Fistful of Dreams
Palguni lives with her mother Veena an elder sister Akila on the outskirts of Bangalore city. When anyone sees the two girls with their mother, this question follows them in whispers: “Are they adopted?” Yes, both girls were adopted by Veena. It is the colour of the girls’ skin that makes people ask this question — Veena is fair-skinned, whereas the two girls are dark-skinned.
This is an ongoing project to foreground the issues of gender and racial discrimination in India. I embed myself into the lives of Palguni and her family, with the hope that her story will contribute in building awareness and creating a strong wave of public opinion to safeguard the rights of girls in India.
In a male-dominated society obsessed with fairness creams, both skin colour and gender often lead to discrimination. There remains a strong preference for a male child and the child-sex ratio in India is at an all-time low. We now have 914 girls for every 1,000 boys. This fall in the ratio indicates that more and more girls in India are being killed before, during and soon after birth. A report by UNICEF points out that this systematic gender discrimination has led to the disappearance of 50 million girls and women in India over three generations.
In urban India, technology now allows people to know the sex of their unborn child, leading to the abortion of a large number of female fetuses. Even though there is a law against pre-natal sex determination, the practice continues in secrecy. Over 10 million female fetuses have been aborted in India over the past two decades.
Campaigns against this have resulted in many newborn girls being abandoned. Those that survive make it to the adoption center. However, even families who adopt have preferences for a male or a fair-skinned baby. Also, the older the child is, the less chance she/he will have in being adopted. As a result, young girls like Palguni have very few takers in society.
Palguni was five when Veena adopted her, and I have followed her from the very first day she came home. Paalu, as Palguni is fondly called, is seeing a sudden change in her life. After spending the first years of her life in orphanages, she has a real family now. There is a world of possibilities slowly opening up in front of her, but she still has questions about her origins and identity.
This story is about being loved as much as it is about being unwanted. It is about hope as much as it is about loss. It is about the right to life and its simple aspirations. It is about – a fistful of dreams.
Nishant Ratnakar is a 29-year-old self-taught photographer from India and a participant in the 2008 Angkor Photo Workshops. He is currently a chief photographer in a newspaper in Bangalore and works on stories close to his heart. View the complete multimedia project at Nishant’s site.
What made you interested in this story?
I myself am darker-skinned compared to the rest of my family. When I used to be mischievous, they would joke that they had taken pity on me and picked me up on the streets. So, there was this personal connection to this topic. I realized this thing about colour was so ingrained in India. We don’t talk about it, but we complain about western countries targeting Asian countries and showing racist behaviour. But even us, as a multi-cultural society, we can be quite racist too.
At the same time, news reports talked about more and more female children being killed or abandoned to die. These reports always spoke about numbers. I felt you had to show a face behind this, to convey the importance of the story.
What are you planning next?
I wanted this story to go online as a multimedia project so as to reach a particular segment of society that is more affluent and connected on the internet and uses Facebook. It is this also section of society that can afford expensive medical procedures like abortions and tests to determine the sex of the child. People often think it is only done in the rural, poor areas, but it is not the case. Also, this is a completely self-funded project. There are many who have showed interest for it to be a book format, and I am considering self-publishing a book version.
How has your photography evolved since you first began?
I knew I wanted to do documentary, but now I realize there is something deeper than what camera you use. It is about the subject, about being a storyteller, about issues. It is about a message I want to send out. At the end of the day, there is no such thing as being 100% right or wrong, you just need to bring out the voices from the field. In the mainstream media, there are certain voices that remain muffled, a certain perspective that doesn’t appear.
What are some things you picked up from the APWS that remains with you till today?
Before the workshop, I was more of a single-image photographer even though I had a desire to work on larger projects. The workshop was an action-packed week, shooting and editing everyday, and the focus was coming out with a story. It was my first brush with learning how to create a small project in this way.