The Other I

March 10, 2014

What does genius look like?

It is amazing sometimes how ordinary extraordinary people look.  Sometimes they even look like outstanding failures.  Churchill was a miserable student, Einstein’s teachers thought he was lazy, sloppy, and insubordinate.  Bill Gates dropped out of Harvard, Thomas Edison’s teacher told him he was “too stupid to learn anything.”  Walt Disney was once fired from a job because he had no imagination.   Beethoven’s music teacher said that as a composer, he was hopeless.

Here in Cambridge, England, a hot-house of geniuses, one learns not to presume.  That man in the wheel chair making his way across the greens might be Stephen Hawking.  But many other extraordinary men are not so easily recognized.  In fact, they might even be women.  But the ordinariness of greatness is not just true in Cambridge or Silicon Valley or other places where known geniuses gather.

I have just read what may be my all-time favourite story of the sheer doggedness that I think explains why genius so often looks like failure to us ordinary folk.  There is a self-determination that comes from within and that refuses to be daunted by society’s prosaic standards of success.

Arunachalam Muruganantham was a school dropout from a poor family in southern India.  He did not develop the vaccine that eliminated small pox, or that can prevent polio or aids or malaria.  He developed a machine that women can use to make cheap sanitary pads.  Since poor menstrual hygiene causes some 70% of all reproductive diseases in India and an unknown number of maternal deaths, it matters to a lot of families.

But not only was Muruganantham a school dropout.  He risked his family, his money, and his reputation in the process.   They thought he was crazy, that he himself was suffering from some bizarre sexual disease, and should be ostracized.  Nobody, but nobody, believed in the truth or value of what he was doing.

Shortly after he was married in 1998, he discovered the filthy rags his wife used during menstruation.  When he asked her why, she said she wouldn’t be able to afford to buy milk or run the household  if she bought sanitary pads.  Later he learned that along with rags that they were too embarrassed to disinfect by drying in the sun, women also used other substances like sand, sawdust, and leaves.

So Muruganantham decided to buy his wife some sanitary pads.   That’s when he found out that pads themselves cost 40 times more than the 1/2 oz of cotton out of which they were made cost.  He decided he could make the pads cheaper himself.  The problem — well, one problem anyway – was that he could not get women to test out his pads.  So he decided he would have to test the pads on himself .  He created a source of bleeding by punching holes in a football bladder and fillin it with goat’s blood.  Then he went about the daily activities of life constantly pumping blood to test his pad’s absorption.  

Villagers believed he was a pervert, or possessed by evil spirits.  He avoided being chained upside down to a tree by agreeing to leave the village.  His wife and mother had already left him.

It took four and a half years before he finally discovered the process required to make sufficiently absorbent pads.  The machines cost thousands of dollars.  So he set about designing his own.

And that is the gift he is giving to India.  The machine is simple and affordable, and not only provides hygienic sanitary pads for India’s women.  It also provides a source of income for thousands of women who can now make and sell them to others.

Muruganantham stands next to his invention in a still from the documentary Menstrual Man

A year after he had made the first machine, someone entered it into a national innovation competition.  It came out first among 943 entries.  The award he received from India’s president put him in the limelight, and is helping to sell the machines.  It also redeemed him in the eyes of his wife, his mother, and the village which had ostracized him.

The machine could make Muruganantham a rich man.  But that’s not what he wants.  People don’t die of poverty, he says.  They die of ignorance.  That’s what he wants to change.

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2 Comments »

  1. Amazing perseverance and what a boon! Thanks for sharing.

    There were other projects too – a more efficient design of a bullock cart that is easy on the animals, an energy efficient wood-burning stove, an inexpensive way to purify drinking water, grow vegetables as side crops, design of building walls to reduce heat inside, etc. etc. Unfortunately don’t hear about their adoption on large scale.

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    Comment by tskraghu — March 11, 2014 @ 1:00 am | Reply

    • The examples you give sound like support for Muruganantham’s view that so often it is not poverty that kills us but our ignorance. Stephen Hawking has said that the greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance but the illusion of knowledge. And Abraham Maslow believed that overcoming the fear of knowledge was one of our deepest challenges.

      Sometimes, of course, it is a question of education. But that is not the core of it, nor necessarily does education overcome this fear. But what is the basis of our fear of knowing? confusion? the humiliation of being wrong? the realization that the very meaning we have given to the universe and our lives within it might not be right? Buddhism with its initial simplicity and lack of dogma seems to be less prone to this fear than other great religions. But I’m not sure that is an accurate perception of my part, socialized as I was as a Roman Catholic. My view of Buddhism is quite incomplete.

      Comment by Terry Sissons — March 11, 2014 @ 6:49 am | Reply


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