This is a centenary remembrance of Late MKK Nayar (1920-1987), my father’s boss, who belonged to the first batch of IAS. Though belonging to the Tamil Nadu cadre, his significant contributions include construction of the Bhilai Steel Plant, modernisation of FACT fertilizer plants, and to the world of sports, arts, and culture, in Kerala and beyond.
Sometime in mid-1966. I was five, sitting with my dad, mom and brothers, in a living room, waiting for someone. My mom suddenly asked me and my brother to show how MD Uncle laughs. My brother jumped off the sofa, pushed his tummy forward, and laughed out loud, ahahaha. Looking on and tilting his head in camouflaged amusement, was Pappu, the serious looking white fluffy Pomeranian, the first toilet trained pet that I had ever seen.
Not to be left behind, I also slid down the sofa, pushed my belly further outward, and cried out louder and longer, ahahahahaha. As I was completing, my laugh was echoed from somewhere inside, and soon emerged a plump man of medium height, large paunch, clad in well-stitched, white khadi shirt and pants. He had a bald head, a strikingly auspicious looking one, if there was one, and a genial face, not easily forgotten. If you have seen him once, you will look a second time, and be forever drawn into his indescribably magnetic aura. Such was his personality. That was Meppally Keshava Pillai Krishnankutty Nayar. M.K.K. Nayar, as per official records, Krishnankutty Chettan to family, and MKK to friends. But, to us four brothers, he was always, then as now, MD Uncle.
MKK and my father
My father, I believe, first met MKK sometime in 1959, when he was Sub Collector, Palghat, and MKK had come to address an event that my father had organized. MKK had then recently taken charge as Managing Director at Fertilizers and Chemicals Travancore Ltd (FACT). FACT was established in 1943 as India’s first fertilizer company, one among the many such institutions that owe their existence to the vision of Sir C.P. Ramaswamy Iyer, Dewan of Travancore from 1936 to 1947.
MKK must have liked my father’s speech enough to ask one of the other speakers, MP Manmathan, the famous Gandhian and social worker, about my father. Manmathan must have given a good report. My father had started his career under Manmathan at the age of 19 as a lecturer at the NSS College, Pandalam, where he was Principal. A year later, he moved to University College, Trivandrum, where he taught for five years before joining the IAS in 1957.
Two years after that brief encounter, and a month after I was born in July 1961, my father was posted as Chief Commercial Manager, FACT. MKK described the first official meeting as follows:
“When I first saw this young man in chocolate colored corduroy long trousers and bush shirt, I had not been impressed. But after talking with him for half an hour, I was able to gauge his wide mental reach, far sightedness and determination. I saw that he was imaginative, could judge situations quickly and take firm decisions like ICS officers of a gone-by era.”MKK Nayar, “With Grudge Against None”
In his memoirs, MKK credited my father with starting FACT’s Executive Development Programme, and Fertilizer Festivals. In 1964, my father moved to then undivided Cannanore district (which included the present Kannur and Kasargod districts) as District Collector. He returned to FACT in June 1966 at the invitation of MKK, to set up its Cochin Division in Ambalamedu. The factory and township were completed in less than five years. One of the highlights was an artificial lake with an island hosting Charles Correa-designed Ambalamedu House, retaining the original natural beauty of the landscape to the extent possible.
The above visit was our first to the Managing Director’s residence after we returned to FACT. Since then I have seen MKK in numerous places: FACT’s Udyogamandal Club, official dinners at our house in Ambalamedu, his Ernakulam and Trivandrum homes, our house in Trivandrum, numerous weddings, concerts, Kathakali programmes, including the three day annual event at his ancestral home Meppally, literary gatherings, temples including Sabarimala, and so on. Everywhere, MKK’s was always a profound presence felt across any event or occasion.
MKK at FACT
Half a century has elapsed since MKK stepped down from FACT, where he was MD for the first ten years. All others who came later were CMDs. Nevertheless, even five decades later, whenever FACT is mentioned, only one name comes to mind, everyone enquires about only one person: MKK Nayar.
With the second five year plan, the role of fertilizers was recognized for a growing economy. That was when FACT was taken over by the Central Government from the Seshasayee Group. To actualise a vision of converting a company with a turnover of Rs 50 lakh to one with a turnover of around Rs. 600 crore, the government needed the services of a very competent officer. They did not have to look far. MKK Nayar, who was put in charge of commissioning the Bhilai Steel Plant, with Russian collaboration, and had completed the work in 18 months, then a world record for such plants, was appointed Managing Director in 1959.
As part of the expansion programme of FACT, a new Cochin Division to be set up at Ambalamedu was envisaged. For this project, he was looking for an IAS officer for deputation from the State cadre. That was when he came across my father’s confidential report, in which a Revenue Board member had recorded that he always delegated his work. What was intended to be a negative observation, was interpreted in a positive sense by MKK, who felt that upscaling a company several fold required an officer who can delegate and take people with him. My father was only happy to have a second chance of working with MKK. Since it was equivalent to a Central Government deputation, that too a second one, it helped him avoid a posting in Delhi at least for some time. That was how my father came back to FACT for a second stint in 1966. This instance sheds light on MKK’s distinct style of thinking.
My father would eventually dedicate his book on Management, written in Malayalam, to MKK, describing him as his guru in Management. The book, first serialised in 1971 in Mathrubhumi weekly, then edited by M.T. Vasudevan Nair, later Jnanpith Award winner, had an excellent foreword written by MKK.
MKK’s CBI Case
After being at the helm of FACT for 12 years, handling billions of rupees, elevating the stature of FACT to a global level, what haunted MKK for over a decade after leaving FACT were two CBI cases, one regarding misuse of official position, and the other regarding assets disproportionate to known sources of income. These cases after passing through the touchstone of judicial scrutiny involved a paltry amount of Rs. 3,000.
Several parallel developments, mostly unrelated, contrived to result in the CBI filing an FIR against MKK. First was an IAS officer from the Specially Recruited category (without an examination) who always had a complex vis-a-vis the regularly recruited officers who came through the examination route. He had approached MKK for a deputation to FACT and was refused. He later managed to become a GM and MD in another company in Udyogamandal. But, he found to his dismay that in the world of art and culture, apart from official management related functions, it was MKK all the way. Whether it was the setting up of the School of Management under Dr. MV Pylee, running of the Kerala Management Association, establishing a Lalit Kala Akademi, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, or a Bala Bhavan, or improving the functioning of Kerala Kala Mandalam and a host of other institutions, MKK was the lead catalyst or initiator of change. Like a lead tusker in a temple festival.
This must have hurt the ego of someone who prided in being a litterateur, artist and cartoonist of sorts. The origin of allegations against MKK is believed to be this officer’s office, in whose guest house, FV Arul, then Director CBI stayed at the time. This officer’s explanations in his autobiographical story of his years in service or disservice, trying to clear misunderstandings with MKK, lack credibility. His shallow and high handed approach to art and culture was lampooned in the movie, Celluloid, which dealt with the life of J.C. Daniel, the father of Malayalam cinema.
The CBI initiated a routine investigation based on complaints, and MKK’s house and offices were raided. They got hold of MKK’s personal diary where he used to record his free and frank views on various matters. This included certain political comments critical of the then Prime Minister. The same disgruntled IAS litterateur is believed to have ensured, through FV Arul, in bringing these observations to the notice of the PM.
The second was one Arangil Sreedharan, then an MP from North Kerala. He wanted a few candidates selected as Management Trainees at FACT. As that followed a transparent system of examination and interview, MKK pleaded inability to interfere. A slew of parliament questions and signature campaign against MKK by some Kerala MPs, orchestrated by Sreedharan, followed. Most leading Kerala MPs, like AK Gopalan and N Sreekantan Nair, were either not approached or rebuked those behind the campaign.
The third was the editor of a magazine, who wanted an advertisement from FACT every week. This was also refused. What was promised were two advertisements on two national days, as was being done for similar journals including Shankar’s Weekly. This editor instigated a scurrilous article, The Snake in Fertilizers, published in Mainstream, then edited by Nikhil Chakravorty. A defamation suit filed by MKK unnerved Chakravorty who published an apology as demanded by MKK. Nevertheless, MKK’s detractors made use of the article to get another investigation initiated. PR Nayak, ICS, who conducted the investigation, exonerated MKK.
Fourth was a Minister of State who had approached MKK asking him to raise Rs. 60 lakh for party funds from suppliers and other counterparties. MKK replied that he was not familiar with that kind of work and that he need not entertain any expectations from him. As luck would have it, after the next general elections in 1971, this leader became Cabinet Minister in charge of Petroleum and Chemicals. In the next shuffle of officers under the Ministry, MKK was transferred to the Planning Commission as Joint Secretary.
The Prime Minister sought the views of C Subramaniam in the matter of allegations against MKK. Subramaniam, then Vice Chairman of the Planning Commission, where MKK had moved in 1971, recorded as follows: “I know this officer very well from 1951. He is the most capable and pure-minded civil servant in India now. It is my belief that no allegation levelled against him will stand. Therefore, a decision may be taken on this only after proper consideration.” Permission was thereafter not given to the CBI to proceed with the case.
The final push came in the form of a case against an officer from a backward community. As the government had not allowed the same to be dropped, withdrawal of the case against MKK was cited as a precedent, and as an instance of favouring an officer from a forward community. C. Subramaniam had moved on from the Planning Commission, and D.P. Dhar took his place. This finally led to the filing of an FIR against MKK.
The case thus had a small beginning, born out of jealousy, and got compounded by other parallel developments. It was then within MKK’s ability to have the proceedings quashed, but he chose not to influence anyone to nip the problem in the bud.
MKK’s memoirs show that some of the officers in CBI, especially the then Director Arul, aslo from the same Tamil Nadu cadre as MKK, took personal interest in pursuing the case. Arul also got one of his “trusted sidekicks”, one PV Narayanaswamy, promoted and transferred from Tamil Nadu to Kochi to be in full charge of the case.
In both the cases of misuse of official position, and of disproportionate assets, CBI took almost ten years to complete its arguments. The objective was to ensure that MKK, who was to retire in 1978, should never come back in service. In her 1983 judgment in the disproportionate assets case, Justice Elizabeth Matthew Idiculla sharply criticized the CBI in the following words:
“The disproportion of assets which has been pictured as gigantic in the charge and which lost nearly half its size when dealt with by the Public Prosecutor is proved to be too tiny when tested by the touchstone of judicial scrutiny. This combined with the additional facts that the trial of this case has been unduly delayed due to the reasons already detailed by me in the initial portion of this judgement which must be deemed to have caused serious prejudice and harassment to the accused for which he is not in any way responsible and also that the investigating agency stooped to concoct Ext P 467 (false document of authorization) which is not expected of any investigating agency much less a solemn body like the CBI deter me to enter a finding of guilty against the accused… In the result, I exonerate the accused …”Quoted in MKK Nayar, “With Grudge Against None”
Justice VK Bhaskaran, in his judgement in the second case, commented on the CBI’s FIR as follows:
“In the final analysis of the case it will be seen that a false FIR containing wild allegations against the accused was filed in court on 31 May1969. But the Investigating Officer did not submit any report to the court in respect of the allegations contained in the charge sheet before filing the charge sheet. During the investigation, the Investigating Agency appears to have adopted dubious devises like creating false evidence and suppressing material evidence in order to see that by hook or crook, the accused is convicted of some offense. It is unfortunate that a machinery such as CBI which is a powerful investigating agency and supposed to be highly efficient had resorted to such practices in vital matters involving the prestige of the citizens. It seems, the accused with equanimity has undergone a great ordeal by facing the trial protracting for a period of more than ten years. But for this accusation he should have held some of the highest positions of responsibility in our country to the benefit of the people.”Quoted in MKK Nayar, “With Grudge Against None”
The two cases showed us how in our system, jealous and despicable enemies in powerful positions, small men as they are, can bring down even a popular and competent official who should have retired as Cabinet Secretary in the normal course. The comments against the CBI by the two honourable judges were never contested, and remain as a lasting indictment of the organization. MKK, on his part, chose to leave the CBI officials to the mercy of God rather than have them prosecuted under the Indian Penal Code for creating false documents and using them with the full knowledge of their being false, an offence punishable with seven years’ rigorous imprisonment.
Even after the case was won, MKK’s enemies sought and succeeded in denying him the benefits he was entitled to with retrospective effect. It is a matter of poetic justice, or some may say divine retribution, that the junior Minister in the then Rajiv Gandhi cabinet responsible for denying MKK his due benefits, and his son, recently spent long periods in Tihar jail, for forgery, corruption, cheating, money laundering, and disproportionate assets.
The case never demoralised the strong man that MKK was. Even at the height of the proceedings, whenever I met him at his residence in Ernakulam, I found a pleasant human being who always enquired about my studies, and the books that I was reading. More serious was Pappu still strutting about with his quiet graceful steps, in apparent disgust of the goings on around him.
An almost fatal car accident followed around this time, resulting in several months of stay in hospital and an eye surgery. MKK lost 32 kilos in six weeks. Even this did not unsettle him or wipe off that ever present genial smile from his face. Then came a mark list case involving his second son. This was the end result of the machinations of a doctor who was brought to prominence by MKK himself. MKK was left in the unenviable situation that no father would ever want to be in, of having to indict his own son in order to save himself. In my father’s words, this was the case that affected MKK personally, and damaged his reputation. But he overcame these difficulties in a stoic manner.
Eventually MKK would succumb in September 1987 to cancer of the pancreas resulting in obstructive jaundice, one of the most painful medical conditions ever known. When I last met him with my father, the pain was not visible on his face, but he had become very thin and weak, and the smile had vanished. He seemed to be no longer the MKK that I knew for over two decades. Pappu was still around, looking down at the visitors in his quiet majesty, having crossed 20, unusually long for a Pomeranian.
What are the enduring images and memories of MKK? While studying in Madras, he had appeared for a few moments in a song and dance sequence in only the second Malayalam film, Gnanambika, released in 1940. Done to humour an acquaintance, the clip in its final version turned out to be more erotic than what it looked at the time of filming. Even before MKK returned home for his next vacation, the film had reached Trivandrum and done its rounds. An uncle whose daughter was arranged for long to be married to MKK turned hostile. MKK would eventually call out Soudamini and make her his wife without much by way of a ceremony.
I remember an MKK who even while working in Bhilai, did not forget to help people known to him in faraway Kerala, then as much as now, a perennial source of educated young men looking for jobs. Thus, in the 1950s, Bhilai became the original Dubai for many young Malayali men.
Inerasable is the memory of a man who went far beyond his remit in FACT, and left his mark in the world arts, sports and cultural spheres, not just in FACT and Kerala, but even far beyond. I remember MKK explaining Kathakali characters and their nuances to dignitaries from other countries. An MKK who always entertained requests for help even at the height of his own troubles. It was while I was with him at his Ernakulam home that an accomplished badminton player of the sixties, approached MKK for MD admission for herself and her husband.
I remember MKK discussing the finer points of Karnashapatham, the Kathakali play, with Mali Madhavan Nair, its author, during its finalisation. The play incorporated ragas hitherto unused in Kathakali, and modern theatrical devices such as Kunti Devi walking in from the audience.
A deeply religious MKK engaged in hours of puja, and doing a shayana pradakshina at Sabarimala. An MKK who always beat me in chess. A kathakali and music aficionado enjoying and sharing their intricate insights. A repository of anecdotes from his younger days, military youth, and official days. An MKK who could engage in a confident conversation on equal terms with any industrial leader from JRD Tata onwards.
My younger brother, when he was five, once drew an oil painting of MKK. What were clear in the picture were a large belly and a small head at one end, the neck invisible, and the limbs merging with an obscure surrounding. My brother had titled the painting ‘M.D. Uncle’. MKK was so taken in by this five year old’s abstract creation that he got it framed and hung it in his bedroom where it remained till his death.
Once when MKK came home, my brother’s final exams were near. And as usually used to happen with my brother, his textbooks had gone missing. MKK, the large hearted man that he was, was arguing for my brother, suggesting that he must have donated the books to one of his poor classmates.
MKK the Leader
My mother used to say that it was interactions with MKK and his training that changed my father from a rough person in his younger days into a more rounded personality with varied interests. My father’s favourite quote on leadership was that of Andrew Carnegie, father of the American steel industry. Carnegie was asked what he would like to have as his epitaph, and he replied immediately: “Here lies a man who was wise enough to bring into his service men who knew more than he.” These words are quite apt in the case of MKK, as we will see below.
MKK was able to bring under his service countless number of competent persons from different walks of life: able administrators, experienced and skilled engineers who helped him establish the new plants as well as FACT Engineering and Development Organization (FEDO) and FACT Engineering Works (FEW), a young Charles Correa to design Ambalamedu House, in the shape of an aeroplane, long before he became famous as the Chief Architect of New Bombay, among other many accomplishments, and many others now forgotten in the sands of time …
Taking CSR forward more than two generations before it became a corporate byword, MKK established the FACT Kathakali School with the help of Kathakali masters Kudamalur Karunakaran Nair and Kalamandalam Karunakaran, Kathakali singers Hyderali and Sankaran Embrandiri, Chenda exponent Kalamandalam Keshavan, Maddalam artistes Chalakudy Nambisan and Kalamandalam Sanakara Warrier, all of whom in turn trained many others including Mohanan, Padmanabhan, Jayadeva Varma, and Bhaskaran, and the list goes on…
From the world of sports there was Balan Pandit, the first Keralite to play county cricket and make it to the India 16, S. Ramanujan, Kerala Table Tennis champion for a decade, international volleyball star T.D. Joseph alias FACT Pappan, Olympian footballer Simon Sunderraj who scored the last ever goal for India in the 1960 Rome Olympics, Kesavan Nair who taught me the basics of swimming and would later become the national swimming coach, Captain TKS Mani, who brought home to Kerala its first Santosh Trophy in football, … There were also the basic infrastructure and coaches which produced eminent badminton players such as Noreen Padua, Jessie Philip, and countless others.
For setting up the FACT High School, there came as Principal, Dr KNP Nayar, whose many students at the Doon School would become famous, including one as Prime Minister.
From the world of art and literature, there was M.V. Devan, eminent painter, sculptor, and architect, and T. Padmanabhan, the uncrowned king of Malayalam short story, who has won almost all literary prizes in the language.
For whatever he did, MKK never expected anything in return. When T Padmanabhan once asked him why he was going out of the way helping one particular undeserving person, MKK replied, he is just another fellow traveller, let him also benefit. That also explains why he worked in FACT for an unusually long stint of 12 years, knowing fully well that it was not in the best interests of his career, ignoring suggestions of many like my father that he return to his parent Madras cadre or go back to Delhi. It was also nothing but genuine love for the country that made him turn down offers from the World Bank. An unstinted faith in the public sector also made him refuse offers from private sector giants such as Tata Chemicals.
MKK and Kathakali
MKK’s role in establishing a Kathakali School in FACT was discussed above. My father always believed that MKK’s contribution to Kathakali in the second half of 20th century was on par with or even greater than that of the great Malayalam poet, Vallathol Narayana Menon, in the first half of the century. Vallathol ensured that the art form did not die down, and established Kerala Kalamandalam and the infrastructure for its future growth. MKK secured, for the best exponents of the art form, not only sustained international exposure and recognition, but also financial independence and self-esteem .
MKK also went out of the way to help many kathakali performers personally. My father, who knew about many of them through my maternal grandfather, a doctor and Kathakali fanatic, had warned MKK against helping the undeserving. MKK, of course, ignored such advices. In the case of one such prominent beneficiary, MKK not only got jobs for his wife, daughter, and son-in-law, but also ensured that his house construction near Ernakulam was smoothened by supply of steel and cement inputs at lower than market rates. MKK worked harder than anybody else to ensure that he won national recognition and worldwide fame. My father was not surprised that this famous artiste did not even care to pay his last respects to MKK after his death, even though he was available in Trivandrum. When my father told me this, I couldn’t help remembering Pappu, the one who remained with MKK through thick and thin, living for an unusually long twenty plus years, as worthy of greater respect.
Krishna Menon and MKK
VK Krishna Menon, about whom I had written earlier, and also in this blog, was one of those for whom MKK had unstinted admiration. A few days before Krishna Menon passed away in October 1974, MKK had called on him at his residence near Teen Murti House in New Delhi. MKK had written about this meeting in his memoirs, whose title can be loosely translated as “With Grudge Against None”. Krishna Menon was aware of the cases against MKK. He held MKK’s hands, weakly smiled and said, rather meaningfully, “From the time of Ramayana, our country’s tradition has been to reject the most faithful.” How apt those words were can be gauged from the fate of Krishna Menon himself, who had laid the foundation of the Indian defence sector, and was the Indian face in UK for two and a half decades before independence, almost singlehandedly in charge of turning British public opinion in favour of freeing India.
By way of conclusion
MKK’s soul, wherever it is, I am sure, is happy and content. He might sometimes be looking at those who made him happy, and even those who had troubled him, and laughing away from the depths of his heart, without any grudge or ill-will, ahahaha …
Footnote: In September 1987, after the passing away of MKK, my father had requested me to write an article on him, as he himself was unable to. My father passed away a year and two months later. I am fulfilling that promise given to him 33 years later with this piece, an earlier and much shorter version, written in Malayalam, was published here.
(All photographs are courtesy Gopinath Krishnan, eldest son of MKK Nayar. I am also thankful to him for clarifying certain points. Brief excerpts from MKK’s memoirs titled “Aarodum Paribhavamillate” are from its English Translation by Gopakumar M. Nair, “The Story of an Era Told Without Ill-Will”.)