Question: Congratulations on your book, Shilpa and what a splendid debut it has been! What were your plans when you knew that the book was going to be released when you first heard it? You must have been thinking so many things at that time?
Shilpa Raj: I was very happy and excited about the book being released. I was nervous about it would be received but when comments on Amazon and Goodreads started coming in I was happy to see that they were encouraging. Since then I have been focusing on how to get readers to know about my book and how to get the word out to the world. I have begun to use social media to accomplish this.
Question: What I could read as a reader and then as a book critic, the elephant chaser’s daughter is not only one daughter. I propose it’s a fraternity you are using as a metaphor. It’d be great if you could let the readers know by yourself.
Shilpa Raj: It is absolutely true that the elephant chaser’s daughter is not just my own story. It is indeed a metaphorical representation of many young women like me who have undergone hardship in their families and have struggled to overcome gender and social barriers. In the beginning, I thought that the story I have narrated in The Elephant Chaser’s Daughter was mainly about myself and my sister but over time, I realized that it is also about my friends and other girls out there who have so much common in their personal struggles. I hope I have given them a voice through my book.
Question: So, how did you plan the book? Is it true that you have been writing this book in fractions and then you just thought to bind it up as a book? Please let me go through the backend.
Shilpa Raj: The idea for this book came to me when I was fifteen years old. The school that had offered me the promise of a good future through the education and care it provided was in danger of shutting down due to a financial crisis in 2008. I loved the school and my life there so much that I didn’t want its story to be lost. I began by writing about my days in the school but soon it took on a different form. I tried to discover my own family’s past as days went by in my writing process and how it had all come to shape my present. After seven years of writing, rewriting and discovery, I pieced together in the book what is something a lot more than my own personal story.
Question: Your book is being read not only in India but in different countries as well. Indeed, the book is appealing as it touches many issues, which are ‘touchy’ in India. And you have done it quite well without being so direct. Please let me know about your writing impetus. How could you do what you did?
Shilpa Raj: I never intended to write my story solely as a social commentary and attack the ways of our society. Instead, I focused on being totally honest about my own experiences as a child growing up in a rural village where there were issues like rampant poverty, crime, domestic abuse, gender subjugation and social discrimination based on caste. These topics could not go unspoken of as they are important in the lives of so many. And this book, being a memoir, I had to be true to myself and my role as an author and portray life in its most honest form.
Question: And many readers would surely be interested in knowing why did you exactly name your book The Elephant Chaser’s Daughter? Is there any story behind the title or some hidden message? It’d be interesting to know!
Shilpa Raj: I am an elephant chaser’s daughter. After spending years as an illicit liquor brewer, my father took up the job of chasing wild elephants away from the village to protect sugar cane fields and homes. He has narrated to me and my siblings so many stories of his encounters with wild elephants and I admire his courage.
Until I began to write this book, I didn’t know my father well. My interactions with him growing up were limited because I was away in boarding school and the few times I did go home, I perceived him as crude, selfish and violent from the stories I was told by my mother and grandmother.
But through the process of writing this book, I got to know my father and finally accepted him for who he was. I stopped judging him for his faults and instead tried to change his ways through love and firmness.
I do not want to ignore the fact that part of my identity will always be as his daughter.
Question: On many instances in your book, you have hinted at the issues like untouchability and women suppression. How do you see these issues in our society even today? Where do you think we fail as a society to teach our generation what are the things to be left over and move on?
Shilpa Raj: I feel sad that people look down on others based on the assumed superiority of caste, gender or economic status. While our country has indeed made progress over the past decade or more, there is a long way to go to create an egalitarian society. But it is encouraging to see people being more outspoken about challenging gender and caste issues.
But I personally believe that a failure in our education system to develop children as progressive free thinkers with good values is what keeps us from moving forward with the social conscience.
Question: Your memoir gives very much importance to education and we all know by now that your education happened at Shanti Bhavan. I have read that you also teach the kids in your leisure. How much do you think a good education can make the difference in our society?
Shilpa Raj: Education is the answer. I strongly believe that lack of proper upbringing and quality education are the reasons for many of the problems faced by our society and nation. It is not sufficient that only a few well to do can avail the opportunity of a good education. We must figure out how the nation as a whole can offer it to everyone.
A good education brings about an enlightened population and productive workers. In turn, it will uplift families, bring about better understanding between different segments of the society, and make economic progress. But most importantly, a quality education with a holistic developmental approach will help raise individuals with a deep value and belief system and a social conscience. They will question the wrongs in our society and bring about positive change.
Question: Many readers, as well as critics, are praising your book. You have done quite well in getting them talking about the issues you have raised. What was the exact source, if I may ask, of inspiration which led to the writing of such a book? Do you remember any such incident which made you feel that we still need to be inclusive as a society?
Shilpa Raj: The fear of losing Shanti Bhavan to the global financial crisis of 2008 prompted me to document the daily happenings in the school and my own emotions. It was very important to me that the Shanti Bhavan story wouldn’t be lost. As time passed I continued to record my experiences, past and present, which led me to write about my friends and all those who were responsible for my upbringing at Shanti Bhavan. As my writings grew larger, the idea of a book from these notes began to take shape. As a natural process, it broadened into my discovering my own family story.
As one who shares in the idea of “reverence” for life, there is no question in my mind that all of us must live as one large family respecting and loving each other. I do realize that this is a Utopian thought, but we can certainly promote this within our immediate community and later on a larger scale.
I grew up in a school where almost all of its student body were from poor families. But we learnt along the way that we must accept our differences and not exclude anyone on any basis.
Question: I have read an interview of yours about your choices in the terms of authors. Is there any particular author whom you look up to in the terms of writing? Or someone from the writing fraternity like whom you would like to be?
Shilpa Raj: I admire many authors like Anita Desai, Harper Lee, Manto and others. This is not an exclusive list by any means. In addition to modern writers, I enjoy writing classics such as works of Tolstoy, Hemingway and others. Each one has brought out the complexities of the human drama. I would like to be an author, known one day for giving voice to those whose stories are seldom heard.
Question: How good and how challenging it is to be an author in India? Now that you are experienced and published and doing so well!
Shilpa Raj: The Elephant Chaser’s Daughter being my debut book, I am not yet experienced to know what it takes to become well-known as some of the established authors from India. Like any other profession, it is surely challenging to make a mark. But over time with a following, I hope to contribute to the literary field.
Team Desi Readers thanks Shilpa for her time answering all the questions and wishes her all the best for her book and a bright future!