Monday, February 27, 2012

Raghubir Singh: Catching the Breeze*

Photo taken in Hathod village, Jaipur, Rajasthan

The first reaction is disbelief. It takes time to absorb the simple, delicious freedom in the backdrop of an impoverished Indian village. Two teens are touching the sky. A faithful old Neem tree and a trustworthy jute rope is all it takes to forget that they are women.

As they race against wind, their neighbors, siblings and friends find no novelty in the dizzying heights these women have reached. They look disinterested, as if they cannot determine what makes this trivial breather so interesting to a city man.

But this is as high as the two women swinging on the makeshift swing will perhaps go in their entire life. For Hathod, in Rajasthan, India, is a village where strict caste and class rules still apply. Someone else – the society, their husband, or their in-laws will soon begin to dictate the heights they can reach.

Raghubir Singh took this photo in 1975. The girls, from an assortment of ages between three to thirteen, perhaps even their young mothers, might have yearned to go to schools. Their parents might have entertained the idea for some time, too. But, in such villages, where Hindu women of certain castes are still expected to follow the purdah system, dropout rates are high.

There is no money to buy the books and the shoes, teachers don’t teach, schools have no functional toilets or water, or if everything is in place, the nearest high school may be miles away. Public transport is often undependable, certainly risky for young girls. They do give it a try though, some brave ones. Many daughters walk their way to school, their parents grudgingly, but not without some faint beam of pride, allow. But it doesn’t last long, this pursuit of the dream of a better life.

After months of juggling dreams with duties, girls give up. Because they no longer have the energy to cook, clean, milk the buffalo, and take care of their armies of siblings after coming home. These are the tasks girls cannot wash their hands off in a household with a single earning member. Or sometimes parents cannot afford to teach more kids at a time, and the privilege of education is then is given to the male children. But these women are lucky. At least they are alive.

The government and the citizens (often even well-educated, so-called modern families) systematically ignore India’s female feticide epidemic because of misplaced cultural preferences, socio-economic factors vote-bank politics and illiteracy. According to Census 2011, Rajasthan has a sex ratio of 926 girls between ages 0 to 6 for 1000 males in the same age group. India’s overall sex ratio is 940.

A Unicef report says fetal sex determination and sex selective abortion by unethical medical professionals has today grown into a Rs. 1,000 crore industry (US$ 244 million). The act that targets doctors and technicians who offer illegal ultrasound tests gathers dust in legal jargon, social connivance and corruption. Till May 2006, as many as 22 out of 35 states in India did not report a single violation of the act. (1)

While they were waiting for medical science to catch up, they devised other ways to kill their infant girls. My grandmother told me that in olden days, a euphemism was used to identify people who killed their newborn girls. Gujarati for “Doodh peeti kari,” roughly translates to “We started feeding her milk.” This essentially meant a newborn girl child was drowned in a big cauldron of milk.

In India, if a girl is lucky to be born, she becomes a woman sooner than in any other part of the world. Till then, they let her swing on a tree and touch the rainbow.

Gauri Gharpure

* This is another assignment for Michael Powell's class, Writing about life along the poverty line. I loved this homework, it was to select (or shoot) a photo of a neighbourhood / person / process and write about what emotions, ideas and issues the image evokes. This piece is my interpretation of the visuals, it is personal, and may be completely different from Singh's rationale for taking the photo, or being drawn to the scene.

Links and References:

1) The Preconception and Prenatal Diagnostic Techniques Act: UNICEF India:
3) Raghubir Singh:
4) International Humanist and Ethical Union:
5) Census 2011, India:


YOSEE said...

Dear Gauri, thank you so much for leaving a note in my blog. Wonderful to hear from you.
I have not been blogging regularly for lack time.
I see that you are keeping active in various arenas.
Intend catching up with your posts soon.
Wishing you the best.

YOSEE said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Firaq Darvesh said...

Dear Gauri,it makes me feel so nice after a long time, reading your article here...congrats for this article... keep it up...

" Bahut roii thee bulbulen, shikwe bhi kiye they magar...
Aawaz unki dab gayee, Zamane ke shor men " - vitthal gharpure" khalish " / 29-02-2012.

Kamini said...

Lovely, Gauri. Both the photo and your write-up.

YOSEE said...

Just read your "homework". Wonderfully written, dear. What a train of thoughts a single photograph can evoke !

In our country, being born a female was always thought of as a curse and the lot of a girl child was always to be a second class citizen. Though with spreading awareness, there has been a big change in the attitude of urban folk, in deep rural pockets, the situation remains dark.
Let us hope and pray that things improve, fast.

Gauri Gharpure said...

Yosee-- So good to see you back! I really missed you and was frankly worried! I hope things improve in India, they indeed are, but we are such a huge and diverse populace, we need to be patient.

Baba-- Thanks. I remember translating a similar ashar that you made before. It was with words kafas, saiyad i guess, and was abt caged birds.

Literal and superquick translation for the benefit of others (feel free to improvise!):

The birds had cried a lot, complained a lot too. But their pleas got snubbed in the chaos of the society

Kamini-- Thanks! i need your help, will email.

Kamini said...

Gauri: Sure, any time. I think you have my email details, right?

Happy Kitten said...

The heights that women can reach in ceratin parts of India has already been coded by "well meaning" individuals. For many the codes get deleted as soon as they are born!

Hope you shall write more such wonderful posts to open the eyes of those who have much say in the life of a girl child.

Happy Kitten said...

meant to say that the codes get deleted even before they are born...

Gauri Gharpure said...

Happy Kitten, the hope that things may change, even if it's in a minuscule a way, one step at a time, keeps you and me going. Thanks for stopping by.

kallu said...

Wonderful photograph. Thank you for picking this and bringing it to us. Wonderful post too

Gauri Gharpure said...

@kallu Thanks, visit the blog again.