Girl, Interrupted: The power of Shanti Bhavan

Shilpa Raj, the best-selling author of “The Elephant Chaser’s Daughter,” is a graduate of Shanti Bhavan, an experimental school in Tamil Nadu founded by Indian-American philanthropist Abraham George.

Shilpa Raj is not a Bollywood name, though she has starred in a documentary. She is not a best-selling author — yet. But she has written a frank soulful book that can contribute to important discussions about the human costs of a disrupted childhood, however well-intentioned, based on her own extraordinary story.

At the age of 4, Shilpa, a bright little girl living in deep poverty and a low-caste status in a village in southern India was, in her young child’s mind, snatched from her family with her father’s acquiescence to live in a boarding school that promised to change her life.

The experimental school, Shanti Bhavan, a “Haven of Peace” in Tamil Nadu, was founded by Abraham George, an Indian-American philanthropist who believed that a dramatic change in environment could enable a bright youngster who showed obvious signs of innate intelligence grow into a successful young adult despite every possible previous social disadvantage.

For Shilpa and scores of other children like her, that is what happened at Shanti Bhavan. But the sudden, drastic change in Shilpa’s life was not without turbulence and trauma for both her and her family. Now in her early 20s, she tells that story in her book “The Elephant Chaser’s Daughter.”

Shilpa always thought she wanted to be a journalist, but a long period of reflection about her life changed that goal. After finishing high school with distinction in 2011, she took a year off to write her book and then went on to a women’s college in Bengaluru and emerged with a master’s degree in child psychology and counseling.

Her birth village of Thattaguppe in the southern reaches of Karnataka state has been nominally Christian — overlaid with a panoply of local gods and spirits — ever since French priests looking for converts at the turn of the 19th century restored an earlier settlement wiped out by a plague. They built a stone church, still in use, and some huts. Crops returned to the land. So did wild elephants. More than a century later, chasing them would provide Shilpa’s father with his first permanent job. Her mother became a housemaid in Singapore to earn some money for herself.

In retrospect, for Shilpa, in her burst of childish excitement at riding away from her startled village in a blue jeep to take the aptitude test for Shanti Bhavan, it did not register that the moment had created a terrible tension in her family. Domestic war erupted over the little girl’s fate between her protective mother and her father, who was frequently drunk and abusive.

Many years later, Shilpa wrote: “I can now understand how my mother felt about having to hand over her first child to the care of perfect strangers. I can’t blame her for her reluctance. A woman in her situation lives for her children, and we are the only lasting joy my father ever brought her.”

The emotional separation of her parents became permanent over the years, Shilpa writes, and was never repaired. She also grew away from them, while always needing and missing them as well as her doting grandmother to whom she could always run for comfort.

When her parents returned home after leaving her at Shanti Bhavan on her first day at school, “watching our families walk away was too painful,” she recalls. Over years punctuated by bouts of intense sadness and bad-tempered misbehavior Shilpa, described herself as “adrift in the rough waters of grief.”

Shilpa and her classmates were in many ways fortunate. Abraham George, the founder of Shanti Bhavan and recently his son Ajit and their dedicated staff dealt carefully and with understanding — if sometimes sternly — with the children in their care. The loss of a better future always hangs over the children as a spoken or unspoken threat, and most seem sooner or later able to cope with their sometimes tormented lives.

The story of the school — day to day and year to year — became a four-part documentary on Netflix, released this past summer. Shilpa and three of her classmates are the focus of the film, “Daughters of Destiny.”

Three of those young women, including Shilpa, were in New York in early November at a Shanti Bhavan fundraising gala. The school, which has survived some rough financial moments, is now planning to open a second campus, a Shanti Bhavan II in India. The private project, which pays all the expenses of its disadvantaged pupils, depends on support from donors in the U.S., Europe and other places in the Indian diaspora. Hundreds of families are now asking for places for their children.

Toward the end of her book, Shilpa takes stock: “I had entered the world in a haunted hut in a village in South India bound to centuries of tradition, one that didn’t smile upon the likes of me. Yet, I was spared a spot at the edge of the woods where baby girls like me were poisoned and buried, never to be spoken of again. “Today I can aspire to be a writer, to travel the world and learn about other cultures….I want to be a voice for the poor and the deprived, and a catalyst for change.”

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Barbara Crossette was formerly the New York Times chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia, and the paper’s UN bureau chief from 1994 to 2001.

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