Column | Destiny and the White Revolution

In Michigan, Dr Verghese Kurien had actually studied metallurgy and nuclear physics, despite the government diktat. Photo: The Week

Recently, Ahmedabad hosted the golden jubilee celebration of Gujarat Cooperative Milk Marketing Federation, which owns Amul. There was a controversy about advertisements in the media not showing images of Dr Verghese Kurien who set up the cooperative that became Amul and whose initiatives earned him the title of ‘Father of the White Revolution.’
Reading his autobiography titled 'I Too Had a Dream', one can easily be convinced that the Kozhikode-born social entrepreneur was somehow destined to help India become a ‘milk superpower.’

When he was in his early 20s and was working as an engineer for the Tata Iron and Steel Company, Kurien found out about a British colonial government scheme to send 500 Indians to countries like the US, UK and Canada for specialised training. Much against the advice of his well-wishers at that time, he decided to apply.

“I applied, hoping to go abroad and get a Master’s degree in metallurgy and nuclear physics,” Kurien wrote in the autobiography, adding that he was lucky enough to get selected for the interview. He described his first step into the world of dairy agriculture in a passage of the book:

“During the interview on the specified date, the Chairman of the selection committee, after inviting me to sit down, asked me only one question. ‘What is pasteurisation?’
"I did not know exactly and I replied hesitantly but quite honestly. ‘I don’t know the process but I think it has something to do with sterilising milk…’
‘Correct,’ he said. ‘You have been selected for a scholarship in dairy engineering.’
"I was taken aback. ‘Dairy engineering?’ I asked incredulously. ‘Can’t you give me metallurgy or nuclear physics?’
‘No. It’s either this or nothing. Make up your mind,’ he said.”

Keen to pursue his studies abroad and to quit his unhappy job with Tata, Kurien agreed to study dairy engineering. Before he went to Michigan State University in 1946, the authorities sent him to what was the called the Imperial Dairy Research Institute (now the National Dairy Research Institute of India). 

In Michigan, Kurien actually studied metallurgy and nuclear physics, despite the government diktat. “To satisfy the Government of India, I took some token courses in dairy engineering,” he wrote. 

It’s clear from the autobiography that Kurien’s personal values were well in tune with those of who led India’s freedom struggle. Speaking of his close friends in Michigan, Kurien wrote, “We were a group of five Indians- Medora was a Parsi, Hussain and Mansoor were Muslims, Dalaya was a Hindu and I was a Christian. A veritable object lesson in national integration.”

Move to Anand
He returned to an independent and partitioned India in 1948 and had an offer to join Union Carbide (later of Bhopal Gas Tragedy infamy) in Calcutta for a salary of Rs 1,000 a month. The Indian government, which paid for his education in the US, refused to let him join the private sector. An under secretary in the government told Kurien that if he wanted to be relieved from government service, he would have to cough up the Rs 30,000 that was paid by them for his studies. This was clearly beyond the means of the young man.

Kurien expected to be sent back to Bangalore to work for the dairy research institute where he had spent six months, but was instead sent to Anand in Gujarat to work as a diary engineer at the Government of India Research Creamery. He wrote of feeling “cheated” at that time.

In 1949, he arrived in Anand, a town he described as then being “excruciatingly unexciting and conservative.” Kurien found it very difficult to find a house or even a room to rent. “I seemed to have all the possible disqualifications,” he wrote. “I was an outsider, a Malayali. In addition, I was a Christian, a non-vegetarian- an outrage for the strictly vegetarian Gujarati community. And to top it all - I was a bachelor! Which self respecting Gujarati family would rent out a room to an unmarried Malayali Christian?”

He really hated Anand and was absolutely doing no work at the creamery. He resigned after eight months, but would stay on in Anand. “I was quite intrigued by the band of tenacious dairy farmers and their leader, Tribhuvandas Patel at the Kaira Cooperative Union next door to our research creamery,” Kurien wrote. He felt that their outdated farming methods would keep them in a perpetual state of struggle, but he admired their deep sense of commitment and decided to help them out. 

While still working for the creamery, Kurien accompanied a friend to Cambay to consult a ‘chhaya jyotishi,’ an astrologer who read people’s shadows to make predictions. As a man of science, Kurien was sceptical of this astrologer who predicted his friend’s future. However, he didn’t want to play spoilsport and so agreed to let this man study his shadow and make predictions. 

“Shuffling through the bunch of parchment-like leaves, and finding what he was looking for, he read out: ‘You have no faith,” Kurien wrote. “I told him he was absolutely right. I was an atheist.” Ignoring the sceptical young man, the astrologer read out details about Kurien’s family and childhood that were absolutely accurate. When asked if he wanted to know about his future, an intrigued Kurien said yes.

“You are very unhappy with your job right now, but within a month you will change it and then you should just sit back and watch,” the astrologer told Kurien. “Your career is set for a phenomenal rise - the kind you can never imagine.” He smiled when he heard this prediction as he felt it was nonsensical but it actually turned out to be true.

“Within a month I left the government creamery to join the Kaira Cooperative,” Kurien wrote. The rest, as they say, is history. Till today I have not yet arrived at any rational explanation for the chhaya jyotishi’s prophecies. Certainly it did not turn me into a believer. I continue to have no faith in occult matters and consider this little incident as one of life’s curious accidents.”

Accident or not, one can’t help but think that Kurien was destined to become the ‘Father of India’s White Revolution.’ The country is all the better for it.
(Ajay Kamalakaran is a multilingual writer, primarily based in Mumbai)

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