The spontaneous outpouring of grief, the heartfelt, extremely moving and laudatory tributes that are overflowing in print, television and the Web on the passing on of Verghese Kurien is a reiteration of the stuff legends are made of.

Surely the man perched on an exalted berth in the afterworld will be chuckling at all the encomiums that are being showered on him. And reminiscing on all the battles he had to fight to earn his place in the sun.

Mulling over the couple of hours I spent with him at his office at the Amul headquarters in Anand during two interviews for Business Line in 1998 and 1999, I think some of his most endearing qualities were his sparkling wit and great sense of humour, the ability to brush off the power he wielded as the undisputed, towering milkman of India, who first took on the Parsi Polson and then multinationals like Nestlé. But the man who could be extremely rude to politicians and bureaucrats — his pet peeve was the IAS tribe, and he fought tooth and nail for long years to prevent an IAS officer succeeding him as NDDB (National Dairy Development Board) Chairman — was extremely gentle, friendly and accessible to farmers and, of course, the media.

Affable, accessible

I was witness to his doors being open to farmers while interviewing him in 1998, just after he had handed over the NDDB reins to protégé Amrita Patel. In the midst of the interview, which few chieftains would have interrupted, he allowed into his room a large group of farmers, with a polite “I hope you don’t mind; they have come from a long distance to greet me and they will have to return to their villages today itself.” The farmers were from some milk co-operative and had come to hail the man they deemed as nothing less than god. After trying to touch his feet, they crowned him with a colourful headgear, presented him an ornamental sword, and me a perfect photo opportunity. The picture in this article was clicked during that colourful meet.

In amazement I watched him bantering with them for 5-10 minutes, after which he returned to the interview, picking up the thread effortlessly. And he was already 76 then. But he had a razor-sharp brain, and a gentle generous heart. Everybody whose life Kurien touched in some way or the other remembers his sharp wit and sharper quips, of course, but also his generosity of spirit and impeccable integrity.

He loved telling the story of his life and I met him when he’d “just lost” his job! He related how he found his stint in TISCO (now Tata Steel) — “where I was the best apprentice Tata had in many years” — stifling “after they found out that my uncle (John Mathai) was the big boss there. I told my uncle I had to leave; if I go to the club all the pretty girls come to me. My supervisor keeps asking me if I am free for dinner!” So he left, on a Government of India scholarship, to study dairy engineering in Pittsburgh.

He then regaled me with how he was selected. “The Chief Justice of India was the chairman of the selection committee, and asked me, ‘What is pasteurisation?’. I said ‘something to do with milk’. He said: ‘Right, you are selected’. This was because no other engineer knew what pasteurisation was, and there was then no pasteurisation plant in India. I said: ‘Please, can’t you give me something like metallurgy?’ But he said, ‘this or nothing else’.”

But Kurien had his revenge on the GOI; he “decided to cheat the government” and did his Masters in metallurgy and nuclear physics. “By that time, one of the underground explosions had taken place and my ambition was to become a nuclear engineer.” But fate had other plans for him; “luckily for Dr Abdul Kalam, the Under Secretary didn’t like my green hat and yellow trousers and packed me off to a dump called Anand, near Bombay, as a Class I gazetted officer on Rs 350 salary, to see cows!” His protest that he was getting double in TISCO came to nought; he was under contract. The rest is history.

Contempt for babus

Having just placed his precious child, the NDDB, in the safe hands of Amrita Patel, Kurien was full of praise for her. His greatest fear was that IAS officers were waiting to get control over the NDDB, which was sitting on a neat pile of money — Rs 300 crore, he said. “Supposing, as I am talking to you I drop dead, the Secretary (of the department) will go to the Minister and say: ‘I have bad news, Kurien is dead. I have prepared a telegram but, meanwhile, I will hold additional charge.’ That will be the beginning of the end; the invasion of the IAS.”

The babus returned the compliment, hated his guts and were full of tales about how Kurien held GOI to ransom. A former Commerce Secretary related a story about how King Birendra of Nepal once wanted a few tonnes of ghee and requested the Indian government. “Even though it was a government-to-government request, bureaucrats in Delhi had to move heaven and earth to get the permission of the Ghee Czar of India to send the consignment.”

Kurien told me he had zealously guarded the co-operative movement and the milk bodies, “that rightly belong to the Indian dairy farmers”, from being hijacked by the babus. So allergic was he to this fraternity that he refused to release funds from the NDDB to the Kerala Federation “because it is headed by an IAS officer”.

Flying buffaloes to Thailand!

The best part of Kurien was his story-narrating skills. And he related the craziest of stories with a deadpan expression. You never knew when he was serious and when your leg was being pulled. I quizzed both Kurien and Amrita on the NDDB plan to gift 50 buffaloes to the King of Thailand to commemorate his 50 years’ reign, as the media was all abuzz in December 1998 on the mode of transport. Would Amrita really accompany the buffaloes dressed in the colourful garb of a bharwad (shepherdess)? She demurred and said: “Yes, Dr Kurien said he would give me a lot of silver jewellery to wear which I could keep. So I agreed.”

She added this was one of his “3 a.m. ideas. He always gets these bright ideas at 3 a.m.” The NDDB chairman first decided to ship them, but couldn’t find a ship. So she called up the Air India MD to charter a flight and he said: “My god, you’re flying buffaloes! They will cost a hell of a lot”. But as Kurien had made the commitment, there was no other option.

Added Kurien with a straight face: “I suppose you know they travel only first class?” With a chuckle he added, “Air India is worried about the smell in the aircraft, but they don’t know we won’t be feeding them much or giving them anything to drink, and will sedate them. Otherwise, if two of them start fighting, they can wreck the plane.” He shrugged off the hefty price tag saying, “I hope you know the profits of the Board. After hiding Rs 50 crore, it is Rs 117 crore. And I don’t pay any tax. It is under the Act. Of course, I wrote the Act.”

Unimpeachable integrity

Kurien was, of course, known for his breadth of vision, immense courage in ticking off the high and mighty, love and caring for farmers, and quick decision-making. But his greatest quality was his unimpeachable integrity. That is why he guarded the NDDB with the zeal of a missionary… “We have a lot of money, and money attracts thieves,” he observed wryly.

Unfortunately, those in power hated his outspoken nature and he made many enemies. One powerful politician whose ego he hurt was Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, by suggesting at a meeting that all governments should be downsized. While the entire country grieved for one of India’s dearest and greatest sons, Modi chose to skip paying his respects to the endearing doodhwala, despite being barely 20 km away on that day.


Meeting the King of Thailand : When the King said he wanted to meet me, the Indian Ambassador to Thailand said, ‘Many of our visiting ministers ask for an appointment with the King and I have never succeeded in getting one. So what is so special about you?’ So I said: ‘Cows! What else?’

Amrita Patel’s transition from a veterinarian to a manager : When she went to help her grandmother’s buffalo to calve, she said: ‘ Hutt jao , this is no job for a woman.’ That was the final blow. She could not grapple with a buffalo. What to do?

An MNC trying to prevent NDDB’s joint venture with Sri Lanka: I told him I don’t go to Delhi to meet an MNC chief; I go there to do my work. So he came here and said, ‘What will happen to us?’ I said that doesn’t concern me. It is about time the White man understood that all Indians are not for sale. There will be a few who cannot be bought and they will defend India’s business interest.

Helping Pakistan improve its milk yield : They wanted to become self-sufficient. I said, ‘You have liberalised, globalised and eaten up all your cows, you damn fellows. You have no brains. I am a Christian and don’t have any sentiment for the cow, but I will not agree to good cows being eaten up. Eat all the useless cows, and if you don’t have enough, tell me and we’ll smuggle some for your eating!

Exporting milk to Pakistan : Why not? If I can send milk from Delhi to Calcutta, Can’t I send it from Delhi to Lahore. All that is required is to bribe one guard!