Villagers saw him cleaning his undergarments stained with goat blood and thought he had a sexual disease. But Arunachalam Muruganantham was only trying to make a smart, cheap sanitary pad for his wife
I am perhaps the only man to have ever worn a sanitary napkin. I am the only man who understands what a woman endures during those days. The wetness. The discomfort. The constant fear of stains. It’s like walking around dragging a heavy chain tied around your feet.
It is my dream to make India a 100 per cent sanitary napkin-using nation. Did you know there are parts of the country where women use leaves during their periods? There are others for whom I had to create a langot-style napkin because they don’t wear panties. I call my mission the triple A—availability, affordability, and, the most important, awareness. Surely, you’ve noticed that most advertisements for sanitary napkins focus only on comfort—women running and jumping with not a care in the world. But who speaks to women of hygiene?
Yet, not too long ago, I myself knew nothing even of menstrual cycles.
I was still in school in Pappanaicken village in Pudur when my father died, leaving my mother, a housekeeper, to look after me and my two sisters. For some time, we got by selling things from the house—the jewellery, utensils, my father’s cycle, his loom. When there was nothing left to sell, I dropped out of school and became a farm worker. Alongside, though, I would constantly come up with small business ideas to support the family, such as supplying packed food to factory workers. Later, I became a helper at a welding workshop, where my designs for window and gate grills became hugely popular. And not long after, I had my own welding workshop.
I was 25 when I married in 1992. One day, six years after, I was watching television in our small two-room house when I noticed Shanti, my wife, walk past, carrying something surreptitiously behind her back. When I asked her what she had in her hands, she just replied brusquely, “It’s none of your business.” I looked anyway—it was a piece of rag. I understood. But what an unhygienic method. There are sanitary napkins in the market, I told her. She shot back, “I know, I too watch TV. But if all of us women in the house start using sanitary napkins, we won’t even be able to afford milk.” I was stunned.
And curious. I felt compelled to see what a sanitary napkin was all about. I went to the local chemist and asked for a packet. The people behind the counter sniggered about a new husband being sent off on such a mission even as I observed the packet being wrapped out of sight in a newspaper. That was the first time I saw, touched a sanitary napkin. I felt elated. This was so simple, just a piece of cotton. I felt sure I could replicate it. It was so light too, about 10 gm. I calculated that it probably cost manufacturers not more than 15 paise to make a single napkin. People were being looted.
That’s when I decided to make a low cost sanitary napkin for my wife.
I got cotton wool from one of the local mills. This, I cut into a rectangular shape and wrapped in a viscose cloth. Now I needed a woman to test it out, and who better than my wife. Excited, I told her I had something to show her. Handing her the napkin, I asked her to use it and give me feedback. I expected that she would go and put it on then and there. But she only laughed, and told me I would have to wait a few days.
I didn’t know then that periods come in cycles. It’s only now that I’m aware that some women get periods twice a month, and that is a problem. Growing up, I only knew that my two sisters would occasionally use a thatched bathroom we had outdoors for the purpose. Conversation was particularly stilted on this subject, even after my marriage. I suspect even our state health minister’s knowledge would be just as limited.
Anyway, two weeks later, I got my feedback. My wife declared vehemently that it was the worst napkin she’d ever used; that she was better off using cloth. I was puzzled. I’d used the best cotton available in Coimbatore.
For several weeks, thereafter, my research continued. I used different varieties of cotton. I tested with water. I decided to use my sisters as test subjects too so that I didn’t have to wait endlessly for my wife’s cycle. I was so anxious to know the results that I would sit awake the whole night, and set off for my sisters’ homes at the break of dawn. But they would never speak openly on the subject with me. Finally, embarrassed and fed up with my persistent questioning, they told my wife to persuade me to stop approaching them.
But I needed volunteers. Eventually, I decided to approach students at Coimbatore Medical College, some 30 km from my house. This distance was important. Though I had persuaded my wife and sisters to use my napkins, I couldn’t possibly approach other woman from my village with such a request.
I found 10-12 girls there who were open to research. Initially, I asked them for feedback orally. But even with them, I sensed a hesitation in discussing the subject with me. So I prepared a questionnaire in Tamil and got it translated into English. The day I was to collect the forms, as I approached the college, I noticed two of the girls hurriedly filling up forms that others hadn’t bothered with. I didn’t say anything. I collected the forms, rolled them up and left. But I never opened them. I realised then that I couldn’t depend on women for my research.
I bought myself a ladies undergarment and stuck a pad on it. Many of my schoolmates in the village run chicken stalls or are goat butchers. I took a football bladder, filled it with goat blood that I managed to get a friend to supply, and tied it under my clothes. During the day, every now and then, while walking or cycling, I would squeeze the bladder slightly.
But even this experiment left me unsatisfied. I wasn’t able to cross the anatomical barrier; it didn’t feel natural. All that I discovered was a wet and cold feeling.
Still, I continued wearing the pad for 14-15 days. In my obsession, I forgot all about the consequences of people finding out what I was up to. Back then, we would use a public well in the village to wash our clothes. Someone spotted me cleaning my bloody undergarments and thought I had a sexual disease. He went to the village elders, who wanted to throw me out of the village. I decided to quietly leave before it became a public issue.
Eight to nine months had passed by then. My wife was angry with me, and refused to cooperate with my research. She asked me to stop the experiments. Besides, she was jealous of my interaction with college girls who would shamelessly discuss their periods with me. One day, she announced that she was going to her parents’ home for a few days. She didn’t come back.
In the meantime, I got a risky idea. One night, at around 2 am, lying in bed, I thought, why not get hold of used sanitary napkins; they would reveal all their secrets to me. But who could I ask? Shanti and I were separated. How could I ask this of the college girls? Nevertheless, I braced myself and went back there. I found a girl genuinely interested in research who agreed to help me. Along with the napkins, I gave her a carry bag. I told her to just leave the bag in her hostel, from where I could pick it up. With her help, I soon had 30-35 girls agreeing to supply me with used napkins. I invested Rs 700 in a vanity bag, and gathered the used napkins in it. The day I collected them, I was as happy as if I’d found a treasure. I needn’t depend on unreliable feedback reports any more.
At home, tying a handkerchief around my nose, I spread the napkins in my backyard to rid them of the smell. That particular Sunday, my mother returned home from a visit and saw the napkins lying on the ground. She was distraught, and started wailing that her son had gone mad, that there was black magic at work. She left home to live with my sister. Now, both the women had left the house. I was happy. There was no one left to disturb me in my work.
The only problem was food. I didn’t know how to cook. For the next three years, I lived on bread and sugar.
By this time, I’d realised that multinational companies like Johnson & Johnson and Procter & Gamble, which manufactured sanitary napkins, were using either a different kind of cotton, or a different process. I started sending commercial napkins to IIT and BITS-
Pilani, asking them to check the raw material used. The reports were the same: a cellular substance was being used. Two years and five months later, I found out that the cellulose was not of the flower of a plant, but the bark of an American pine tree. This was the multinational secret.
And this was available only in the US, Australia or Canada. Those days, we could make international phone calls only from STD/ISD booths. After paying Rs 500 each time I called one of the companies for a cellulose sample, I would first reach a computerised voice, and on finally getting through to the reception, would find no interest in my request. So, I pretended to be a cotton mill owner who wanted to start my sanitary napkin making unit, and needed samples. What I got via FedEx was a board of what seemed like handmade paper. I was sure it was a mistake. Where was the fluffy stuff napkins were made of? After about 10 days of fiddling with the board, I tore it apart in frustration. What I saw amazed me. They’d sent me compressed wood fibre.
Over the next few years, I set about creating small equipment to reclaim the fluffy material (this resembles a food processor), compress the de-fibred pulp into the required shape with the help of a mould operated by a foot pedal, and finally sealing the napkin and sterilising it. Nowadays, we also mix this material with local wood fibre, like banana, jute or bamboo.
One day, I passed by one of the college students who’d helped with the research. She stopped me and said, “Anna, I’m using your sanitary napkin. And I even forget that I’m wearing it. It’s such a comfort.” That day, I stopped asking for feedback.
In the meantime, my wife sent a message saying she would like to meet me. This was the first time I would meet her after she’d left. Everytime I’d attempted to do so earlier, she had turned me down on vague excuses.
But what next? I’d applied for intellectual property rights, and had to explain the process to IIT engineers. I could have easily used the innovation to make Rs 20-25 crore. But what difference would I have made then? I did not do this for money. I don’t understand society’s rush for gold. I truly believe that over the past century, no real engineers have emerged from our engineering colleges. If they had, our cars would not still be stuck on roads. No real innovation will happen, no creativity can take place while we chase money.
I am now trying to start a low cost sanitary napkin making movement. I think socialist entrepreneurs are the backbone of the future. I supply my machines to women in self-help groups in 14 states, from Uttaranchal and Andhra Pradesh to Bihar, and make them owners of the business.
But for this reason, for refusing to reap enormous profits from my innovation, I’ve been labelled a ‘mad man’ for the second time in my life. At home, though, now that there is a little money coming in, my wife is silent. Money has bought silence.
Muruganantham doesn’t need material things to be happy. My family doesn’t know, but I’ve bought an acre of land to do some agro-research. I’m trying to unearth the secrets of cultivation without soil.