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There is a fish tank in my house. Whenever I happen to see the fish, I know I am looking at myself.
How do I know that I am a fishbowl fish? The fish can see that there is a world beyond the bowl. But every time he tries to touch that world, beyond the one deemed appropriate for him to exist within, a wall appears. People think they can see into his reality, seem to believe they have the right to watch him. But they come and go from his life when they please. And for him to leave the bowl alive, miracles have to happen.
The caste system creates many such fishbowls. And the lower your caste, the smaller your bowl.
My grandmother is from Usilampatti, a small village close to Madurai in Tamil Nadu. In Usilampatti, they wouldn’t let her break her bowl. So she moved to Vadipatti, where she founded the Ponnuthai Amma Gandhiji Primary School.
She was our first miracle.
When I decided to become a photographer, I thought the only way for me to leave my caste behind, to forget my Dalit-ness, would be to leave for the city. My father warned me that discrimination would follow me.
For a long time, I thought I was the second miracle. I’ve moved from one cosmopolitan city to another, photographed celebrities and pursued a career in film.
But atrocities also followed me. And the more images I took, the more I realized that Dalits were practically non-existent in the visual consciousness of India.
Suddenly, a severe illness brought me home. And soon, my money disappeared. I was faced yet again with the reality that there was no one to protect me but my family.
After I recovered, I was due to head back to Bombay, to film city, to make the money I so desperately needed.
But the coronavirus brought me back home yet again.
This time, my health and will are with me. I see the beauty of the place where I have grown up, and feel an intimacy which has eluded me my entire photographic career. I now know that the two things I will lose last in this world are family and home.
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