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Interport Lecturer- India

Shilpa Raj

Shilpa was born in a poor rural village in Karnataka, India, called Thattaguppe. Her father, then a local bootlegger and now an elephant chaser, had been illiterate and poor all his life. For generations he and those before him were trapped in a vicious cycle of poverty and social oppression from which they saw no escape.

Shilpa’s life would have been no different from his — filled with hardships brought on by poverty and violence — had she not at the age of four been selected to study in a free, boarding school called Shanti Bhavan for children from economically and socially disadvantaged families in India. Dr. Abraham George, the founder of the school, firmly believes that if poor children are given the same opportunities to succeed as their rich peers, they could do just as well. All we needed is a fair chance.

Shilpa was then too young to truly understand what this all meant and where her place was in the larger scheme of a unique approach to tackling social and economic deprivation. She also didn’t know if she had the ability to cope with an intensive academic program, given that she had no role models in her family to emulate. Shilpa’s parents and those before them had juggled their lives with menial jobs, even as bonded labourers, bound to the mercy of powerful landlords. For generations, they didn’t get a chance to break free from the challenges bearing down on them.

Until Shilpa.

Unlike others in her family, she grew up not knowing hunger or want, and benefitted from a proper upbringing in a protected and loving environment. In school, she was encouraged by her teachers to be curious, to question, to voice her opinions and to aspire for success. She was always treated as an equal to boys, unlike the women in her village who lived in submission to a patriarchal system.

During school vacations, Shilpa came face to face with the harsh realities experienced by her family. Her younger sister’s suicide at the age of fourteen altered the meaning she’d attached to her life thus far. As she struggled to cope with her loss, she came to the startling realization that her sister’s struggles were not isolated; it reverberated with that of millions of children from India’s social underclass growing up in an oppressive system that was encrypted in faulty personal values, domestic violence, alcoholism, and a way of life that needed integral amends.

Mental health awareness is practically non-existent among the people of Shilpa’s community. Hardly do they know that there are healthier alternatives to their ways of thinking and behaving. She has noticed that people tend to act impulsively upon emotion, often leading to unwarranted consequences, not just for themselves but for the entire family. The high rate of suicides further cemented her desire to help her community have access to mental health care, especially for children who are the most vulnerable.

With this in mind, in June of 2017, Shilpa took Psychology as her major in college, and later graduated with a Master’s degree in Psychological Counseling. She also assisted the social work department of the Spastic Society of Karnataka, Bangalore, in doing in-takes, observations, and counseling children and parents on learning disabilities. She also took classes on developmental psychology for parents of autistic children. This gave Shilpa a rich first-hand experience as a trainee counselor in India where the stigma concerning mental health issues continue to hinder people from reaching out for timely support.

Shilpa will be completing a two year M Phil program in Child & Adolescent Psychology next April. She wants to specialize in this field so that she can help children, especially those in deprived communities, who are struggling emotionally and psychologically. Shilpa hopes to start her own clinics someday and hopes to make mental health care accessible for underserved communities.

She has realized through her schooling at Shanti Bhavan and with the publication of her memoir, The Elephant Chaser’s Daughter, that there is nothing more liberating than personal empowerment. The voice she has found through her education and now as an author, have given her great confidence and the courage to continue fighting for what is right and put her talents to good use. Shilpa is also committed to serving those who need her assistance, especially in the field of mental health.