Once upon a time, there was a boy who ran away from home when he was just 11, to escape his 'not so nice' grandparents. He picked rags at the railway platform and sometimes washed dishes at street food stalls. All alone in Delhi, his heart still nurtured dreams. He hoped that someday someone would rescue him from this life.
And his dream came true.
Today, Vicky Roy is one of India's most promising young photographers. Curators pick up his work alongside Indian greats like Raghu Rai, for international shows, such as the one in Whitechapel Gallery in 2010, London. As you read this, Roy is already touring the USA to give inspirational INKtalks at Google and Twitter, and then moving on to do a residency at the Massachusetts Institute Of Technology's media research lab, an incubator of ideas from across the world.
Roy's life changed when, after being on the streets for six months, volunteers from the Salaam Baalak Trust (of which filmmaker Mira Nair is a founder) rescued him. When Roy was very young, his parents (his father was a tailor) sent him to his grandparents' home because they didn't have the money to bring him up. His grandparents didn't treat him well, and often beat him. In a desperate bid to escape, without knowing what lay ahead, Roy stole some money from his uncle, and ran away from his home in Purulia, West Bengal. He landed up at the New Delhi railway station, and did what other street kids there did. He collected empty bottles, re-filled them and sold them to people in second-class compartments. He slept at the station, ate what he could. In winter, when his water didn't sell much, he doubled up as a dishwasher for six months, long enough to develop the classic symptoms of runaway children – distrust and fear.
"That's why I ran away from the shelter within a few days of being picked up by them," he says. "I was getting food, we were being given an education and a home-like environment, but you get so suspicious being on the streets. You value your freedom, and getting into a disciplined environment is tough. So I ran away." But within 15 days, volunteers brought him back. This time, Roy saw the stark contrast between his unsafe life outside, and the safe environment at Salaam Baalak, and stayed on. Apart from empowering street children with education, the Trust helps children identify and hone non-traditional skills. It was here that Roy started assisting British photographer Dixie Benjamin, who was documenting the work of the Trust. "I didn't understand English but Benjamin told me that the arts have no language, and that I had a good eye. Plus, I was pathetic at studies. After class 10, I didn't want to study. I also realised that photography would give me a chance to travel, which I love. And that's when I got into it," he says.
What Roy lacks in formal education, he tries to make up by absorbing what he encounters. He travels alone – looking up museums and galleries, and their free entry days. "I like to walk around when I am on international trips, I try and get as much exposure as I can to arts and cultures which are different from ours. These things come to you when you start taking pictures," he says.
His big break came in 2007, when his shots of street kids were exhibited at the British Council in Delhi. His mentor, art gallerist Anubhav Nath, explains why Roy's work aroused people's curiosity, "He doesn't capture the street from a third-party perspective or to arouse sympathy. He's very comfortable with the subject, that's how he brings out the mellowness and artistry."
Roy's next big break came in 2009, when the Maybach Foundation picked him as one of four people from across the world to document the reconstruction of the World Trade Center. In a life-altering experience, Roy stayed in New York (all expenses paid!) for six months. He struggled with the language barrier but found comfort in his new world.
A distinct voice
Even though he started from the streets and captures street kids' lives beautifully, he doesn't want to restrict himself to just that. "My work doesn't get picked up because I am a street child. I work hard, and I'm good at what I do," he says. Humouring the lack of creativity of journalists who labelled him as Delhi's 'Slumdog Millionaire', he laughs and says, "I tell them that I may be from the slums but I am not a dog." He wonders why they can't think differently. "In creative fields, we struggle every day to develop a new voice, and not talk in platitudes," he says.
His dedication to his work is astounding. "That's the only thing that defines me. I don't compromise on it. Girlfriend, friends, all come after I am done with my work," he says. It's also quite amazing to see this 26-year-old, who has grown up on the streets, talk about women's empowerment. Some time back, Roy made peace with his parents, and now he supports the college education of his three sisters back home. What do they want to do? "I don't ask. It's their wish. And I am not even thinking of marrying them off. What's the difference between others and me if I don't let my sisters make an informed choice about their lives? I just send the cheques," he says. Ask his mentor, Nath, what makes this boy so different. And he answers: "He works hard, gives himself to his mentor completely, and lives a life of no fear. When you have nothing to lose, you go ahead full steam."
And so, Roy lives happily ever after. We hope.
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From HT Brunch, May 25
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