It is true that a news photographer sees the world through the camera lens. I approach every assignment assessing its newsworthiness, focusing on how best the image will look on the page. Personal emotions are secondary. I often used to wonder: "Have I lost my humaneness?"
In one single moment, with one single picture, two decades had telescoped.
It is true that a news photographer sees the world through the camera lens. I approach every assignment assessing its newsworthiness, focusing on how best the image will look on the page. Personal emotions are secondary. I often used to wonder: “Have I lost my humaneness?” Sometimes I curse myself for not being upset over wasteful death or a tragic accident: my only worry is how to capture the moment on camera.
But occasionally, there are times when I am reassured that I am a normal human being, after all. I was driving back from an assignment when I received a call from my Bureau Chief. “Gopi, do you know Minda is back in Bangalore?” I could not place the name immediately. “Minda, the baby without arms and legs you had photographed 19 years ago at Ashraya?”
The penny dropped. The limbless baby was Swapna then. And now she had returned to Ashraya with her adoptive mother. I raced towards Ashraya, the children’s home, my mind going back by two decades. It was in February 1989 that I got a message from a reporter colleague (I was with another daily at the time) that a day-old baby, abandoned by her parents, had been given shelter seven months later by Ashraya.
My first glimpse of the infant was a shock: a sweet-looking baby minus arms and legs. Suddenly I was battered by all sorts of feelings. I cried in my heart: “God, why did you punish this beautiful child?” I then pushed aside my emotions prepared for the shoot. That was when she looked at the camera directly, raising her torso as if to assert herself: “This is me! This is what I am!”
The photo was a sensation the next day: there were several calls from readers wanting to know more about the baby. And then news came that an American single parent, Catherine Cox, had come forward to adopt the baby. More was to come: soon several publications carried dark articles about organ trade in the name of adoption and so on. It freaked me out. Was the baby in proper hands? Did we do the right thing?
It was not easy for Ms. Cox either. The formalities took months. I went one more time before she flew back to the U.S. the following year with the baby. The shoot was complicated by the baby’s incessant crying. And now 19 years on, both mother and daughter had returned to the place where they had found each other.
I went to Ashraya and the familiar face of Nomita Chandy greeted me. “Go upstairs, Minda is there.” The occasion was the home’s silver jubilee and it had arranged a reunion of its adopted children.
I looked around, foolishly, for a baby without limbs, not realising she was a young woman now. I spotted Catherine and introduced myself: “Do you remember me? I took Minda’s picture 19 years ago.” She held my hand tightly and called out to Minda.
The young lady was seated on a chair, and she waved her stump. I later learned she was not comfortable with her prosthetic. Amidst much clapping and cheering, I was introduced as the first person to have taken her picture. She beckoned to me, grabbed my hand and held it under her chin. By now I was choking with emotion and parallely I was conscious of the fact that I had not shed a single tear when my father died.
I sat next to Catherine feeling honoured as she proudly spoke of Minda, particularly her penchant for art and her fierce independent spirit. Then she said: “Gopi, for the past few years Minda has been keen to locate her biological parents. I am trying but have not been successful.”
I told Catherine to speak to the reporter accompanying me so that she could write about it. And then it was time to take the photographs. I did not have my first picture of her but someone located a photocopy of the newspaper report. We enlarged it and got mother and daughter to pose with it. The Hindu carried the photo and the report on the front page the next day. And I prayed again, 20 years hence, that Minda finds her biological parents. My prayers were answered again. Two days later, news came that the parents were traced after a Mangalore reporter had picked up the story. It turned out that the baby was initially named Prashna (question mark) and the reporter had located the doctor who was present at the time of her birth.
And off we went, this time to Kolekebailu village, 30 km from Manipal, for the reunion. As we neared the village, we saw villagers lining both sides of the road. Some of them stopped the car to have a look at Minda. Catherine, perhaps unnerved by all that attention, suggested that Minda meet her mother in the car first. It was an intensely moving moment when the two met. Kalavathi Shetty, the mother, broke down and was consoled by the daughter she had given up. “You did the right thing, mother,” said the young woman, “otherwise I wouldn’t have got this life.” The two, separated by continents and cultures, communicated, with me as occasional translator. “I gave her birth; you gave her life,” the poor village mother told Catherine.
The crowd was getting restive and I had a tough time convincing them they would get their turn to see Minda. One man repeatedly tried to sneak in and I asked him exasperatedly why he was in hurry. “I am her father, Sir,” came the reply.
I felt so bad I asked him to take Minda in her wheelchair to their small house, which was packed with relatives and neighbours.
It was not just the family who were happy and excited: my reporter colleague and I were also overwhelmed by our emotion. We returned home, our minds at peace with the role we had played in reuniting a child, given up as a hopeless case, with her parents who were handicapped by poverty.
Like I have said before: I love my job.