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Women Entrepreneur

Living with Celiac disease and building a gluten-free food business: Jeeva's inspiring story

Abhash Kumar
25th Jan 2014
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Imagine one fine day, you go to the doctor with a few complaints and he diagnoses the symptoms to claim you have a rare disease. He asks you to adhere to the following eating habits:

All bakery produce, including bread, donuts etc are forbidden.

No more normal puris, rotis, chapati, naan or kulcha.

No rava upma, idly and dosa.

No Chinese food.

No Italian food, except for risotto. No pizzas and pastas.

Quite a nightmare, right? Well, this is how Jeeva Anna George and several other people like her live on a daily basis. They have a disease known as the Celiac disease.

Jeeva's Gluten-free Stall
Jeeva’s Gluten-free Stall

“In India, one in 96 people is a Celiac. These are the statistics for 2011, according to the Indian Journal of Gastroenterology and Hepatology,” says Jeeva.

What is Celiac disease?

“Celiac is a genetic disease. At any time in your life you could develop the disease though you may not develop any symptoms.

“Those with Celiac cannot consume gluten. In fact, the body treats it as poison and tries to eject it. Gluten also damages intestinal tissue causing symptoms such as diarrhea, headache, skin rash, joint pain, mucosis, infertility, depression, fatigue and anxiety.”

It was in 2008 that Jeeva started noticing a few significant changes. She started experiencing frequent brain fogs during which she would zone out of conscience for a minute or so. She lost a considerable amount of weight. Her nails had started turning brown. She also had short-term memory loss.

But has this been the case since childhood? Was Jeeva born with the disease? It turns out that a Celiac has genes pre-disposed to gluten intolerance. But often it takes a trigger to shoot off the condition.

“In my case, it was the high-stress job. I stressed myself so much thinking about how stressed I was that sometimes I’d just sit at my office desk for an hour and literally do nothing but think.”

The condition aggravated in 2009 though. Along with the above symptoms, Jeeva would end up with persistent diarrhea almost every time she ate at parties or restaurants. She was employed at this time by a leading policy organization of the country handling the Economic Affairs and Public policy desk in Karnataka. Organising conferences was a major part of the job and that left Jeeva very stressed. She knew something had to be done when she fainted at one of these conferences.

“I went to the best doctors. No one could diagnose it properly. Someone said it was lactose intolerance while others were pretty clueless. Finally, a renowned doctor from CMC, Vellore, was able to diagnose that I had Celiac disease and an extremity of gluten intolerance.”

Gluten is a protein found primarily in wheat. But it is present in bran, barley, rye and oats. Oats is harvested alongside wheat. Most oats are also processed in a wheat manufacturing facility because of constant cross contamination, oats should be avoided too.

Jeeva’s childhood

Jeeva was born and brought up in Kuwait where her father worked as a Chief Specialist Engineer for the government.

“I did most of my schooling in Kuwait, except for a period of two years when we had to move back to India due to the Iraq invasion in 1990.”

Jeeva recalls a very (now) interesting albeit (then) horrific tale of how her family was evacuated from the country. “At that point, we used to stay in the residence provided by the Ministry of Electricity and Water of Kuwait. When the news of the invasion came in, a special flight of Air India was arranged by the Indian Embassy to take us to India. I was seven years old then. The flight was to leave from the Jordan airport and so we arranged for a bus to take us and some more families to the airport.”

The bus driver stopped at the Jordan-Iraq border and refused to take the families further unless he was paid more money. They had to abandon the bus and then were taken to a refugee camp.

“We were in the refugee camp for three days and four nights. We were given food packets three times in the day by Red Crescent. But food was never the issue. It was staying with over 50 people in a small tent which was difficult.

Finally, one night we were taken to the airport but made to stay outside. All of us settled down and I went to sleep. Suddenly, I was woken up and I saw that people were moving towards the airport. In my half-asleep state, I started following them. After some time I realized that there were no members of my family in this group. Meanwhile, my family had also realized that I was missing. Our flight was to leave in another half an hour. A gentleman from the group recognized me and quickly helped me back to the airport, just in time for the flight.”

Life after the diagnosis

“My diagnosis came right after my marriage. It was during the same period that my husband also developed certain complications. Both of us were sick. My husband had no idea how to run a house. I had to give him a fresher’s course in that.”

At this point, Jeeva was working in a market research firm. Her condition was now known to them. Jeeva, however, was asked to leave as they felt having a person who would take days off if she needed medical rest was a burden on them. The incident left Jeeva aghast.

“I was devastated by the response.” What would Jeeva do if she was on the other side? “As a manager you are responsible for your employee’s well-being. You should make them work on what they are good at, reduce their workload if signs of stress are obvious, sit and talk to them; not lay them off one fine day without any warning.”

Jeeva had had enough. She decided to work for herself.

Glutenfreeliv.in – the business

Jeeva launched her food business in October, 2013. It is her sincere effort to work for and towards the Celiac community. Jeeva Bakes, Jeeva Guides and Jeeva Initiates are the three separate areas of operation.

Jeeva Bakes is all about ideating, making/baking and selling gluten-free products from a completely gluten-free facility.

Jeeva Guides, as the name suggests, is a consultancy which advises Indian retail industry, corporate houses and educational institutions, including hotel management institutes.

Jeeva Initiates focuses on spreading awareness on Celiac disease and spear heading talks with government and policy makers in consultation and close co-ordination with gluten-free manufacturers, doctors and the Celiac community in India.

Jeeva believes in raising awareness top down as she feels if more hoteliers, FMCG companies and other corporate firms look into it, then that in itself is a beginning! Training for hotel management staff and others is also on the cards.

Jeeva and glutenfreeliv.in recently won the Anthah Prerana event organized by TiE Bangalore.

Jeeva won at TiE Bangalore, Anthah Prerana
Jeeva won at TiE Bangalore, Anthah Prerana

A business built on trust and motivation

The immense pleasure that she derives from satisfied customers is what keeps her going every day.

A customer who had not eaten a normal cake in years had this to say, “Jeeva, your cupcakes were heavenly, I think they tasted better than the whole wheat carrot cupcakes I have had before.”

At a bake sale someone had this to say, “Jeeva, I don’t care what this is free from but it is delicious and can I eat all those banana bread crumbs.” He actually went ahead and finished the crumbs too. Children with allergies have told her, “Aunty, your cakes are very good,” and then savored their cake and got more money from their parents and came back for more!

“A one-and-a-half year-old kid kept asking his mother for my cake. He can’t digest other cakes, but somehow he knows he can have mine and can’t stop eating piece after piece,” says Jeeva, sharing her customer feedback.

Gluten-free delicacies
Gluten-free delicacies

“Most days I wake up at 4 am and start baking. It’s tough. But at the end of the day when I recall the feedback that I get, that becomes the source of strength for the next day.”

So what next, I ask Jeeva.“A book on gluten-free living is something you can expect from me very soon!”

Want to raise awareness, know more or cater to your employees with intolerances. Connect with Jeeva here:

Facebook: Gluten Free Living in India – Recipes, tips and more | LinkedIn | Email: jeeva@glutenfreeliv.in

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