was a new consultant with Accenture and Raj was toiling
away as a medical student, we spent the few extra hours at
our disposal getting IAPAC off the ground.