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I believe the highest kind of love is that which makes life easier, better for the loved one. Something that menstrual man Arunachalam Muruganabtham has shown he has for his wife.
Think romantic love, the “legendary” kind, and you are likely to think of star crossed lovers immortalized by glorious words of poets and writers.
You might think of “Romeo and Juliet”. Four hundred years ago when he wrote it, Shakespeare wouldn’t have imagined his tragic characters would turn into archetypal lovers.
The Indian subcontinent boasts of numerous sagas of star crossed lovers, who died in love. Heer Ranjha, Laila Majnu, Sohni Mahiwal, Saasi Punnu, Mirza Sahibaan …timeless tales, many of which have been adapted into plays and movies and enchanted people since generations.
There is also the universally admired monument of love, the Taj Mahal, built by Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan in the memory of his beloved wife Mumtaz.
The modern-day movies seem to convey that love is synonymous with glamour — perfectly chiselled bodies draped in designer wear, diamonds, gifts, destination weddings, surreal proposals in heavenly locales, chocolates — Ah marketers, you’ve really got this one down!
But move over, all of the above — for we finally have a real, true love story — and it is the world’s greatest! Not because it is made appealing by poetic verses that could pierce a mortal’s heart. It does not need a monument such as the Taj to be remembered. And more importantly it is not about “dying in love”. It is about living in love — something far more difficult than Shakespearean tragedies would make us believe.
He is a poor mechanic, a school dropout who has barely studied upto 8th grade. Shanthi is the love of his life — love arranged through the quintessential Indian arranged marriage. But, love nevertheless. Newly married and smitten with his wife, he follows her around all the time!
One day, he sees her carrying something, trying to hide it from him. He chases her as usual, and finds that it is a dirty rag — so dirty that he wouldn’t even “clean his two-wheeler with it”. He forces her to tell what it is. It is what his wife uses as a sanitary pad during her periods. He is appalled to see that his beloved has to put up with such poor hygiene. He wants to know why she does not use the nice sanitary pads they showed on TV, the ones women in white clothes use and dance around in.
She tells him the pads cost as much as their household milk budget. They cannot afford to buy the sanitary napkins, the one they showed those beautiful women on TV use.
He starts saving money to buy sanitary pads for Shanthi. Finally when he buys it and when he touches a sanitary napkin for the first time, he can’t understand why that mix of cotton and cloth should cost so much.
He cannot bear to see his beloved use a dirty rag because the pads are so expensive. He wants to bring her comfort on those difficult days. So he sets off on a mission — to find out what makes a good, affordable sanitary napkin.
His journey is fraught with challenges — financial, physical and emotional. He is ostracised by his entire village for working on a product which no one could care less about. His mother thinks he is possessed by demons when he gathers used sanitary napkins in order to understand “product design”. The love of his life is held back by her inhibitions and unable to help him in his research. So he wears the sanitary napkin himself — to understand customer requirements and design a product accordingly.
It takes him 6 years and innumerable hardships — but he finally invents, not just a good quality, low cost napkin but also a low cost machine to make affordable sanitary napkins. He wins the battle to ensure health and hygiene for the love of his life.
They don’t just live happily ever after… they make their life kingsize.
Together, they set up a venture that gives the machine to rural women’s self help groups to make the lives of poor rural women easier. And he and Shanthi make many others live happily ever after.
Pardon my non-poetic rendition of this amazing love story. But this is one story that doesn’t need help from a poet’s verses to make it immortal. Just the opposite, it needs to be told as raw as it is, as real as it gets, to fathom what it truly stands for.
In India, a large number of menstruating women often cannot afford sanitary napkins or don’t have access to other hygienic ways to manage their periods. When you go to buy sanitary pads, the shopkeeper wraps the pack in a newspaper, secures it with a thread and then covers it in an opaque carry bag — you would think you are smuggling arms, not buying a pad to manage the most natural body process. How women are supposed to hide and dispose off used sanitary napkins could put CIAs covert operations to shame. Where talking of menstruation is a taboo, here was a man not willing to accept that his wife cannot afford a sanitary napkin and has to use dirty rags for the rest of her life. And so he worked relentlessly to find a way — to create a product that he had no idea how to use. But he did not give up.
He didn’t kill himself, like Romeo did.
He didn’t go mad, like Majnu did.
He didn’t drown like Mahiwal.
He persisted to ensure a life of dignity for his beloved. He is Arunachalam Muruganatham, aka The Menstrual Man.
You can hear the man himself in this Ted Talk.
How he succeeded in a venture without external funding, with little idea of a product-you-can’t-talk-about — its required features and usability criteria, how he built and distributed it amidst taboos… it is a journey driven by love and passion, and ripe with lessons in starting up and entrepreneurship. Today he rubs shoulders with the likes of Bill Gates and Barack Obama, was Times magazine’s one of the 100 Most Influential People in the World and is the first man in the world to wear a sanitary napkin.
A recent Hindi Movie hit song has the man serenading his lady love with words like
“Ban ja tu meri rani, tannu mahal dawa doonga…
Shah Jahan main hoon tera, tannu Mumtaz bana doonga”
“Be my Queen, I’ll give you a palace…
I am your Shah Jahan, I’ll make you my Mumtaz”
Shah Jahan (and millions of others like the lyricist of this song) might have thought that the Taj Mahal, built in memory of Mumtaz Mahal is the greatest ode to undying love by any man on earth. Who wouldn’t want to be that girl, you’d think?
Well… Mumtaz got married at the age of 19 and was one of Shahjahan’s five wives. She died at 38, because of postpartum haemorrhage while giving birth to their fourteenth child. She bore 14 children in their 19 years of marriage! Sure, love is blind, and perhaps the great emperor missed seeing any signs of a body weakened by successive pregnancies. The woman who lived in that body might have been invisible too. Or perhaps she was nothing more than her body to him? Who would want to be that girl, you’d think?
If that was love, then the world must have plenty of it. We are bursting at the seams of this planet at a turbo charged 7.6 billion!
What is the point when you say you love someone, but you cannot see them, their struggles, the pain behind their unspoken words. Sometimes, a poor, uneducated, 8th class dropout can see more than a poet, writer, or an emperor. Beyond what those of us with privileged lives often miss…
At times when it feels like a world devoid of empathy, where the purpose of love is to possess and own, rare stories like that of Arunachalam Muruganantham redefine what true meaning of love is. And it is these stories that must be shared and spread and celebrated.
I’m not looking for somebody
With some superhuman gifts
Some fairy tale bliss
Just something I can turn to
Somebody I can kiss
I want something just like this…
Yup, just that kind of love.
A version of this was first published here.
Image source: YouTube
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