Dr. V. Kurien
26 November 1921 – 9 September 2012
I was at crossroads that December of 1982. Newly married, I had taken a short break as Editorial Assistant at the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad to accompany my husband who had just joined the Institute of Rural Management at Anand. My dilemma was whether I should return to the assured position in IIMA or resign and, living in Anand, pursue the still fluid plan of becoming a creative writer. I decided to find out by writing an article on Dr. Kurien, the famed Milkman of India. He was kind enough to give an appointment and I went fully prepared to take his interview. For that whole one hour, he spoke and I listened, wide eyed and mouth half open in complete awe. At the end, he asked me if I would like to work in his office at the National Dairy Development Board (NDDB). My dilemma ended, solved by a completely unexpected third option.
Dr. Kurien around the time when I first met him
I joined Chairman’s office as Junior Executive in February 1983. Almost immediately, my senior colleague left on maternity leave and I held the fort alone, seeking help constantly from Dr. Kurien’s personal secretary, Mr. Krishnamurthy. I needed all the assistance I could get because I had never met anyone like Dr. Kurien. The office timing was from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. I would reach a good half an hour earlier to prepare for the day that invariably ended only by 7.30 p.m. He would come early too, take out a slip of paper from his pocket on which he would have jotted down the important tasks to be done and shoot a fusillade of instructions. He ended up doing far more than any list could contain. At the age of 62, he had a punishing regimen. He was a perfectionist and a taskmaster who expected the same from his subordinates. I could match the hours he put in but it was impossible for me to think of 20 steps ahead or to look at an issue from so many angles like he did.
Dr. Kurien worked all seven days though NDDB followed a six-day week. At the end of the year, the employees received a card on which the days of their absence were marked. Mine, in the first year, showed one day marked red. I was sure I hadn’t taken any leave and checked the calendar. It turned out that I had indeed applied for and taken one day off – a Sunday. A year or so later, through Mrs. Kurien’s intervention, Dr. Kurien agreed not to come to office after lunch on Sundays. I was able to leave too though invariably it would be 3 p.m. or later.
The graceful Mrs. Molly Kurien
Occasionally, after finishing work, he would ask me to accompany him to the IRMA campus which was coming up next door. He took great pride in the project and inspected the hostel buildings, the auditorium, office complex and the faculty and staff quarters. He once stopped in front of a house at the end of a line and asked, ‘What do you see, Madam?’
I looked closely and saw nothing amiss.
‘The switch box is not straight!’ he snapped.
Once I worked up courage and asked Dr. Kurien for a day off for Diwali. I wanted to invite some friends over for lunch.
‘What cooking do you know? What special dish will you make?’ he asked.
‘A payasam at least,’ I replied, standing my ground.
‘It better be good,’ he said. ‘I’ll come to taste.’
Oh yeah? I thought but didn’t dare say it aloud.
By then, we had moved to the spacious IRMA campus, ironically to the very same house with the ever so slightly tilting light switch that Dr. Kurien had got straightened.
The next morning, my husband and I bustled around cooking and cleaning the house. Around 11 a.m., the doorbell rang. Interrupted from chopping vegetables, my husband opened the door. Mrs. Kurien stood outside and wished sweetly, “Happy Diwali!”
She didn’t blink an eyelid at my husband’s appearance, checked lungi, bare chested and knife in hand. Dr. Kurien was sitting in the car with a distinct twinkle in his eyes.
Dr. and Mrs. Kurien with their grandson, Siddharth
Only those who worked with him knew the softer side of his personality which surfaced unexpectedly. One evening he peeped into my cabin as he was leaving office and said, ‘You know I’m going to Trivandrum tomorrow morning. Do you want me to tell your parents anything?’
‘It’s all right, Sir. Don’t bother. You’ll be busy and won’t remember.’
He insisted that I give him my parents’ telephone number. Even before he returned from his travel, my father called in great excitement to say that Dr. Kurien had telephoned him, enquired after the family and had said that I was doing well!
Dr. Kurien worked harder than anyone I knew but he also took the time for basic courtesies such as replying to letters promptly or thanking people, especially those who had met or hosted him during his travels. On his first day back in office, he would dictate a letter of thanks to his secretary, Mr. Krishnamurthy, addressed to each one of them and invited them over so that he may reciprocate their kindness. He was a stickler for punctuality and demanded it of others. Like all leaders, he had the gift of the gab and I would see visitors come under his spell like I had the first time I met him. Working with a legend like Dr. Kurien was a privilege not given to many. I just happened to be one of the lucky ones. Perhaps not so fortunate because other than the rich experience and very many memories, I do not have a single photograph with Dr. Kurien. I regret this with all my heart.
Photos courtesy: Ms. Nirmala Kurien.
P.S – in case you are at all curious to know why I resigned from his office – I did so to be a full time mom and to keep writing. 🙂