Reflections on 'Daughters of Destiny'

The outpour of love and support my friends and I have received from many viewers around the world since the release of the Netflix docu-series, Daughters of Destiny, has been indeed humbling. Many seem to be interested in learning more about our lives, and in interacting with them I often find myself reflecting on all that shaped us to be daughters of destiny.

In 2011, I was in the midst of preparing for my final national exams which were to determine the kind of college I could join when I first met the film director, Vanessa Roth. Little did I know then that she was going to be an integral part of my life for the next seven years, silently observing all the happenings in the school through the lens of her camera and with her story-teller’s instinct. I was then seventeen years old and full of questions starting with my own immediate life.

In the beginning, I interacted with Vanessa as one would treat a guest, friendly but careful to give her a good impression. But it didn’t take long for me to let my guard down. Slowly I began to share intimate details about my life both at school and at home. She was understanding of the dreams and desires of a confused young girl quite anxious about her future.

At first I was terribly conscious of being on camera but enjoyed the attention nevertheless. As weeks turned into years, I got accustomed to the presence of the production team on campus. The moments we spent sharing meals, laughter and stories of our lives and of our two different countries and cultures grew into a special friendship.

Credit VR

Vanessa, with her simple and casual style of dressing and friendly nature, was adept at trivializing her presence even while being at the heart of all the action. Her unassuming ways helped me open up to my deep inner feelings and thoughts with the trust that I would be understood and not judged.

I saw the entire project as just another film team doing a story on Shanti Bhavan and didn’t quite understand its significance until it all came together as a four-part series that showcased our stories through its raw cultural, social and gender dynamics. Watching the film with a sense of detachment only deepened my appreciation for Dr. George, Ajit and the entire Shanti Bhavan family who helped transform my life from poverty to one of possibility.

I also got to visit the homes of my four friends for the first time on the screen. I got a better sense of the challenges they too encountered during vacations from school. I was struck by the realization that the film had captured each of us five girls --Theinmozhi, Preetha, Manjula, Karthika and myself -- at pivotal moments in our lives that had left marks in our personal histories.

We were at the threshold of embracing something new. Theinmozhi, the youngest of the five, was moving into adolescence with the typical confusions and questions about the changes happening to her both physically and emotionally. Preetha is seen struggling to handle her personal and professional expectations, and at times seems naturally lost. Manjula who is very driven by her goals is seen wonderfully making the transition from a school girl to a trainee nurse. Through Karthika, we see a passionate aspiring lawyer  acting upon her dreams to be a human rights advocate as she tries to help her community gain sole rights to the quarry land they lived on for many years. In me, you see a girl trying to follow her own heart even when it comes in conflict with the dreams and expectations of her family.

Our individual battles don’t stand isolated from the larger socio-economic influences of poverty, caste discrimination, gender bias and family expectations derived from conservative and traditional beliefs. The conflict of differing belief systems in the two worlds we are a part of is brought out quite distinctly. For instance, while Manjula’s grandfather believes that it is ‘useless to educate a girl’, Dr. George continues to support female education through the Shanti Bhavan program. While my grandmother thinks I should settle down in the village and marry her son, I go on to complete college and travel a path that she nor any other woman in our family has ever had the chance to tread upon.

The fight to strike a balance between these two worlds will be an ongoing one. But what is encouraging is that, as viewers might have noticed by the end of the fourth series, each of the girls has found a clear footing, if not many of the answers to our inner fears. Even in the darkest moments, we will find light through the voice of our education.  We will carry with us the lessons of our upbringing and live the rest of our lives with a sense of personal agency that we gained through our formative years at Shanti Bhavan.  

Haneli barediddu -- what is written on the forehead -- cannot be our destiny. I am responsible for the choices I make and the paths I choose to traverse to create the arc of my fate and the generational change that now starts with me in my family.




Comments

  1. You knew early on in life that you wanted to be a journalist, you followed that through and you are now an excellent writer, a storyteller. I admire you, and yes my own personal belief is that "A good education is a passport to a better life", not just for you but all those that you touch. Wishing you all the best.

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    1. Thank you for your kind words! I'm deeply encouraged.

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  2. You are a beautiful, wonderful, inspiring woman! You deserve all the respect in the world. You express yourself exquisitely and reading your words gives me goose bumps. I can not imagine the trials you have faced, and triumphed! You and all your fellow students, past and present, are true inspirations and role models! I hope you are proud of the wonderful things you are achieving as you most definitely deserve to be!

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    1. Thank you Hannah! I appreciate your words of support for me and all my friends. Life's journey is full of trials but what helped me overcome them was my education and the holistic upbringing I was given at Shanti Bhavan through which I found personal power and most importantly, developed a strong sense of self. I am most grateful. I only wish every child out there who is born into poverty and oppression can be given a chance to rise above it all through the opportunities I was given.

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  3. Shilpa, I've been following the documentary with such and admiration for you all girls and I am so happy to see that you've reached that level where you did what you wanted to, worked hard for it and I wish you all the best. I hope we can get in touch and talk about your writing and all. I will visit India soon and it would be a pleasure to meet you. Stay Blessed.

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    1. Dear Rose, thank you for your kind words. It would be wonderful to meet you someday when you visit Shanti Bhavan. You can find me on Facebook and we'll connect there. Look forward to connecting with you. Thank you.

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  4. Dear Shilpa, I have been profoundly affected by Shanti Bhavan and the journey that every student takes; it has made me truly understand the power and liberation of what education bestows upon those lucky enough to receive it! I love to learn but I have always taken for granted my ability to access education, whenever I wanted and be lucky enough to have benefited from attending many different universities, studying an eclectic mix of subjects simply for the pleasure of learning.

    Reading your book, you narrate with such emotional power the opportunity that your father saw opening up before you, contrasted with the tension and love that your mother felt for you; not wanting to loose you to this brave new world of education. I cannot imagine the emotional torment that you and your family must have experienced, with each passing year and how difficult it must have been to traverse two utterly different worlds! This must have come at great emotional cost to you and all those that love you and are loved by you?

    In the United Kingdom and other developed countries we are not forced to make these choices, education is freely available, and is mandated to the age of 18, how lucky are we?

    When I read your book, I hear your voice in my head, which just increases the intensity of the words on the page, I see your mother and father, your village and school in my minds eye as you narrate your story. Bravo!

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