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Case Study: Have You Written Around A Butterfly?

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Suneil Rana read the interview with Muruganantham for the 12th time. Each time he shook his head in wonder. He said to Jagat Gavin, “You know what grabs me again and again is this: how can a guy with no world view, with no education, with no money, with no worldly interaction, etc., achieve so much? What powers him?"

Suneil, Jagat and Suneil’s wife, Visaka were researching for a book on leadership behaviours. They had before them an interview with Muruganantham (aka Muruga), and the freedom in his words intrigued them. What helped him see what nobody else had, was their question.

Jagat: People like us seek ‘business opportunity’. Muruga was looking for a solution to what he thought was wrong and unhygienic. Recall what he said: he always looked for solutions when things were boring or wrong.
Suneil: Yaar, but how do you explain his achievement in the face of no education, or an MBA? His father was a yarn weaver, so that explains his familiarity with yarn and cotton. But this does not become a competitive advantage! Then what explains his finding the need gap as a mere need gap and not an opportunity?
Jagat: Muruga did not find a need gap. He found neglect and he chose to address it. Simple. That’s how he is.
Suneil: It fascinates me that sitting in a small village he was able to visualise for the world! I was browsing some blogs where they talk about Muruga. A young person has said she too had thought of making a difference via women’s hygiene, but felt ‘awkward’. Another said he lacked motivation; yet another blamed the pressure of the Indian education system — the CBSE exams; someone else blamed unsafe society, somebody said, my parents would never allow me to experiment...!
Jagat: Precisely na! There were no boundaries in his life. Nor did he seek to structure it. All he did consciously was watch movies.
Visaka: The other contrast is the city bred has opportunity, maybe a set of wealthy parents, even excellent education, an idea of entrepreneurship and they take the family money and work with an idea. Maybe they have the confidence, the courage, the determination, all that. Father is doing well, is working in a responsible position, moves in healthy social circles.... All these are ingredients that promote entrepreneurship. And the young man decides to invest in a burger franchise. Or make a better burger. Or a bigger burger even...

Luckily I did not get educated, that is what helps me think freely.

Muruga studied at the local municipal school. My school had no walls...  All classrooms were in one long verandah... above was the sky. We lived in the natural world. And therefore, for us, the sky was the limit of anything...
Does the root of Muruganantham’s success lie here?

The moment you study in a classroom, you have a limitation with your imagination. I don’t suffer from that... and have not ever felt limited by thought since my childhood, because I always saw the sky, the moon, the birds, the butterflies even in the middle of my class...
Visaka: So, when a butterfly sat on his book, it was not natural for him to shoo it away.
Suneil: Maybe he wrote around it... Have you written around a butterfly?

But Muruga had a world view that was unique. Whenever you miss nature, you are a common man, ordinary human. Whenever you connect with nature, you have tremendous power.... (laughs). So, was he differentiating  between city and village?
Whether city or village, the mind should connect with nature. That is how the mind becomes expanded. If you become a gold medalist, you are only a lab rat. If you see, the 19th century was full of innovations and innovators. The 20th became speculative and narrow minded, why? Because the 20th century was more mechanised and technology dependant. The 21st is even worse. Narrow minded, studying in a classroom, thinking only what is in a textbook and studying to pass board exams...not enjoying science,but living in fear of the future.

If you think about the future too much, you will not be creative. But all those who score great grades, who get a PhD, they worry about becoming (making that degree prove them) great. The moment you get educated, you begin to worry about your future. Fear is put out with security and money.
Suneil: Only those who have no fear of the future can do the extraordinary, they can break tradition, norms; and they can act when a need arises. They don’t seek the support of the present or the past. They don’t need tradition
to protect them. They have a free mind. Or their mind is unfettered, one sees.

Muruga describes his schooling: There was no limitation, no boundary, no gate. No door. Nothing was locked. Everything was open and available. You had to be disciplined only during lessons; at other times, the sky was the limit. So, even the mind grew like that. Because there was no limitation, no barrier...!
Visaka: So, his schooling — that is all the formal education he had — was boundary-less. He did not build walls that directed movement or thought. He was not looking over his shoulder wondering if his thoughts were appreciated, relevant... neither was he reckless and doing things for a lark.
Suneil: Therefore, again and again one asks, why are there no other Murugananthams? Or how come he who had not gone beyond Coimbatore, how was he able to think about a vast, vast population?
Jagat: It is the way he thought. It is his research, his methodology; his daring to examine a well-researched product, rip it apart and say, “...white substance, made of cotton — oh, my God, that guy is just using a penny value of raw material — inside they are selling for pounds, dollars. Why not make a local sanitary pad for my  wife?” And he went on to understand the essential process of menstruation!
Suneil: I recall way back when I worked for a detergent company in sales, all of us were males and none of us had ever used the detergent or washed a shirt ever to know the usage situation!

....We were never shy about giving the wrong answer. We continuously learnt. If you got more marks, I didn’t  think I got less. I just thought you got better marks. Our teachers also did not ridicule us. I never felt shy to ask the ‘why’ and my teacher also explained patiently. I used to ask, why the butterfly has so many colours. Who is colouring the butterflies?’ She never said, ‘Don’t ask stupid questions’.
Read analysis by Anu Parthasarthy and Kaushik Gopal

Our world was never about who came first in class, how somebody performed, etc. ...we all studied, and we all ran home screaming mindlessly. We were fun loving kids. No pressure upon me to study and become Doctor, Engineer, not even from parents...
Jagat: Was it because his parents could not afford to dream? Or they did not think they had to design Muruga’s dreams?
Those days, no, even today, people of my village simply lived. Just lived and worked. Livelihood was for food, a small place to live. My parents used to watch plenty of MGR movies and take me also. Our outlook was, life should have a happiness. And we found happiness from movies!”
Jagat: I see what he is saying. We seek satisfaction and joy from work. For us, happiness is in accomplishing. His world separated fun and work. Fun was fantasy. Work was work — to live!
Suneil: Another thing he said was this wanting to be like another is also a limitation we put on ourself. We want to become. As a result, we do not allow our potential to express, instead we superimpose another ideal or idol on our mind. This ‘originality’ theory is his guiding force. But fabulous lode star!

Muruganantham is an original piece, not a copy of anybody. Why do people not want to be like themselves? People are given idols to copy and be like. No university across the world, teaches this! I have travelled to Harvard, JFK school, MIT and everywhere I used to ask them, have you found a second person like you anywhere ? How many of you know your uniqueness?

Muruganantham was always proud of his uniqueness. As a child he would stand before the mirror and would say, ‘Hello, Muruganantham! Happy to meet you!’

I never compared myself with Rajini (kanth) or Kamal Hassan...the beauty is they also cannot compare with anybody! Is there not a reason why each one is unique? Why are you trying to be like the fellow next to you?... then, who will be like you?!”
Visaka: All we have to explain his glory, are these thoughts. Does then the difference lie in our perceptions? Muruga’s view of the world was all of nature; his classroom or home were mere superimpositions on that. Whereas we grow up seeing the world through the perception of a cameraman — on TV, on our mobile screen, on our laptops... Therefore, because of all this wanting to be like someone or become someone, are we missing our own inner uniqueness in the process? Does that explain?
Jagat: I think, the way he looks at the world is different and there lies all answers. The world his mind projected was not a world that he wanted to grab from. It was a world that he was charmed by. It promoted peace. It was not competitive or ruthless. He did not want to compete with anything, because he did not want to become something, he did not worry about what will happen tomorrow.

Muruga’s father, a weaver, died in a road accident when Muruga was barely 12. His mother gradually sold all personal effects and finally she became a farm worker for a wage of Rs 5 a day. But in all this, Muruga’s view of his mother is captivating. He reminds us that she had also been brought up on Tamil movies!

So, she thought that like the Tamil heroine she can make her son and daughters into lawyers and doctors out of her Rs 5 per day wages! This is what movies do to you. By then I was 13-14, I realised that what she is attempting is impossible.
Visaka: There would have been no point telling her that, as she was mesmerised by the grit of Sowcar Janaki and K.R. Vijaya and likely tucked her sari tighter in determination.

But every day she would drink water and go to sleep and I would say what nonsense, how many days can she survive on water! So, I stopped my schooling and became a workshop helper, in a roadside ‘petty kadai’ somewhere...

My job was to fetch beedis for my maaliks.. I was 14 years old. Sometimes I also had to rescue my maalik, who would fall on the roadside after consuming arrack; somebody would come and call me and I would support him on my shoulder to his house. One day, the maalik vomitted and I was asked to wash him... This kind of living did not make sense to me. So, I decided to look for something else...
Jagat: But it did prepare him for the future. What I see is that he did what was needed, for today has to be lived. Tomorrow would take care of itself. That freedom in the mind is what lets the mind fly. Dream the impossible for greater good... .
Visaka: So, where are we getting? How does this explain his abilities?
Muruga’s mother thought he disliked studying, hence he dropped out of school. Even today she thinks so and tells the media reporters, ‘See, with small education what he has done, if he had studied ... then?’ No food, no money, nothing.... what will we do with empty ambition!’ (Muruga laughs).

But Mother also thought Muruga was in bad company. I used to hang out with shepherd boys, looking after their goat and sheep. Mother called those my collection of bad boys. I wanted to know how they controlled 200 sheep...what sounds they spoke to the cattle...I used to stay with them, eat their food. And when I would return she would wash me down with water because I was in such company.
Suneil: This is my take: He experienced everything that he encountered without inhibition. Curious. Inquisitive. Carried no baggage. Happiness is his underlying emotion. He learnt as he lived.
Visaka: That’s it. He observed, he chose to know. His mind was open to knowing. He could have chosen to remain on the periphery; but he wanted to know. This is what lay behind his venturing into female hygiene and not think of it as ‘Oh no! Not my matter!’
Whereas it is common for a man to say some very powerful male thing like, ‘I don’t know how to buy a sari’, and enact a silly helplessness. This is why India has not one organisation that manufactures kitchen accessories like Pampered Chef does, like Crate & Barrel, like King Arthur Flour, like Progressive, like Tupperware. These are organisations that understand the needs of cooks and kitchens, hence of women.

In India, since the kitchen is a woman’s domain traditionally, and since women have been sidelined mostly, their area of work/ life is also sidelined. That explains the ignorance and indifference (and silly helplessness) surrounding sanitary napkins.
Jagat: Makes sense....

India’s GDP is linked to sanitary napkins. Provide personal hygiene to women and they will all come out and work. But you charge Rs 200 per month for hygiene. So, these women use rags and sit in a dark corner at home. That is why I am now working with school girls, since 23 per cent of girls drop out of school once they start menstruating. I am teaching young school girls to make sanitary napkins, I will empower them!
Jagat: This is true leadership, one that empowers the larger community! Think: we have health, we have wealth, we have education, we have comfort, we have safety, yet we manufacture personal hygiene — a necessity – for only the elite rich. Like fire extinguishers or toilet cleaners. Muruganantham had no education, no wealth, no comfort, no safety, nothing, yet he is able to spin a web of wonder and bring excellent personal hygiene for women... how? 

Read analysis by Anu Parthasarthy and Kaushik Gopal

(This story was published in BW | Businessworld Issue Dated 25-08-2014)