Rajesh Nair started teaching at IRMA in 1999 and I left NDDB in 2000. We never met. Thanks to Facebook we connected. I have great pleasure in posting, with his permission, three reminiscences that he wrote about Dr V Kurien.
26 November 2020
The board room of IRMA’s ETDC was cram-full that morning. Two management development programs were on. Both groups of trainees had assembled for a joint session. When some colleagues and I went in at the invitation of the program directors, there was no place to sit. The housekeeping staff helped tow chairs from next door.
Everyone sat in utter silence.
The clock struck 10:00. Outside, off the auditorium, the Amul-Carillon chimes played a jingle announcing the time. That very moment, as though robotically programmed, the enormous door of the board room opened. Dr. V. Kurien, Chairman of IRMA and GCMMF, walked in. His executive assistant trailed him.
The trainees appeared awestruck by their maiden meeting with the Father of the White Revolution, the architect of Operation Flood.
Kurien took his seat. He adjusted the microphone, and commanded in his hallmark husky, magisterial voice: “Please be seated.”
He surveyed his audience. He caught a glance of us, the faculty. For a millionth of a second, a hint of smile flashed across his face.
He then turned to the program directors. Taking cue, one of them gave a crisp description of the programs and the participants. Wasting no time, the professor requested: “Sir, everyone has been eagerly waiting for this session. Could you please share a few inspiring words?”
Kurien gladly obliged. He had a predictable stock of storyline for such occasions. People in the Institute had listened to it countless times – how he was thrown into the dusty town of Anand by an accident of fate; how Tribhuvandas Patel discovered him; how that became his breakthrough moment; how that changed the lives of the dairy farmers of Gujarat; how Amul was born. How he founded NDDB. How he built IRMA. “Brick by brick.”
And on. And on.
Yet, even to those who were sampling the same narrative the umpteenth time, there was a tinge of freshness, a new twist, an unexpected detail, an amusing embellishment. Always. That made Kurien a consummate raconteur.
He told the trainees: “So ladies and gentlemen, you should appreciate you’re at an institution with a difference. This is a school with a soul. My graduates are not only rigorously trained professionals, they have dedicated themselves to the cause of the deprived and the marginalized. They possess a rare gift. Of empathy and integrity. Of goodness.”
He paused. And rounded up: “I wish you a productive week. I hope the faculty will exceed your expectations. I’m sure ETDC housekeeping and catering are making your stay comfortable.”
One of the program directors suggested: “Sir, some of them may have questions. In case you have time, Sir.”
“A couple of questions.”
A man, seemingly in his early fifties, seized the opportunity: “Dr. Kurien, is it true that IRMA graduates are committed to the deprived? I know graduates who …”
Kurien snipped him: “Introduce yourself first.”
“I am an officer of the Indian Forest Service. I am presently …”
“STATE. YOUR. NAME.”
Grabbed by the throat and yoked, the officer obeyed. He meekly uttered his name.
Kurien demanded: “What do you do?”
“Sir … uh … I am the Managing Director of … uh … XX State Co-operative Milk Marketing Federation, Sir.”
“What business do you, a Forest Service man, have in an apex dairy co-operative?”
The forester turned anemic. He attempted nevertheless: “Sir … I am …”
A colleague whispered in my ear: “He’s ruined. Hadn’t anybody briefed him?”
Kurien turned ballistic: “The apex co-operative, which you claim you’re running, is an underperforming organization. And I’m not surprised. With people like you at the helm, how will it ever perform?”
The officer appeared as though he was run over by an asphalt roller.
Not in a mood to be kind, Kurien nuked him: “Your home state lost substantial green cover in the past decade. There was a time when your state had rich biodiversity. Not any longer. Under the watch of people like you, most of the trees got felled. Animals got poached. You’ve managed to ruin the pristine forests. Now you’re sitting in a farmers’ organization, all set to destroy it. Why should people like you, who lack vision, who have no managerial skills, who know no Marketing, hold a key position in an apex co-operative federation? Such roles should go to graduates of an institute like this. My boys and girls don’t get paid proportionate to their talent, to their good work. But they have dedicated themselves to the needy. Most of them. And you … you must go to the forests.”
Annihilated, the officer slumped in his chair.
India was yet to test Agni-III missile back then. Kurien’s weaponry was two generations more advanced than DRDO’s. He had already possessed Agni-V.
Kurien, who nobly secured the livelihood of millions of farmers, who built institutions of eminence, who masterminded the Taste of India, was lethal. At times.
In his centenary year that commences today, I join the fraternity to celebrate the phenomenon Kurien was.
9 September 2018
Rarely did one spot Dr. Kurien unescorted. His executive assistant almost always trailed him. Or another aide or a guard. So, when Suresh (Prof. M R Suresh – Suresh Maruthi) and I saw Kurien all by himself on the walkway that stretched from ETDC to the library via the faculty building, we were surprised. We had just stepped out of our offices for Ramsingh’s chai. Seeing the Chairman walk toward us, we paused. It was a quiet October afternoon. There were intermittent eruptions of loud laughter from the basement hall of the library, where the GCMMF executives were holding their biannual Hoshin Kanri.
As Kurien came close, Suresh and I greeted, in near perfect sync, “Good afternoon, Sir.”
He liked the coordinated, schoolboyish greeting he got. He warmly responded, “Good afternoon.”
Unable yet to veil my surprise seeing him unaccompanied on the walkway, I asked, “Sir, is there anything we should help you with?”
The Chairman replied, “No, thank you.” He pointed to the library basement and said, “The Federation boys are running Hoshin Kanri. Let me check if they’re discussing their business plan or gossiping. Time for a dose of surprise.”
He smiled. That signature, mischievous grin!
It was now Suresh’s turn to ask, “Sir, may we escort you to the basement?”
“No, I’m good. Thank you for asking. You carry on for your tea.”
Ah, he had rightly guessed we were going for tea.
We stood watching Kurien walk westward toward the library. His gait was measured yet stately.
He slowly descended the steps and went near the black granite plaque, which bore the name “RAVI J. MATTHAI LIBRARY” in chrome finish. He looked at it for a few seconds. He was probably examining if the plaque was cleaned and polished well. He then pushed open the doors of the basement hall and went in. The laughter and commotion that had occasionally emerged from there now totally ceased.
Kurien was a leader of numerous dimensions. He deeply influenced the character and unrelentingly honed the competence of the people who worked for him. His leadership style was an intriguing bricolage of foresight, tenacity, autocracy, and compassion. He was volatile at times, with nasty ways. My former colleague the late Prof. Shiladitya Roy used to quip, “Dr. Kurien is the perfect human version of a stochastic process.” Throwing a surprise at the “boys” in the middle of their business planning workshop was a ploy only he could perfectly play. Kurien was larger than life to the people around him. They worked for him or served him as though he owed them no explanation. They believed in him. To quote the man himself, “For those who believe, no explanation is necessary; for those who do not, no explanation is possible.”
My tribute to the Milkman of India on his sixth anniversary.
26 November 2017
One of my prized professional milestones was that I got to work in an institution Dr. V. Kurien founded, during a period when he was not just alive, but active and at the helm.
Kurien, the Milkman of India, the creator of Amul, the genius behind Operation Flood, was also the founder of IRMA.
When I was at IRMA as a member of the faculty, Kurien was the Chairman. Yes, he was “my Chairman.” Even today, I proudly boast in my circles that “Dr. Kurien was my Chairman.” Of the many virtues Kurien radiated, Passion, Rigor, Integrity, Drive, and Empathy stood out. Not all these are hardwired, and collectively, in every leader. If Kurien was inspiring, larger than life, and peerless, that was because of this PRIDE factor. And that made Kurien the Lion King in his domain. That also made him tough and ruthless. Mostly. He appeared to run his institutions autocratically, like a tyrant. But then he was immensely compassionate too. He had his subtle humor to boot, his lighter vein, that infectious discreet warmth. If you tuned well, matched the frequency, you felt it, enjoyed it. Here is a sample from July 1999.
A new cohort of students had just joined IRMA and completed their induction program. The induction, which also comprised a phase of village stay, was allegedly IRMA’s approximation of concentration camps. The induction ended with the Chairman addressing the newcomer students. He and Mrs. Kurien then hosted them a high tea.
The venue for High Tea that year was Students’ Activity Center. Kurien and Molly Kurien arrived and took their seats in the comfortable sofas IRMA Estate had meticulously laid for them. The faculty, staff, senior students, and assorted other invitees had gathered for tea.
The new students were excited to be in the company of the Father of White Revolution, recipient of the World Food Prize and the Magsaysay, the founder of their graduate school. That made them forget (and forgive) the acclimatization program the Institute had just put them through, which some of them felt was no short of “institutionalized torture.”
Kurien had class – looks, gait, word. When he hosted tea, it had to be a class apart. Tea, coffee, and a fine spread of savories and nibbles arrived from the ETDC kitchen, with men in impeccable white serving. The new students were visibly impressed, and relished the snacks.
Seeing that Kurien was sitting with no tea or snacks, Ajith Somarajan, a member of the new batch of students, walked up to him. He cleared his throat and attempted, “Sir, may I get you a cup of tea or coffee?”
Pat came the reply, “No, thank you. No tea or coffee for me now. I’ll have my whisky at 7:30 in the evening, which Mrs. Kurien will fix me.” He then flashed his rare smile.
From the cluster of students, a sudden voice arose, “Sir, when do you take milk?”
Kurien’s reply was supersonic, “I don’t take milk. I don’t like its taste.” Again, that rare flash of smile.
Today is the 96th birth anniversary of the legendary Father of White Revolution.