Cassidy: Arun Kumar, of Silicon Valley’s KPMG office, finds poetry on the human side of the ledger

Mercury News
Interview by Mike Cassidy

Arun Kumar is a battle-tested Silicon Valley executive who can see the beauty in a balance sheet. As a man who tells some of the world’s biggest companies how to go about their business, he can find joy in organizational efficiencies and ever-increasing returns.

It’s all part of the poetry of Silicon Valley, isn’t it?

But Kumar, a partner at accounting and consulting giant KPMG, knows another kind of poetry. A poetry of nature and relationships, of whimsy and wisdom, a poetry of words that can be written on planes or between planes or in the quiet of the evening, but never, ever, on a BlackBerry.

“A poem, for me, is visual,” Kumar says at his Mountain View office. “Seeing it is quite important, so I can’t imagine — on a BlackBerry it’s not the same.”

And for Kumar, there is nothing like seeing his poems where they are now, in a slender volume called “Plain Truths,” which was published by Current Books of India, earlier this year. In it he’s assembled 39 short, taut poems that he wrote over the past 15 years. Most are far removed from his work, which includes running the U.S.-India operation for KPMG.

“The porch light will no longer fight the darkness,
The night latch will, once again,
Secure the door,
And the house
Will shrink
A little
When you leave.”

It’s a farewell to a son off to college. Kumar writes about his love for his wife in a touching poem about kissing in an elevator. He tells the tale of staying in a house in India in a neighborhood where a murderer lives. He gently jabs at precious Palo Alto, playing off the combination of concerns in town over Mogadishu and children’s soccer. (He and his wife, Poornima, live in Los Altos Hills, safely out of range of any hard feelings.

And where does a globe-trotting adviser to the Fortune 500 find time to write poems? Yes, Kumar’s 600 hours in the air this year is a burden and an opportunity. “It’s a fair amount of time that one gets to reflect,” he says.

It’s easy to fall back on preconceived notions about number-crunchers and those who inhabit Silicon Valley’s high-tech business world. They’re all one-dimensional, focused on soulless metrics and next quarter’s results, right?

And then you meet someone like Kumar, a man who studied physics and spends his work life traveling the world and digging into companies to figure out how they can do things better. Oh, and on the side, he writes poetry.

Kumar is a reminder that the valley is full of brilliant minds who use their brilliance to further commerce and technology, but who also have a life beyond the life in their cubicle.

“I enjoy the economy of words of poetry,” Kumar, 57, says. “It’s a medium to me that calls for economy.”

These days it is a far better economy to ponder than the one that has brought the country to its knees. Face it: Silicon Valley is a place that can eat you alive. But Kumar has found a way to nourish his soul amid the hurly-burly that is the pursuit of the next big score. He draws his inspiration from life around him, though not consciously so.
“Some poems are just flying at you and you have to capture it,” he says.

Kumar has loved words since he was a little boy, growing up in Trivandrum, India. His father, who was a meteorologist and mathematician, wrote poetry and shared it with his son. And Kumar, like so many of us, had that one special teacher. His was W.J. McMahon, who taught high school English. It was the way he read poetry to the class, Kumar says, the appreciation, the passion, the joy.

“You have passed on, but not your voice,” Kumar writes in a poem dedicated to his late teacher. “Wilfred Owen’s horrors and the odes of Keats alternate in my ears, as I look before and after.”

Last month, Kumar held a reading for friends, faculty and others at Stanford University. Dr. Abraham Verghese, of the Stanford Medical School and the brother of one of Kumar’s friends, arranged it. Kumar had sent Verghese a manuscript before “Plain Truths” was published. Verghese, author of the best-selling “Cutting for Stone,” gets a lot of that. Usually, Verghese says, he hates it when an acquaintance sends him a book-in-progress. More often than not, they’re simply not very good.

“They’re usually shattered a bit when they come from very successful professions,” he says. “There is often a hubris that goes with it, an assumption that, ‘I’m so accomplished in this other field that everything I write must also be accomplished.’ It’s fraught with danger for me.”

But Kumar’s book? Delightful. Wonderful.

“I was actually quite blown away by it,” Verghese says. “Arun is another kind of genius, sort of very much reflective of his way of seeing the world, beautiful, simple observations.”

All in all, not a bad start. And, oh yes, says Kumar, there will be more.


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