He worked as a despatch clerk in Bombay. He failed to get admission to regular colleges and hence had to pursue a graduate course studying part time. When he wrote and passed the Civil services examination (meant to select the top bureaucrats in India) his Mom was ecstatic. Now she had visions of her son going around in a white Ambassodor car, lording over Pune where he was initially posted. When she landed in Pune in a cab (to spring a surprise on him), there he was on the road, his bike parked under a tree, commanding an army of leaf rakers and rag pickers. That was life in Ordnance Factories where he was allotted his posting. He would regale us with this story frequently.
It was when I went to the Ammunition Factory in Pune in 1991 for training that I first met Kurien. Tall, well built with streaks of white hair, he looked older than the 30 odd years that he had walked the planet. What I remembered most about him was the fact that he insisted on speaking to me in Malayalam....Here I was, preening to be a cosmopolitan in a Central service, brought up in kerala, but wouldn’t speak vernacular in earshot of others. And Kurien, on the other hand, was brought up in truly cosmopolitan Bombay with tenuous links to kerala. He was fluent in Marathi and Hindi and possessed a repertoire of slang and chaste abuses in several languages. He was an AWM, the lowest rung of the Officer hierarchy, as I was, but he was a couple of years senior to me from the Civil services examination.
He lived in a huge bungalow next to the GM’s bungalow, while other AWMs lived in cramped quarters elsewhere. I dare not ask him how.... But I asked someone else... Is it by misusing his powers as the Officer in charge of the estate ? No, the story goes like this..... It so happened that the huge bungalow next to the GM was lying unoccupied for several months. Rumours were doing the rounds that the huge 6 bedroom bungalow, meant for senior officers was known for ghost sightings and other para-normal phenomena. As a result, the bungalow remained unoccupied. Kurien went up to the GM and volunteered to stay there. He firmly believed that either the ghost or he himself, would prevail. That was an offer that the GM could not refuse and the bungalow was allotted to him. Kurien went on to live there for several years with his wife Susan until he was transferred out of Pune.I still recall watching Amadeus, the life of Mozart on the VCR in his home late at night and chatting about classical music. He was also an accomplished choir singer (one of the best, according to some)
In a staid govt department like the one I work in, kurien comes as a whiff of fresh air. His style of oratory is unique. He would start expounding unrelated things, slowly building up the momentum, linking concurrent issues and he would keep his audience enthralled. I haven’t seen him reading much. But he was an original thinker. He would always see the unseen. ....the detail that would escape normal humans. He could always conjure up a background to see present issues in a different perspective. I didn’t like the idea of bonding with a Mallu since I believed that once we are in Central service we need to cast away our tribal affinities and try to cultivate a pan-indian identity. (I no more hold such silly beliefs. I see that with each passing generation, regional/ caste affinities play a big role in professional careers in every Indian civil service). But Kurien couldn’t care less. It was more than affinities. For him it was us vs them. Us, being people like us, who think professionally, act decisively and get things moving. Not Mallus or UPites or Maharashtrians. And them, the careerists who party their way to the top. Later on, when he became the face of Marketing in OFB, everyone got a taste of his style. He could be sarcastic/humourous, innovative and effective at the same time. He couldn’t stand ceremony associated with hierarchy. For starters , he broke down the walls which separated cubicles of the Officers and merged them into a single unit with a glass partition. Everyone could see what goes on behind the partition. The Director, Jt Director, typist and even the peon would be sitting together. He placed some nice paintings and gave the place a corporate look. Since marketing follows international timings, it was in late evening that his office would acquire vibrancy and life. He never drove so I would give him a lift to Cossipore where he lived.
There are many “kurienisms”, that I can recall. Long ago, our organisation had paid for some land close to the Mental Hospital in Calcutta to start a guest house. While the move came in for a lot of criticism, Kurien staunchly defended it. Firstly, he said the dividing line between prospective residents in our guest houses (ie senior officers in the service) and the inhabitants of the mental hospital was very thin. It was a good idea to keep them in close proximity....Secondly he relished the idea of getting into a cab in the airport and telling the driver to drop him at the Pagal khana (mad house). Once he fixed an appointment for me with a dentist who was located very close to Sonagachi, the famous red light district of Calcutta. He cheerfully advised me to get into a cab and tell the driver to take you to Sona Gachi and assured me that the driver would be pleased to do so.
A Kerala restaurant had opened in Calcutta and we were tempted to sample the food. So one evening we landed there in the middle of much activity. They were shooting an ad film for the restaurant with pretty girls and guys. The hero, wearing dhoti and sporting long hair, was doing a cliched generic imitation of South Indians speaking English. Somehow this representation of a Malayali (which was so off the mark) offended the aesthetic senses of kurien. He started castigating the hero (calling him a hermaphrodite, a rather uncharitable reference to his long hair) and also the lack of good sense or even good humour in representing Keralites. The restaurant management was forced to stop the shooting. I have also heard tales of how he started chanting the Islamic Prayer loudly in an international flight during takeoff, when he sensed his co-passengers were spouting a lot of Jai sriram stuff in loud conversation. He put them to substantial discomfort.. Once I’ve even heard that he beat up a Police Officer who had the cheek to beat his office driver. The poor office car driver was driving a bit slowly without giving way and the police officer was in a hurry to get somewhere. Anyway retaliation was instant from Kurien which ended in a huge embarrassment to the police officer.
The greatest quality in him was something unique. It was the biggest Kurienism of all. Anyone who went to him with a problem would know this. From that moment on, it becomes his problem. I still remember how he got admission to my son in a top school in Calcutta. He was connected to the Principal through a piano player in a five star hotel. We landed there one evening and listened to a recital of Chopin and he explained my problem. We came back disappointed on being told that he wouldn’t use his personal friendships for such things. A few days later I was informed by Kurien that it is done. He was not someone who took no for an answer. While I had given up on it, he was still pursuing it until he found success.
He would often call me for help; never for himself; always for others That was kurien. Often I’d receive a call from him seeking help from the Foreign Ministry (where he believes I had some clout, but frankly I didn’t have much). If it was a crisis, like a death or a funeral, then he would speak to everyone who can be of any assistance. He was a devout Christian who could quote chapter and verse of the Bible. I have not seen him frequenting the church. He would do anything to win something for his organisation. He would often tread the path between righteousness and sin for his Organisation, but never for his personal gain. I could see him chatting up arms dealers and regaling them with stories. All for the sake of his department. But did the department treat him well? Often he was at the receiving end of slander from the high and mighty. I have often seen him going through mood swings and minor bouts of depression. His wife truly stood behind him like a rock although he was posted away from Pune for a large part of his professional life. She had the task of raising their only son, Mark.
In government service where age and date of birth mattered more than merit, he had to bear huge responsibilities but got very little credit. And when he became the top honcho of a factory, he rather nonchalantly shrugged it off for a purely professional reason that he wasn’t contributing enough. He was worried of Mark, his son who wasn’t doing too well at school. I’d tell him that he would blossom one day just like his father. Much later, he told me that it was his PA (Personal Assistant), who one day suggested that Mark could try his hand at Architecture. The PA downloaded the forms filled them up and got Mark to sign them. Mark went on to complete the course and found his career thereafter. So Kurien’s belief in God wasn’t misplaced. Hidden hands were at work to see his son through life. My son remembers Kurien telling him the story of Gladiator. It was Kurien’s favourite movie. To me, Kurien was the Gladiator.....He looked the part. The Roman General who fought the forces of deceit, treachery and cunning for the sake of the honour of his country. I could see him doing deep research into weapons and ammunition for presenting before the customers. He was a graduate in English literature with no formal college training. He could outsmart experts in their technical subjects.
He died two days back. He passed leaving behind his wife and son. Every once in a while I used to call him. I called him in the first week of Dec of 2020.. He didn’t reply. I called again on Christmas. No reply. I didn’t know he was ailing again. I can’t believe that I didn’t persist. Kurien would have persisted if he was in my place. If I was not well and I didn’t answer his calls, he would have found some way to get to me. I watched his son speak of his late father at the funeral church service in YouTube with moist eyes. Somehow I felt I let him down.
I’m often reminded of another ancient story.... that of Karna in Mahabharat. Born as the son of the Sun God, raised as a charioteer’s son. He never got what he deserved. But Karna’s story is the story of each one of us who thinks we didn’t get what we deserved. Kurien’s story was pretty much that of Karna, who was born of the sun and never found his place in the sun. He never got what he deserved in professional life. But he always had a place in the hearts of people whose lives he touched.