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"I Wanted To Dig My Teeth Into A Community"

Ketaki Sheth speaks to Shoma Chaudhury about the origins and the making of her fascinating book on Patel twins-Twinspotting.

"I Wanted To Dig My Teeth Into A Community"
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It's such an off-beat subject. What triggered it?
I got married and moved to London a few years ago where we went for this Diwali party where there were many Patels. Everyone was talking about first and second-generation Patels and how they had started dominating in different fields. I've always wanted to photograph and document an Indian immigrant community and this seemed very interesting. My husband's also a Patel, so when we were leaving, we were given a Patel directory-which didn't just have phone numbers and addresses but also biographical details about how many children, what they were doing, birthdates etc. And many of these birthdates doubled within families which suggested twins. So I wrote off a lot of letters introducing myself and saying I'd like to do portraits and I got very positive responses. That's how the book started.

How long did it take you?
In four years I found I had shot 125 sets of twins!

How did you trace all of them?
Mostly by talking to the British sets of twins. They told me of others in Gujarat. All Patels come from around 238 villages in the Charotar area. Sardar Patel, for instance, came from Karamsad. I went to about 40 of the villages and stopped when I felt I had enough. I stayed with a Patel relative and came across most of my subjects through word of mouth. The local taxi driver helped a lot.

Did you start this project thinking it would be a book?
No. It was Raghubir Singh, who was a very close friend, who first saw a book in the early pictures. Right from the start, when nobody but my husband had seen the work, Raghubir kept dropping in and he said it was the best work I'd ever done and pressed me to keep at it till I found a publisher. He'd silence my doubts by saying when you have a project like this, you'll always find someone to publish it. It took a while finding one, but I did.

Why are there so many twins amongst the Patels?
I don't know. I haven't researched it, but I did read up a lot about twins and apparently two people, that is, one set out of every 300 in any population are identical twins; and two people, that is, one set out of 90 are fraternal twins. That's the mean average, but in some countries like Japan it's lower, and in Africa it's higher.

Were the Patels themselves aware of the fact that there are so many twins amongst them?
No. But they're such a large community and if you take the mean average in which twins happen, perhaps it's not so surprising that there are so many Patel twins.

So would any other large community also have the same phenomenon?
I don't really know. I haven't done a comparative study. I didn't approach it as an anthropologist.

Apart from the pure curiosity value, what did you want to capture in the book?
It was one way of digging my teeth into a community, get involved with it. It's different when you know people socially, different when you photograph them. It's much more intimate-you go into their homes and capture their ambience. The Patels are essentially farmers and were the first to move in large numbers to East Africa, from where they further migrated to the US and UK.Now the second-generation immigrants in England are increasingly becoming professionals and in America where the Patels were known as motel keepers, their children are accountants, doctors, engineers. It was very interesting and I've put in some of their personal histories in the biographical details at the back of the book.

Were there any surprising moments, insights?
Well, every bit of it, every single day was enjoyable. What was interesting though was the difference in the way twins are looked at abroad and here. They're much more talked about in the US and UK. They feature on talk shows and are asked to describe how they feel about each other; here they're treated as ordinary siblings.

Next Story : Patels In A Pod
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