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Leucoderma Was A Blessing In Disguise: Dr. Manjula Jagatramka

Even today girls with leucoderma are discriminated against in the marriage market. Pallavi Bhattacharya interviewed woman achiever, Dr. Manjula Jagatramka, who, despite being a leucoderma sufferer, went on
to do her Ph.D in Textiles and Clothing, and works with the underprivileged in Mumbai conducting training programmes in income generation skills like embroidery and training.

She has taught at various Home Science Colleges throughout India and is trained at Entrepreneurship and Business Management for Voluntary Service Organizations at NMIMS. She is a trainer in Entrepreneurship and Marketing of handmade textiles and crafts.

What do you mean by heritage textiles?

Heritage textiles are textiles that are traditional, that have been there since ages and are highly valued by the current generation. They showcase Indian tradition. Some examples of heritage textiles are hand weaving, hand spinning and hand block printing. Heritage textiles are made of natural fibres.

What are you doing to promote heritage textiles?

I have a course on teaching people how to make heritage textiles. I also teach customers how to inspect and choose which heritage textile is worth buying. People should have a taste for authentic heritage textiles. (If instance if you know the taste of pure ghee you will insist on having nothing but pure ghee.) Producers and sellers will supply only authentic products if a customer can identify authentic heritage textiles. I also teach traders how to sell heritage textiles.

Why is your organisation named Vaitarna?

Vaitarna is the name of river. Water represents purity. Also I wanted a name that is Maharashtra-based and Vaitarna is a river in Maharashtra.

You said you feel sad that small businesses have suffered because of globalisation- that people go to malls to buy ethnic products than buying them from the producers?

People go for inferior quality and unauthentic heritage textiles manufactured from mass produce at malls. They can’t appreciate the individual labour and human work hours that goes into making quality hand made products directly sold by producers. Low prices of mall products attract them even if they are settling for inferior quality in terms of material and design.

What inspired you to set up institutes to impart and develop education and entrepreneurial skills aiming at the overall growth of individuals generally and women specifically?

This will provide jobs to many unemployed people especially women in the grassroots. I don’t follow the university syllabus but have chalked out my own curriculum. If you want to focus on imparting quality education you must be own your own. On heritage textiles we don’t have proper documentation. For instance when I toured Gujarat extensively including the interiors I discovered that there were far more stitches in Gujarat than what I had known from the existing text books. I concentrate on training women as more women than men are into the making of heritage textiles. I teach them through conducting workshops.

You have said that leucoderma was a "blessing in disguise" as you decided to be a career woman. Why so?

I was the fourth daughter of my parents and was very brilliant. I was never a doll-type-girl but a typical tomboy. I was never a domesticated girl who thought of going to a sasural. I was 14 when I got leucoderma. My mom was very clear that it wasn’t the be-all and end-all. She explained to me that a woman’s place was not necessarily in the kitchen but could just be in office. I started helping my father all the more in his office work. My mother explained to me that if I was good at my work nobody would care about my external appearance.

I lost my mother when I was 16. After my mother’s death I was pressurized to marry by my family. But I didn’t want to compromise and marry someone I didn’t like. Tall, fair and slim girls were preferred in the marriage market. As a girl with leucoderma it was expected I compromise. Even today girls with leucoderma are discriminated against in the marriage market. And that was 30 years ago.

Why is this stigma more for a girl than for a guy?

This is because of the way Indian society thinks. This stigma is more in India where the looks of the girl is very important for a marriage. For instance my niece is short – 4 feet 10 inches. My father was lamenting to my brother-in-law that there would be serious problems in marrying her off. I firmly told him not to say these things. If someone genuinely liked her he would fall in love with her and marry her. My niece is beautiful and very intelligent.

The concept of beauty is however gradually changing. I find every person beautiful in his or her own way. If feel if a person is happy and contented she is beautiful. However despite having leucoderma I must say that I was the most popular student in college and had men falling for me.

So why didn’t you get into a relationship with any of them?

Who knows what qualities I was looking for in my perfect match! When I reached 50 I felt that maybe time was out! I do plan to get settled by this year. However as leucoderma is hereditary, I don’t want to have children of my own. I will therefore marry someone with children. I am currently searching for my life partner.

What obstacles have you faced in your path?

I have been a brilliant person. So I can’t be a mediocre. Nor have I followed a stereotype route. So people can’t understand me at times. But at the same time I have a lot of positive respect from many.

What attitudes have helped you overcome your obstacles and what advice do you have for women in similar situations?

Be genuine and try your best. If you go wrong try to improve next time. As the Bhagwad Gita says try your bit and don’t get too overworked on what the result may be. Also dwell on the positive aspects in you than what may be your weaknesses. For example I won’t trade my intelligence for gorgeous looks as I can appreciate what I have.

What motivated you to attend so many seminars on gender based issues?

I am against gender discrimination. My brother had birthday parties, but we sisters didn’t. My parents bought a tiffin box for all of us, but it had only my brother’s name on it. My father took an ISKON membership when my brother was just ten years old, but it has just his name and not ours.

Girl children unlike male children aren’t trained in financial matters, to view profits and losses or run a business. They have to run a house or produce a child instead. My brother didn’t even want me to sign a cheque, but take money from him.

Even property isn’t generally in women’s name in India. Indian women are therefore like prisoners in their own house. The only difference is that in jail the keys are with the jailor and at home the keys are with the woman. But the key to the house doesn’t necessarily mean freedom.

Sometimes, when I have asked housewives what they do through out the day, they reply ‘nothing’. I then ask them to come and stay with me for a week. It’s then that they say that it won’t be possible because if they are not at home who will cook meals, help the kids with homework, look after ailing in-laws etc?

It is then that they realize that their services are invaluable to their family, but they aren’t valued by their families for it. After all the family is getting unpaid labour from the housewife without her even taking sick leave when she is ill and thereby taking her for granted.

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