A village of eternal bachelors
By Vivek Prakash
With the world’s population set to hit 7 billion on October 31, photographers in India have been on the move to tell stories that talk about what those numbers really mean in a country as large as India – with 1.2 billion people and counting, this is supposed to be the world’s largest democracy.
When you take a closer look at the statistics, you find some surprising and scary figures – the ratio of female children to males born actually declined here over the last 10 years – from 933 females for every thousand males in the 2001 census, to just 914 in 2011. The combination of cheap portable ultrasound technology and a decades-old preference for male babies — who are seen as breadwinners — has enabled sex-selective abortions and made worse female infanticide. In a place as wide and as vast as India, these are things that are hard to control, no matter how illegal.
We had been trying to find ways to illustrate this for some time without much success – getting access to tell this story had been taking some time. Late last month, a story about a small village in Gujarat was brought to my attention.
Journalists from the Thomson Reuters Foundation had visited Siyani, a small rural town of just 8,000 people (tiny by Indian standards) – where the social effect of such a low ratio of women meant that men were having a tough time finding brides. I set out to remote Gujarat to try and interpret this story with my camera.
A village elder told me that he estimated some 70% of the men there were unmarried. There were a variety of historical causes – lack of industrialization, an unwillingness to marry outside caste and regional lines – and most recently, a rapidly declining supply of brides. There are over 350 unmarried men over 35 – this a remarkable figure for rural India, where people marry very young – some as early as 15. There are hundreds more under 35, but there are so many that no one can confirm the numbers.
I spoke to many people in the town – both those born and brought up there, and others who had settled there for work over the decades – and found a similar story among many men – “I just can’t get married.”
This was a tough nut to crack – how do I take these anecdotes and make them into meaningful visual statements? I spent a lot of time thinking about what the significant pictures would be. A man alone didn’t tell the story. To really tell it, I had to find a group of men who lived together, worked together, and ate together – and did all the things that women traditionally do in Indian households.
I found a group of about three dozen men working on a temple in the village. All but three were not married. I photographed them sharing their work and lives. Doing the daily chores – cooking, cleaning. The lack of enough women to marry, for them, has forced them into a situation where they live communally and have to share in the daily tasks.
I photographed them sharing mattress in their downtime, sleeping in the way you’d expect newlywed couples to sleep. The lack of a female presence in their lives has made them turn to each other – into a sort of extended brotherhood – to look after each other.
I needed to find a picture that would illustrate the dusty village and also tell the story of the large number of unmarried men there. This was going to be difficult – organizing anything in India takes a lot of effort, and almost never goes to plan. If it’s bad in the cities, it’s almost impossible in a little rural village.
I hatched a plot with my translator and driver. We would enlist a couple of village elders to spread the word that at a certain time, when the light was good, that unmarried men who were willing should gather in the village’s center for a group picture. I tried and failed on my first day. On the second morning, no one bothered to show up – everyone ate breakfast and went straight to work in the fields and at the temples. Fair enough, I was an interruption there.
On the third day, we modified our plan to see if we could make it happen. About a half hour before the appointed time – 6.15pm with the golden light and deep blue sky – we sent a teenager on a bicycle off around the village, to round up any unmarried men that had nothing better to do. I was surprised that this actually worked, and I suddenly had in a clearing in the village, about 40 men in front of me. We were going to make a picture that I thought was central to the whole story.
Sometimes, when I’m shooting a tough-to-illustrate story in remote places, the humanity, humor and absurdity of this job really hit me. There I was in a village clearing in remote Gujarat, not able to speak a word of Gujarati – speaking in Hindi to an interpreter who would shout it out to everyone else.
By this time many other people in the village knew what was going on. I was standing on a ladder to do this picture – something I’d checked in and brought with me on the flight all the way from Mumbai to make this picture possible. Behind me, was a group of gawking men who were having a good laugh at the whole spectacle.
I finished the shoot and headed over to the local chai stall. I felt like the whole village was following me. I spent the next couple of hours entertaining a lot of questions and comments about the story I was doing. I was overwhelmed by the number of men who said they wanted to be married but just couldn’t be – some had been trying for as long as 20 years, since they were 15 years old.
I’m having a laugh at the experience of trying to tell this story, but spare a thought for what happens to India if we continue to let our female children die, or be killed at such an alarming rate. Spare a thought for places like Siyani, where people just can’t get married – Siyani isn’t special, it’s an indicator of a much wider problem. Spare a thought for places in India where there are as few as 775 girls born for every 1,000 boys. Spare a thought for the men who will never have families, and spare a moment to think of all the mothers that will never be born. Little Siyanis are popping up all over India – what becomes of our next generation, and how will it impact the world’s largest democracy?