Born to an elephant chaser, now writing a memoir: Shilpa Anthony Raj’s story

I was born in the village of Thattaguppe in southern Karnataka. This village adjoins a dense forest inhabited by wild animals. My family belongs to the Dalit Christian class. Both my father and his grandfather were in the illicit liquor business. My maternal grandfather was a laborer on landlord’s fields and my mother had worked until recently as a housemaid.
Shilpa(in her father’s arms), with her parents and siblings

The turning point in her life came when Shilpa Anthony Raj was a little girl, all of four. The principal, psychologists and social workers from Shanti Bhavan interviewed her before accepting her to the school at the age of four. Shanti Bhavan, a boarding school started by an Indian-American philanthropist, Dr. George, was looking for children from very poor families to live and study. The aim of the school is to break the cycle of poverty by imparting world class education to children from impoverished backgrounds and thereby, changing the course of their lives.

ShilpaI(in blue) with her sister and parents

Shilpa had a sister who passed away at the age of fourteen; she was possibly murdered, but the incident was conveniently masked as suicide. “How could two sisters born of the same elephant chaser end up this different?”

Shilpa, now 21, has turned author with a memoir ‘The Elephant Chaser’s Daughter’. The title follows from her father’s occupation as an elephant chaser; he chases elephants that feast on the sugar cane grown in their village. “It’s the two worlds I have been constantly traversing.”

Her two worlds

This title in a subtle way brings out the theme of living between two worlds.

Even though I am the daughter of the elephant chaser, my life has turned differently from the opportunity I have had. My ways are different from that of my family members- how I think, what I believe in and how I conduct myself. As father and daughter, we are very different.
Rewind to ’99 – Shilpa(front row, extreme left) at Shanti Bhavan

Her siblings did not get the opportunity to study at Shanti Bhavan. Her brother did not complete the tenth grade and has taken up a job as a security guard. “Over the years I found that my outlook was very different from theirs which caused unhappiness between us. Nevertheless my love for them was not diminished.”

Shilpa’s uncle and aunt

Why a book?

Had she stayed back in Thattaguppe, her life would have been very different. We ask her what she attributes the person she has become to. Real Education is not just about academic excellence, it is about who you become and what you stand for. That’s why education is hailed as the holy grail of all solution.

Through my years in Shanti Bhavan, change came in many ways for me. Right from the beginning it brought about stability, self-confidence and self-esteem. I have learnt the importance of universal values such as honesty, personal integrity and transparency in addition to human virtues such as humility, kindness and generosity. I have been exposed to people from many countries from the volunteers who teach here and they bring with them their cultures, experiences and skills. I have developed the ability to communicate confidently and freely with anyone, and take on leadership roles.

Written by a girl who came from poor circumstances but studied in a school that offered her a good future, this book talks about the need to educate every child and the empowerment it can bring about. The book also relates the tale of how her family struggled through poverty and social discrimination. More importantly, the book is about the choices she has made for her future.

Standing strong and chugging along

Shilpa took a year off to work on the book. It’s a constant conflict when her two worlds collide. Everyone at school bolstered her while some from amongst her own family didn’t want her to tell their story.

It is a very strange idea for my family. Initially it was very hard to explain to my family as to why I was taking the year off to work on a book instead of going to college. No one in my village has ever done something like this before and I can understand why my family was uncertain of my decision. Some of them are disappointed that I do not want to become a lawyer or something more conventional.

Her confidence and faith in her work sky rocketed when Peter Miller, a highly reputed literary and film agent picked her story in less than 48 hours after receiving the manuscript. Shilpa bursts into a huge grin and tells us, “He phoned me from an airport to express his willingness to accept the manuscript.”

 Doesn’t she worry about being just another author in a sea of creative writers? “I find myself well prepared to tell my family’s story as an insider. I feel that as a young woman I have a vantage point different from more mature authors.”

The last mile

While the manuscript has been picked up by Peter, he feels it is important for it to be read by a reputed literary editor before submitting the manuscript to major publishers. That will make all the difference between a good book and crisp bestseller. Though she doesn’t have the means right now, she did not relent. Shilpa has turned to crowd-funding. Click here to pitch in.

The book is just the beginning. Her dream is to become a child psychologist. She is driven towards this goal after observing the damage that poor parenting and less than desirable social environments can do to children when they become adults. Five years from now, Shilpa hopes to complete her doctoral work in the field of child psychology. She hopes to be the change in the lives of many children, just like someone once helped her break the shackles of poverty, social indignity, and turned it around for her.


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