Ajay Raju Profile: The Big Raju

Every once in a while, a person comes along whose dreams are so bold, whose style is so outrageous, whose entire being is so un-Philadelphian, that he’s bound to change our city just by putting his mind to it. Is Ajay Raju one of those people?

Raju showed off his Society Hill mansion with both confident pride and a small hint of incredulity that it was all his. I could imagine that ambitious teenage immigrant who’d begun his trip on Albanus Street near the Krewstown Shopping Center. I had been reading Jhumpa Lahiri’s stories of Indian immigrants in America, hoping to find some rich literary reference that would help illuminate Raju’s character, but now realized that going back through Fitzgerald’s Gatsby might have been just as useful.

Soon we were back in the big kitchen, where Pam was finishing cleaning up. It was getting late, and Raju seemed suddenly to grow tired and distracted. Talk of a potential visit from Pope Francis (Raju has been involved in Catholic activities since he was a teen and currently serves on the board of the Friends of the Cathedral Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul) led to talk of the church where the couple was married, in the Northeast. Pam thought it might have been torn down, and her husband became oddly upset by that idea. His visage darkened, and his voice grew sharp and biting.

“I’ve gotten so full of myself,” Raju had told me at one point. “I get more and more grumpy with Pam, and I snap at her for no reason. I’m turning into an asshole. I notice that I’m getting punchier. I’m developing the bad habit of lack of patience because I’m running faster and faster, and sometimes I’m stepping on people’s feelings.”

While walking Raju over to the Union League one day not long ago, senior law partner Joe Jacovini gave him some advice: “Low gear, Ajay,” he said. “Low gear. You’re trying to do too much.”

Tonight’s kitchen spat came and went quickly — a quick Google check showed the church intact. The talk soon shifted to Raju’s early years in America and how on the first day of school the teacher introduced him to the class and wrote his name on the blackboard. The correct pronunciation of his name is Ah-zhay Ra-zhoo.

“I heard from the back of the classroom,” Raju remembers, “a girl say, ‘A-Jay Ra-jew, what a cooool name.’

“I knew something at that moment. I was like, ‘Ah-zhay left India. A-Jay will now draw on this blank canvas. New life. I can be anything and everything to these people. Whatever I sell, they will buy. That was an important awareness at a young age.”

THAT NIGHT I SLEPT in the Rajus’ third-floor guest room, following a line of more distinguished guests, including Indian artist Atul Dodiya and Sujoy Bose, who manages a multibillion-dollar World Bank fund. The next morning I padded down to the marble landing strip in the kitchen, where Pam Raju had graciously laid out fruit and yogurt and croissants; she’s a tea drinker herself but remembered an old family recipe to produce a cup of instant coffee for me. Her husband arrived from the front of the house. He seemed refreshed. Though he was still dressed in lounging pants and t-shirt, his hair was gelled and styled for public view.

It was a revelation, he told me, when a few years ago he discovered he could wear a hat in the morning and skip the elaborate styling routine. That trick allowed him to get out of the house really early on a recent Saturday morning for an unusual civic venture. Traveling through London during riots there, Raju heard someone comparing violence in the British capital to teen flash mobs in Philadelphia. He came back to town and arranged for a flash mob to descend on a grimy, drug-infested block of Hunting Park, pick up litter, and quickly disband. It was his worldview put into practice, realpolitik for the Twitter age: “If you’re going to have a flash mob, make it a positive flash mob.”

This Saturday, Raju had been up since 6:30 a.m., making calls and returning emails (he has a policy in both his business and personal life to respond quickly), and now he was ready to talk about his big ideas again. “Let’s go up to my man cave,” he said.

He led me to a second-floor parlor with huge windows overlooking the gardens behind Pennsylvania Hospital. A crystal chandelier hung over a seating area occupied by Louis XIV sofas and chairs. The color scheme was Tiffany blue. On the walls hung well over $1 million worth of contemporary Indian art. This is your man cave?