Diary of a dairyman

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By Verghese Kurien, India's White Revolutionary has just released his memoirs, but don't expect a tell-all tale, says Arundhati Basu FACE OF THE WEEK
  • Published 3.12.05
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(Above): Kurien with wife Molly and I.K. Gujral at the launch of his book

Did someone say retirement age? Dr Verghese Kurien, the man who single-handedly changed the face of the dairy movement in the country, officially retired about a quarter of a century ago. But at 84, he’s still out there, juggling the chairmanships of various organisations ? and getting into scraps with his former prot?g?s.

Now, he’s teamed up with journalist Gouri Salvi and turned out his memoirs. Over a six-year period he related his life to Salvi and she has converted it into a book, I Too Had a Dream. The book is more about milk and the dairy movement than about Kurien’s personal life.

Even as an octogenarian, Kurien is a busy man. He’s the chairman of three organisations ? Institute of Rural Management (IRMA), Gujarat Cooperative Milk Marketing Federation (GCMMF) and National Cooperative Dairy Federation of India (NCDFI) ? and he puts in a 10am-6pm day at office. “But these are all honorary posts,” he adds.

All through his life, Kurien has fought one battle after another. And, he’s still dogged by controversy. “People say that he is senile and try to sidestep him. But he has been elected unanimously in whatever position he holds or has ever held,” says Molly Kurien, his wife of more than 50 years.

Since he retired at the age of 58 from the NDDB, there has been no steady income for the family. “He earned a maximum salary of Rs 5,000 at one time. There have been tough times later. But I’d watched my mother manage a household with my father’s pension of Rs 250. If she could do it, so could I. Neither of us, Verghese or I, belonged to very rich families. We had to make do with things on our own,” says Molly. Her husband comes into the conversation to point out that it hasn’t been all that bad. “But there have been awards accompanied by money. I received some $200,000 from one.” What about the luxuries of life? He has a simple answer. He waves his hand at the plush interiors of the hotel to make his point.

In the old days at the National Dairy Development Board, he had won battles against powerful ministers like Jagjivan Ram and Rao Birendra Singh. But with the passage of time Kurien has had to turn his guns on his own prot?g?s. “The present chairman of NDDB (Amrita Patel) has let me down. She is insistent on corporatising Mother Dairy and flouting the government’s rules. I. K. Gujral has been telling me that I am responsible for her since I’d fought for her to get where she is today,” says Kurien.

A call from grandson, Siddharth, though, is enough to set his mood right. There’s a special bond here which is revealed in the prologue to Kurien’s book, that’s dedicated to Siddharth. Ever since Kurien’s daughter Nirmala separated from her husband, Siddharth has been spending time with his grandparents. “Initially he wanted to be a watchman, so I told him to be the best watchman in the world. Then, he wanted to work with water. Now he’s in college studying commerce. Maybe he will go into sports management,” says the proud grandfather.

Relaxing in his suite in the Taj Man Singh hotel, Kurien has a scoop of his birthday cake and smiles. “Very nice cake,” he says.

Born in 1921, the son of affluent Syrian Christians from Calicut, Kurien was raised in Chennai. He studied science and engineering at Madras University. A job at Tata Iron and Steel Company (TISCO) ensured a secure future, but the 23-year-old was determined to make his own way in the world. He applied for a government scholarship for higher studies abroad. But when he went before the government selection board he was asked a crucial question: ‘What is pasteurisation?’ That proved to be a major turning point in his career. He ended up, rather unwillingly with a free ticket to Michigan State University in the US, to study dairy farming and milk production.

Still he was restless and looking at changing to a different field. By then he had decided that he wanted to pursue a course in metallurgy and nuclear physics because ‘the first atom bomb had been exploded’. So, he picked up degrees both in dairy farming and in metallurgy and returned a “cocky, foreign educated” nattily-attired man to India to abide by a rigid government contract.

“I had to repay the government. My uncle John Matthai (Nehru’s finance minister) refused to bail me out as taking up the scholarship was my decision. That’s how I was sent to Anand as a dairy engineer,” says the man synonymous with Operation Flood. What he took up under compulsion, however, soon became a passion. “It was then that I realised, in all humility, that choosing to lead one kind of life means putting aside the desire to pursue other options,” he says in his book.

But Kurien’s reach has extended beyond the world of milk. He has been associated with two films ? Manthan (backed by NDDB) and Sardar (he was the chairman of the Foundation for Films on India’s War of Independence that produced the film).

The latter holds special significance for him. “I’ve always believed that Nehru usurped what rightfully belonged to Sardar Patel,” he says. He recounts the story of how Patel withdrew his nomination from the Congress meeting post Independence, when Gandhi henceforth declared Nehru the President.

“At my age, one does not really have a future ? only a past,” he says. And he loves reminiscing about the past.

One of the profound influences on his life has been Maniben Patel, the daughter of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel. “Do you know that I am known as one of the three witches of Delhi?” she said to him one evening in the 50s.

Why was she calling herself a witch? It was to make a point to Kurien. She claimed that she had been brought up in a conservative Gujarati family, where a father, “could not show any affection to his child or cuddle her, even though she was motherless like I was.” The point was that Kurien should spend more time with his daughter Nirmala. “Eight hours for your dairy, eight hours for your family and eight hours for sleep,” she said.

“Not that he returned home earlier,” smiles Molly. As he celebrates another birthday, Kurien boasts good eyesight except that he is diabetic. But he doesn’t let this hinder his love for the traditional Malayalee favourites like mango curry and avial.

For now he is waiting to return to Anand, where he has lived since 1949. He says, “I don’t like Delhi. Once C Subramaniam, the Union Agriculture Minister in 1964, summoned me here asking me to take over as the Chairman of the Delhi Milk Scheme on my terms and conditions. I refused and I haven’t regretted it. I am happy in Anand.”

Photograph by Rupinder Sharma