At the age of 22, in 1985, after graduating in Commerce, he left his home because his father gave him an ultimatum: either join as a clerk in the school where he had studied in his village in Kerala, and where his father was a teacher, or leave home.
“I opted to leave because I didn’t want to work as a clerk in the village school. I left my village in Oachira, which is on the border of Kollam and Alleppey,” says Jayantha Kumar, from RC Karunagapally in Kerala. As charity is his passion, he recently joined Rotary and has become an Arch Klumph Society member.
Leaving home, he went to Jamshedpur, and struggled for a while to find a good job and finally settled for one in a printing press at a Rs 10 salary per day! “It had no power supply, so I had to manually operate the machine, lifting my arms up and down, getting one copy or receipt at a time. I had to print 10,000 of them every day,” smiles Kumar, as we chat at the reception level of the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, where Kumar owns and lives in an apartment on the 64th floor.
I was fascinated by RID Manoj Desai’s theme — Nothing is Impossible. The same thought struck in my head when I was 10. I suppose that is why I am sitting in Burj Khalifa today!
From the Rs 10 a day income to living in one of the most iconic buildings in the world is an interesting journey. He stayed on at the Jamshedpur press for four months, and then got a job at the Kwality ice creams in the city, at a monthly salary of Rs 300.
He worked there for a year as a clerk, and recently visited Jamshedpur and “saw the typewriting machine on which I had worked in 1985, met my colleagues and the owner of the company. He came to the airport to receive me, put me up in his house and he is going to gift me that typewriter the next time I go to Jamshedpur,” grins Kumar.
After a year, he was transferred to Kwality ice creams in Chennai at a salary of Rs 550. After seeing his performance for a year, “the MD of the company said why don’t you start your own ice cream parlour? He gave me the franchise, helped me further with a deep freezer and other equipment and I started a parlour in Chromepet in Chennai.” Slowly he expanded and gradually under him, 20 Kwality ice cream shops were established.
One day, he saw an ad on for some products of a company and took up the distributorship for South Chennai. Twice he gave them advance money and got the products. But the third time, when he had given Rs 2.45 lakh as advance, a big amount in 1987, he was cheated. “The owners disappeared and my capital of Rs 2.45 lakh, a lot of money for me then, was wiped away. I was devastated.”
As a child, I keenly observed that my mother, a simple village housewife, would feed at least 4 to 5 people every day. And we were not rich; my father was just a school teacher.
Totally broke, he confided in the MD of Kwality and “told him please take back whatever you have given me, because I have been cheated. He said I will allow you credit, please continue. But I said no, I’ve been cheated in Chennai and don’t want to stay here anymore.”
Not wanting to return to Kerala without a job, he got a job next as a medical representative at a salary for Rs 3,400. “This was in 1987; I was happy and worked here for two years.” In less than a year he got promoted as manager “as I always exceeded the targets given to me.”
He was sent to Mumbai for a meeting and there he saw an ad for a job in Saudi Arabia, appeared for the interview and was selected.
Kumar left for Saudi Arabia in 1989 and worked there for seven years. “I slowly built up capital and started my own business in medical rehabilitation and today I have eight companies in Dubai, three in the US and four in India.”
We are chatting on the sidelines of the Dubai Zone Institute dinner at the Armani Pavilion at the Burj Khalifa. Without much ado, and any fuss or fluster, Kumar sends up at least 100 Rotarians, in small batches, to the 123rd floor of the world’s tallest building. In three days he has done this gesture for over 300 Rotarians! As a resident, he has access to the 123rd floor. We go up the superfast elevator in style, without any entry ticket, and much better, waiting in long queues.
His business empire extends across different sectors in medical rehabilitation, manpower recruitment, artificial limbs, tourism, garbage chute manufacturing and erection of high rise buildings.
When asked about his meteoric growth, he says, “I was fascinated by RI Director Manoj Desai’s theme for the Dubai Institute — Nothing is Impossible. Actually, exactly this same thought struck in my head when I was only 10 and studied about Napoleon Bonaparte who said “nothing is impossible”. I suppose that is why I am sitting in Burj Khalifa today!” In cold print, this might sound like hubris, but there is no hubris in that statement, because of the simple manner in which it is made. Even today you can see the Kerala boy in the business tycoon.
On the challenges he faced while building up his business empire, Kumar says simply, “No, there are no challenges if you want to do anything in life. You go about doing things with an honest outlook and work hard. I can tell you from experience that this (Dubai) is the best place if you have integrity and are willing to work hard.”
About the iconic Burj Khalifa, Kumar says that it has a total of 900 apartments, less than 250 occupied. “In 2010 I bought an apartment here. Not only that; in 2006, I purchased shares of the RVSM High School and became the Manager of that school, where my father wanted to make me a clerk in 1986! And he was so happy.” Adds Kumar, “He came twice or thrice to Dubai, but loved living in our native place. For 17 years, I’ve gone every week to Kerala from Dubai to meet my father.”
On what cars he drives, he says disarmingly, “I don’t drive here, I don’t have the driving license for Dubai! But I have a Range Rover, a Benz, BMW, a Beetle (Volkswagon). I am very fond of cars and have five of them in my village in Kerala.” There he has built a palatial villa designed after the Travancore Palace.
But what really defines the essential Kumar is his vision on charity, something that made him join Rotary and motivated him to give to TRF… give enough to become an AKS member. “Right from childhood, my father taught me that whatever we have, we must share with those who are less fortunate than us. As a child, I keenly observed that my mother, a simple village housewife, would feed at least 4 to 5 people every day. And we were not rich; my father was just a school teacher.”
Having grown up in such a background, Kumar gives “pension” to some 500 people in his village, has constructed more than 40 houses for the needy, and has given scholarships to “thousands of children. Helping others is something that my father taught me from a very young age, and my mother too, through example. I pray to god that loka samasta sukhino bhavantu (the whole world should live peacefully and happily).”
That takes me to the next question. Is he a religious man? “Of course yes, I believe in God. For the last 24 years, I’ve been doing the Udayasthamana Pooja at Sabarimalai from morning to night, which I have booked for 50 years.
I am the luckiest man to do that.”
He invites my colleague K Vishwanathan, who is photographing him, and who is a great Ayyappa devotee, to join him next year. “You can stand with me in front of the Sreekovil and pray there.” A major donor at Sabarimalai, “I brought 41 MPs from the Parliamentary Public Accounts Committee for the development of Sabarimalai and was the first person who started free feeding or annadanam in Sannidhanam.”
Kumar also worships every month at the Guruvayur temple. “I always pray to god to give me both good health and life; if I have these two, I can help other people. Every night, I pray loka samasta sukhino bhavantu.”
So what more does he want to do on the charity front? “Through Rotary, I am going to start a drive against cancer. I lost my mother (53), elder brother (55) and mother-in-law (52) to cancer. Along with Rotary, I plan to start a palliative cancer care facility in my village in Kerala,” he says.
He also works with other charitable organisations and his wife Sindhu supports him totally.
“Both my daughters Amritha and Aswathi have been taught to give to the less fortunate; birthdays and wedding anniversary we celebrate with orphan children,” he adds.
Pictures by K Vishwanathan