Tuesday, September 18, 2012

India's accidental Dairy King

He was a man who saw the world as a conflict between the clever and the foolish, and took the side of both to push his plans through. In his final years, he became a lumbering patriarch with an illuminated face and dark twinkling eyes, who was very aware of his greatness but chose his words with care in a nation where humility is the only permissible form of pride. 

When he was young, a friend took him to an astrologer who discerned people’s fate by measuring their shadows at noon. The shadow astrologer, obviously, worked far from the Equator. Mr. Kurien recounts the experience in his  memoirs, “I Too Had a Dream,” which he wrote with the journalist Gouri Salvi. The astrologer foretold an extraordinary career.

It was an accidental career. He arrived in Anand reluctantly in the summer of 1949 as a government clerk. Circumstances soon made him the general manager of a farmers’ cooperative, the Kaira District Milk Producers Union Ltd.

He swiftly increased the cooperative’s milk production, but to expand it further he needed a scientific breakthrough. He had to find a way to convert buffalo milk into milk powder, which the leading dairy experts of the time said was impossible. But, with the help of a friend who was a chemist, he achieved the seeming miracle. Mr. Kurien implied in his memoirs that the supposed impossibility of converting buffalo milk into powder was a myth created by the Western world, which had abundant cow’s milk and wanted other nations, like India, to continue to import its milk powder.

Over time, Mr. Kurien’s stature rose. Some of the most important politicians in the country, including prime ministers, stayed in his house when they visited Anand. The first time Jawaharlal Nehru stayed with them, Mr. Kurien and his wife, Molly, refrigerated a rose so that the prime minister could put the fresh flower in his buttonhole, as was his style. But soon the couple got tired of all the fuss around dignitaries. Once, a very tall governor was to visit, and his security detail complained that the bed in Mr. Kurien’s guest room was too short. In response, Mr. Kurien asked his excellency to sleep diagonally.

In the late 1950s, Mr. Kurien decided to market the produce of the cooperative through a brand name, and that led to the creation of one of the most enduring Indian brands, Amul Butter. Amul’s billboard advertisements, which play on current affairs, are a parallel historical record of modern India. So endearing is the brand that even The Times of India, which does not grant any corporation free mileage on its editorial pages and even blurs images of company logos in its editorial photographs, carries images of Amul’s billboards when the brand is in the news. Mr. Kurien’s obituary was, inescapably, accompanied by the images of Amul’s billboards in several newspapers.

Rahul Da Cunha, whose advertising agency designs the Amul advertisements, was 6 when he first met Mr. Kurien. At that meeting, he told me: “Dr. Kurien gave me a big box as a gift. I opened it and found just papers. At the bottom was a small cube of Amul cheese.”

Mr. Kurien, who was probably the most famous dairy administrator in the world, didn’t like drinking milk.
Manu Joseph in The New York Times. Here

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