As Arun M. Kumar takes up a prestigious assignment with the Obama administration, his classmate and friend C. Balagopal writes that Arun has always been a go-getter and a change maker and not a cribber. Arun keeps alive his ties with the city through Pratibha Poshini, an NGO, and his friends and relatives
Arun M. Kumar: school friend, scholar, entrepreneur, poet, connoisseur.
I first met Arun as an eight-year old when he joined the Lawrence School, Lovedale in the Prep School. We dorm veterans sized up the new arrival, noting his neatly groomed appearance, ready smile, and composed expression. As the days passed, we noted with incredulity his habit of diligently writing an entry in his diary (which of course we examined surreptitiously to find out what he wrote), his neatly organised desk, his impeccable manners. We felt callow and “junior” when we were with him, although we were the same age!
Very soon, we found him instigating us to join him in forming a youth club. Some of us joined the new venture reluctantly, watching while our class fellows ran off gaily to play in the vast grounds that beckoned, as Arun sat us down below a tree, to purposefully set out the agenda for the meeting. Even at that early age, Arun displayed rare judgement in selecting people for the various tasks at hand.
The post of treasurer went to scion of a family of plantation owners, and the club was thereafter never in any financial difficulties. SP was elected Secretary, being diligent and methodical. I think I was vice-president, with general administrative responsibilities, as well as the job of preparing the posters announcing club events. And so it went, with each of us being assigned duties that suited our temperament and skills. Arun provided the leadership, to keep this reluctant flock together, as we wistfully looked over at the noisy playgrounds filled with chattering children, happily gambolling in the mud and dust, while we tried to focus on the agenda of the meeting.
(Later, when we were in the senior classes, Arun along with a few of us formed the United Childrens’ Organisation that went on feature in the U.N. Newsletter. In fact, a stage was reached when chapters were formed in other countries, and we started getting letters from earnest young people from Hungary and Norway seeking guidance on their work!
At that point some of us began to feel matters were getting out of hand, and I recall a sombre day when the general body met to formally adopt a resolution dissolving the UCO citing pressure of studies and lack of new members to carry on the work after we left school.)
After school, we each went our separate ways to pursue studies in different fields and different universities.
We were in touch for a while after Arun graduated, got admission to IIM Ahmedabad, chose instead to join the Grindlays Bank, and finally ended up in the Tata Administrative Service, being posted as executive assistant to a little known person in the Tata empire known as Ratan Tata, who was then head of NELCO. After that he left to pursue an MBA at the Sloan School of Business at MIT.
We lost touch with each other after that, and I gathered later that he worked for several technology companies in Silicon Valley, managing the finance function. He also started several companies, became a serial entrepreneur, and was a founding Charter Member of TiE in Silicon Valley, which has since grown into the largest organisation of entrepreneurs in the world. It was clear that Arun was not done with his efforts to change the world!
We got back in touch around that time, when he started the next chapter of his brilliant career, joining KPMG. He went on to become the managing director of the consulting practice on the firm, and finally retired from the partnership to accept this prestigious assignment with the Obama Administration. Arun supported me when I along with a few others set up TiE Kerala about ten years ago.
At a personal level, I owe Arun much while I was struggling to set up and establish my own venture here in the capital city. In the early days when the company appeared to be in dire straits, I got the benefit of expert advice from Arun and another school friend Viju, both brilliant and accomplished professional managers. I had the good sense to act on their advice, and was able to get out of a couple of very difficult situations by taking bold but harsh decisions. The fact that the company went on to become a national and global leader in hi tech medical products employing more than 1,400 people is due in no small measure to the support I got from friends like Arun.
During those days, I worked closely with Arun and his indefatigable father B. Madhavan Nair, in helping him and a few other senior citizens of Jawahar Nagar set up Prathibha Poshini, an NGO, to help bright young children from poor families to realise their potential. The programme has now been running for almost 20 years, and I am still associated with it, as a way of repaying my debt to Arun for the help he gave me.
Our lives continue to intersect, despite the distance that separates us. I recently wrote a book, and it was Arun who suggested the title, which, in retrospect was an inspired idea: On A Clear Day You Can See India! He plucked this out from the last sentence of the first chapter in the book, saying in his characteristic quiet manner: ‘Bala, the book is more than an anecdotal account about your experiences in Manipur; it is a meditation on identity and nationhood, and this title expresses that better’.
That is Arun M. Kumar in a nutshell: intelligent, sensitive, helpful, and with the uncanny knack of spotting the right thing to do!
Society of Scientists
Arun enrolled in the University College, Thiruvananthapuram for a B.Sc. in Physics, having been selected for the National Science Talent scheme. This once famous college which numbers among its distinguished alumni some of the greatest names in science, arts, administration, politics, in India, had by then fallen on bad times, with student politics damaging a once great academic institution.
Arun, unlike many of his peers, was not content to be passive and bemoan his fate. Displaying a quality that has come to set him apart, he went about doing something about setting right this sorry state of affairs. He got together a few friends and formed the Science Society, which met regularly to discuss latest advances in science. They invited scientists from the then newly established Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre, the University of Kerala, the College of Engineering and other institutions to deliver talks on esoteric subjects in mathematics, science, and technology. This Society got the support of people like the late Professor K.N. Raj, Professor R.S. Krishnan, and other distinguished academics and scientists in the city. To cut a long and fascinating story short, virtually every member of this amazing society went on to make a mark internationally in the world of science and technology; the list includes Thanu Padmanabhan, Ranjit Nair, Parameswaran, Abdul Rasheed, Kris Gopalakrishnan, and of course Arun Kumar himself, among many others. I have spoken about this Science Society to groups of young people in many colleges, to give them an example of not complaining about the way things are, and instead trying to do something to change matters through their own efforts.
(The author is a former bureaucrat and entrepreneur)