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Case Study: The Game Changer From Pappanaicken Pudur

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Jagat Gavin was amazed. his eyes followed the man in the brown checkered shirt walking around the huge convention centre, his eyes watching, observing. Everything about this man was nondescript. Arunachalam Muruganantham could have been anybody on any street in any city or village of India and you would not have given him a second glance.

Yet, here was the man who had given talks at Harvard and MIT, wowing audiences with his invention — a very low-cost sanitary napkin to bring hygiene into the lifestyle of the rural woman — which was breathtaking more because it made everyone, everywhere in the world ask the same question: Dammit, how come we did not think of this?

What was it about this man? Suneil Rana, Gavin’s friend and co-associate at the research school, said, “There is something about him and it is not in his actions. It is in his perception....”

Jagat, Suneil and Visaka — Suneil’s wife — were researching for a book on leadership behaviour. What made for leadership? Was it about leading or the leader? What was it that accounted for some leaders being able to make huge wins for mankind? They had sought to look at it from the angle of accident, design and heredity but none explained Muruganantham’s case. So, was there a fourth explanation? The clinical verdict so far was that study and discipline helped develop skills and mindset to engineer change that was needed for better communities, better workplaces, better teams too. So, there were  leaders who worked for the betterment of victims of human trafficking, child abuse, etc.

Jagat: Fair, but this man defies all protoypes. In one sweep, he has lifted mankind several notches by providing not just an affordable napkin but by shifting the world perception: he has now forced them to know about female hygiene issues, face it, than cringe in ignorance. No more is the world flat....!

Presently, there stood on the stage the man himself: Arunachalam Muruganantham. He was going to tell a 3,300-strong audience of suits and ties the story of his invention — of how he came to develop an affordable sanitary napkin for the rural woman who had only used rags, straw or mud. All because she needed that money to buy food for the family.

Muruga (as he was known to friends) had all along used the help of an interpreter who would translate his Tamil. But at the last talk he gave at a B-school, the drama in his words was lost in translation. The audience had been unmoved.

Today, he was facing an even larger audience. He recognised faces like Ratan Tata, Narayana Murthy... after the last talk Muruga had decided he would speak without an interpreter. And he was not going to let his convenors know...

Muruga was dressed in spartan clothes. He was in cotton trousers and a plain shirt, which he had not even tucked in. Jagat smiled. He wrote: Mind over matter...

Muruga always spoke extempore, from the heart, depending on the audience mix. He had said once: ‘When you tell me the audience is IIT grads, I know how to talk to them. Why do I have to prepare? I know why I did what I did and what I am going to do.... I know all that! What is there to prepare?”

When the microphone was pinned to his collar, Muruga told his audience, “for the next 23 minutes, I am going to speak wrong English...’ A titter ran through the audience. And he began, “So, I tried to do a small good thing for my wife. It makes me stand here....” He spoke non-stop, much to the chagrin of his stunned conveners who were distressed that Muruga, the Tamilian with a limited English vocabulary and no grammar, had no written speech.

Muruga’s English was sweet even if grammatically damaged. He wrapped his colloquial Tamil thoughts in his survival English, in an accent that was a challenge, and the idiom that he delivered was devastatingly endearing. Such as: “On that occasion, I found my wife carrying something like this. (He demonstrates...) “What is that?” I asked. My wife replied, “None of your business.”

The audience was in love with this man. Oh, no, not because of some false city sense of charitable disposition to the villager, but because in his simplicity, lay God. Suddenly, every soul was awakened. Muruga was not talking kindness or love or brotherhood....none of the stuff that causes professionals to shudder. He was simply cutting the chaff of management jargon, what Victor Hugo would have called, ‘the language of misery’, and saying it as it was.

In some places the audience laughed, in some places they applauded... when he finished, Muruga unclipped his mike, placed it on the table and left the stage with a ‘Bye’!

As the audience broke for tea, Visaka tried to get figures for rural per capita income, and scoffed angrily at the figure of $1,219 (Rs 80,000). “This is such a misleading figure!”

Jagat: Yes, it includes total population in the denominator that includes the unemployed too. And if we still get
Rs 80,000, then that reflects the super rich.

Suneil: So, what makes Muruga a winner? He is a school dropout-turned-welder. How is he at Harvard and the IITs and IIMs?

Muruga was a welder. He made windows and grills. He hated monotony and lack of imagination. He had seen that all window grills were boringly geometric in pattern. So, a bored Muruga stared at the kolam patterns on the street across his workshop, and twisted his iron bars to deliver peacocks and dancing birds.

Jagat: This may well be the software in his inner self that permits him to chase the unusual and the out of the box with ease. Set patterns are not for him. This is part of his wiring.

Innovative? Resolution? I did not know these words, said Muruga. Always I do something and then I find it has a name in English.

That was how, if something was monotonous, if something needed to change, he sought to change it. That was his nature.

That was how when one day he saw his wife Shanti carry a rag with her, covertly, he instantly gleaned what she was up to; and even if she had sweetly told him ‘not your business’, Muruga would one day be in the thick of such a business. His mind began to work towards resolving this.

Suneil: Look at his life plan, it is interesting. From dealing with iron and windows how did he move to sanitary hygiene? Both windows and hygiene are protection givers, one may say.

Visaka: But sanitary napkins is an area that does not concern him at all. Technically. Even today, men do not know the facts about women’s hygiene needs. Whatever ads we have for sanitary napkins are so convoluted and unnecessarily brave, attempting thereby to liberate the woman, an undercurrent of ignorance and denial is seen when ads and brands look at the ‘period’ as bondage, as binding, as burden. Menstruation is a part of being female. Managing it well and not wishing it away is freedom. Liberation is not attained by naming the napkin ‘Liberation’! But by naming the napkin with liberation words or secretive words (Stayfree, Freedom, Whisper) you have already made the woman feel she is a victim of shame who needs freeing!

But a period is not a problem. It is the attitude to it, since times immemorial, largely owing to a male-gaze-dominant world that felt hindered by menstruation, that lent it the aura of disgusting and shameful. Yes, it has attendant difficulties like cramps, pain, exhaustion. But that has nothing to do with ‘disgusting’.
That was how she was declared untouchable...! (Jagat and Suneil heard her intently as she continued...)

The modern world thinks that by changing how we think about the monthly period, the woman will start enjoying it...The very idea causes one to shudder. Yet, that is what leads to choking tag lines like: Have a happy period!

Jagat: Did Muruganantham think women were unhappy? That will be interesting to know...

Visaka: Women don’t feel unhappy or disgusted only because, in a fertile phase of 40 years roughly, they endure this some 400 times. But women who do not have the means to manage it are unhappy with the suffering caused by infections that are unbearable. Yet, it was shameful to think about it, talk about it and one was considered uncouth if one talked about it. Even women refer to their cycle by constructs like Chums, Curse, Aunty Mary, Ladybug.... fun but covert.

Of course, the politeness is necessary and appreciated, but when seen in the backdrop of a world where the menstrual cycle is considered dirty and stomach churning... one sees that the fertility of a woman is also shunned, hidden, never spoken of. Male gaze leads to dominance leads to ignorance leads to sub-optimality.

Suneil: I pulled out this data from an ACNielsen report to the Indian government. The numbers speak loudly and I wonder what happens with reports like these. It says that of the 355 million menstruating women in India, only 12 per cent use sanitary napkins! In contrast, look at another report that says that in a country of 1.2 billion, the number of Brand X cola drinkers is not enough; considering how high its potential is, Brand X is going to invest $5.5 million by 2020.

Visaka: While 88 per cent women resort to methods that are unhygienic, extrapolate and you get the health bill cost. Factor in the gender bias in Indian homes and you get neglect of female healthcare. Extrapolate again and you have reasonable numbers for female deaths. Poor menstrual hygiene leads to fungal infections, and infections of the reproductive and urinary tracts, which can lead to cervical cancer. So, ‘Save the Girl Child’ includes meeting her hygiene needs!

Jagat: How did Muruganantham, a man from a really small village, choose to think of women’s hygiene, a topic that does not go with beer and peanuts?

Muruga went beyond thought to action. Researching sanitary napkins sitting in a small hamlet village, Papanaicken Pudur, and yet producing meaningful understanding to deliver what he did, is stunning. Given the secrecy and embarrassment surrounding the monthly cycle, Muruga first examined the product itself, then its contents, then slaved over a prototype, then approached college students to sample the product, annoyed his wife who left him, then worse followed. He told them to return the used napkins so he could study the product delivery. And the day his mother saw the horrific pile of napkins in the backyard, she likely covered her mouth lest her shock be heard by neighbours, but the lady gathered her two saris and left home.

Visaka: I have heard that the villagers too got annoyed and claiming he was possessed by evil spirits — not unusual for a village — they asked him to leave the village too.

Suneil: What we need to see is, this is the kind of pressure he dealt with. Would anyone who is ostracised by his home, his family, etc., be capable of pursuing his goal? We are all too fat with our comfort that is why we can’t see the courage in his efforts.

What makes it unbelievable is that Muruganantham began experimenting with it on his self so as to come to grips with the essential nature of this product. How can one get that intense? Now, this is a fine product developer. It can be seen that he was not in it for commerce, but he was seeking to fill a need gap that was neglected because sanitary napkins that peddled for Rs 80 for a pack of 7 was a foolish expenditure for the village woman who could make that Rs 80 go a long, long way for the family.

What is sad is not that the woman sacrificed. What is sad is that sanitary hygiene, when it was first developed, was done so with commerce and profits in view. When variants came, it grew even more pathetic as the billowing middle class grew into an attractive market segment. Then came sprightly looking girls wanting to play tennis and being worried that their taffeta and cambric clothes would get stained.

Improved variants now let her wear whites fearlessly; elsewhere, a similar upper class anxiety with dandruff gave birth to a meaningless shampoo  that let you wear blacks fearlessly. And such dull goals occupied product innovation departments.

Meanwhile the sanitary napkin grew sophisticated and slimmer. Fantastic innovative preoccupation while prices remained unattainable! Presently, they were creating commercials that got mothers and girls to mouth the P word with a pout.

Muruganantham, like a true Gandhian, decided to clean the toilet himself, in a manner of speaking. He fitted himself with animal blood in a hip pouch and discovered the horror of female fertility.

Jagat: And that is what helped him understand the problem from scratch. Has any detergent salesperson asked to see the clothes after a wash and been able to assess a poor wash? Have they wondered why despite their fantastic vibrating molecules and educated enzymes women still give the clothes a scrub with their hands?
Muruganantham may not have known of the details of women’s health issues related to poor hygiene, but he knew that a subtle coping strategy was evolving around and among women, so that they stayed isolated for the three days, did not work then to save energy in an already dissipated state, stayed indoors to ward off any environmental infection. But this also meant the little girl stopped schooling when she attained puberty. So, Muruganantham said he would now also empower the adolescent girl so that she grew up with solutions for hygiene and not strategies. This would change her whole world view.

Jagat: We have copious statistics on women mortality, health issues, everything. But it took a man from a village to change the fate of women from victim to winner! 
To be continued...

Read Analysis By: Anuradha Parthasarathy & Kaushik Gopal

(This story was published in BW | Businessworld Issue Dated 11-08-2014)