‘Fistfulof Dreams’ is an ongoing project to foreground the issues of gender and racial discrimination in India. In the first year of this project, I embed myself into the lives of six-year-old Palguni and her family, with the hope that their story will contribute in building awareness and creating a strong wave of public opinion to safeguard the rights of girls in India.

Palguni lives with her mother Veena, and 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.

In a society which has a strong preference for a male child and is obsessed with fairness creams, both, skin colour and gender often lead to discrimination. A report by UNICEF points out that systematic gender discrimination has led to the disappearance of 50 million girls and women in India over three generations.

This body of work is set in the context of declining child-sex-ratio (CSR) in India.The declining CSR clearly indicates that more and more girls in India continue to be killed before birth (female foeticide) or soon after birth (female infanticide). Palguni was abandoned as a child and managed to survive the silent crimes. But many girls like her have had silent deaths that were never reported. The story tries to give a face and voice to those missing girls who otherwise would only be numbers and statistics in media stories and population census reports.

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 u pin 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.

Veena gives a body massage to Palguni on the her first day at their home on the outskirts of Bangalore, India. Dark-skinned girls like Palguni generally find it more difficult to find their adopted families.

Palguni has stuck numerous Bindis (red stickers) on her forehead during playtime. Bindis are symbol of womanhood in India and majority of the married Hindu women apply a Bindi on their forehead. The five year old girl still has many questions unanswered in her life. She wonders if Veena was her biological mother who abandoned her 5 years back. She has asked Veena the question, “Why did you leave me 5 years back?”

The sudden change from an institutional setting to a home is traumatic for Palguni and leaves her in tears on her first day at her new home.

Palguni clings on to her mother Veena at their home.

Veena and Palguni receive Akila as she returns home from school. A month after her arrival, Veena is trying to send the five-year-old Palguni, to a nursery in the same school where Akila studies. Palguni never learnt to read and write during her stay at the orphanage.

A family portrait of Veena and her daughters.

Akila and Palguni play a game of ‘hide and seek’. Akila was thrilled with arrival of Palguni, but a sudden possessiveness for her mother has increased since then. Though there is a sisterhood feeling between the two girls, they have begun to compete for their mother’s love and affection now.

Veena, her kids, and her parents at her parents’ home in Bangalore city.

Palguni hides behind a veil during playtime at her grandfather’s home.

A drawing by Palguni carries a star and a very good remark given by her elder sister Akila. When I asked Palguni what her drawing meant, she replied saying that it was a an open window with sun seen outside.

Palguni being administered nasal spray by her mother Veena. Palguni suffers from adenotonsilitis, a condition of swollen tonsils and swollen adenoids, and breathes through her mouth. She needs to learn to use her nose instead. Severe adenotonsilitis leads to what doctors call “failure to thrive”. Nasal spray was prescribed for 2 months by the doctor to reduce the swelling in the adenoids.

Palguni kisses her mother Veena at her home. Veena and Palguni spend lot of time together during the day when Akila attends school.

Palguni and Veena at their home in Bagalur near Bangalore city.

Palguni playing all by herself at the terrace.

Palguni poses for a portrait, nearly 9 months after her adoption.

Fistful of Dreams was originally realized as a multimedia, and then later as a book


Nishant Ratnakar is a visual story-teller based in Bangalore city, India. He left a career in the IT industry, in pursuit of photography. Since then, he has worked with several publications in India as a photojournalist. He was among the 30 photographers selected for ‘Emerging Asian Photographers’ free workshop during the Angkor Photo Festival 2008 held at Siem Reap, Cambodia. In 2010, he received a full scholarship to pursue Diploma in Photojournalism from the Asian Center for Journalism (ACFJ) at Ateneo de Manila University, Philippines. His main area of interest is social documentary. Nishant now works as an independent photographer, writer,and multimedia producer.


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