Shilpa Raj: An Interview
Amit Mishra: A great debut, Shilpa, I must say! Few are the authors who would take that challenge to debut with a memoir! How do you feel having been published and made your entry as a serious author?
Shilpa Raj: It is exciting for me to have my first book published by a reputed publisher. I am particularly happy that I was able to tell my story in this memoir. The heart-warming comments I have received are very encouraging. I feel confident to take up challenging subjects for my next story. I have always believed in the power of the written form, and having this book published convinced me on how one can use the written word to communicate with the world at large.
Amit Mishra: It is mentioned in the reports that you took around 7 years to complete this memoir. Please tell me about the duration and the writing for the work. How did you manage to keep the dots connected over such a long period?
Shilpa Raj: Yes, it did take 7 years to complete this memoir owing to the fact that I was very young and was pursuing my undergraduate and graduate studies. Being a novice, it took a lot of time to refine my writing skills and develop my own writing style. Writing as a skill can only be developed over time and through practice and hence these seven years gave me a lot of time to experiment and explore different writing styles and find my own voice as a writer.
Amit Mishra: Please tell me about your writing motivation. What motivates you to write? What keeps you chasing the writing goal?
Shilpa Raj: From a young age, I was a voracious reader and enjoyed reading both during class hours and outside. I was fortunate to have teachers who encouraged me to develop my ability to write. I was exposed to various writers, both Indian and Western all throughout my school and college days.
While dealing with certain family difficulties, I always turned to writing as a way to express myself and vent my emotions. And in the process, I began to enjoy the therapeutic relief that writing provided me.
Amit Mishra: What kinds of book do you like reading? Who are your favourite authors from India as well as outside India?
Shilpa Raj: I love reading both non-fiction and fiction. I enjoy particularly reading memoirs because I learn a lot from the real lives of people and their personal journeys. Some of my favourite fiction authors are Jhumpa Lahiri, Anita Desai, Rohinton Mistry, Saadat Hasan Manto, John Steinbeck and Harper Lee, among many others.
Amit Mishra: Coming to The Elephant Chaser’s Daughter now, Shilpa, your book tells about many problems that we have in our society. Did you write just spontaneously about your life or you intended to bring out this side of our society? Because the memoir by you becomes just universal and it talks for all! How did you manage?
Shilpa Raj: My book was never intended solely to be a subjective commentary on society and its flaws. In the process of writing about my real life and my journey, I touched upon issues such as bonded labour, domestic abuse, social discrimination and so forth. These were issues that my family and I had encountered, and through narrating their stories, these issues were raised and reflected upon.
Amit Mishra: Your memoir has more than 15 chapters. If I ask you which one is the closest to your heart chapter, what would be your reply?
Shilpa Raj: Chapter 8, ‘A Walk in the Woods’ is very special to me because it briefly captures the process through which I began to understand my father in a way I had never before. Having grown up physically and emotionally distant from him, it bothered me that I knew so little about him other than from the ugly tales that my grandmother and mother used to tell me. I grew up disliking him for all the troubles he had caused my mother.
But through the process of investigating and searching for the story, I began a series of interviews with different family members. My father preferred talking to me in the sanctuary of the woods where he was most comfortable with himself. Every day, we sat there for a few hours as he revealed so much about his childhood and his past. At the end of these interviews, I felt that I had finally gotten to know him a little more and I learnt to accept him for who he is.
Amit Mishra: You have mentioned in detail about your life at Shanti Bhavan. How do you see your association with the institution today? Please share one or two of your best memories there.
Shilpa Raj: My bond with Shanti Bhavan is lifelong because it was not simply a school for me but also a home. At Shanti Bhavan, I found people in their roles of caretakers and friends, provided me with a sense of security, stability and lots of love. Having left home at a very young age, I often craved to feel like I was part of a family and Shanti Bhavan fulfilled those emotional needs.
Today, I work as a part-time English teacher at Shanti Bhavan and the rest of the time I spend working as a counsellor at Spastics Society of Karnataka where I deal with young people with severe neuromuscular disorders and autism. My friends and family members in Shanti Bhavan are constantly supporting and encouraging me to pursue my dream of writing and establishing myself as a skilled counsellor.
One of my best memories of my life at Shanti Bhavan will always be of my first day at the school, back in the year 1997. My parents had just left me there and I was confused as to where I had been brought. I was given a neat haircut by one of the caretakers and then taken for a bath. I was amazed at seeing water gushing out from the taps, and feeling the smooth touch of white tiles underneath my feet, and the bubbles from the soap. I had not previously taken bath in a bathroom before or used shampoo. I describe those moments in my book very fondly.
Amit Mishra: A general question – how do you see Indian English writing today? You have been a person who loves literature and you must have come across many authors. What changes do you think have been coming with time to Indian literature?
Shilpa Raj: Like other national authors, Indian literature too, has some very good authors and others aspiring to make a mark. I was impressed to see several authors like Chetan Bhagat adopting a style of writing that appeals to the common man. The themes are usually authentic to Indian origin and lifestyle, and these days the writing is more courageous and critical of our established system.
Amit Mishra: You are young, Shilpa and you have years of writing ahead. What is your motive behind being an author?
Shilpa Raj: Everyone has a different and unique way of expressing his or her innermost feelings and thoughts. I always found a personal sanctuary in reading and writing. Penning down my thoughts and emotions during challenging moments helped me process the event and better understand what I was going through. I realized that writing had become a great source of therapeutic relief and comfort for me just like musicians turn to their music for solace.
Along the process of writing this book, I also got to know about the lives of others who were connected to me. Learning about the struggles and challenges that others had faced made me appreciate the good that I had been given in life. The lessons I learnt from the stories of others gave me strength and comfort.
I will continue to pursue my love for writing because it gives me the power to speak for those who don’t have a voice or aren’t heard. I have come to understand the social duty that I have as an author.
Amit Mishra: Your message to the readers of your book, The Elephant Chaser’s Daughter, Shilpa? What would you like to tell to the readers?
Shilpa Raj: It took me a long time to muster the courage to talk about my personal life because of my feelings of denial, pain, shame and confusion that came along with it. But finally, when I did decide to write my story in its complete honesty, I was able to move past my immediate vulnerability and come to terms with all that had happened with maturity and greater understanding. Writing about my life helped me finally deal with my past and acknowledge my present with gratitude and humility.
Amit Mishra: Best of luck to you from the entire team at The Indian Authors! We hope your book and your message reaches to the audience as you have expected!
Shilpa Raj: Thank you very much.