When friends ask Indian supermodel Anjhula Singh Bais which of the celebrities she meets make her "weak in the knees," they expect an answer like Bollywood hunk Shahrukh Khan or Hollywood's Hugh Jackman. Instead, she tells them it's Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the diminutive Burmese freedom fighter who lived under house arrest for 20 years and recently announced her intentions to run for that country's president.
"She is absolutely a role model for how I live my life," asserts Bais, an international psychology doctoral student at The Chicago School of Professional Psychology specializing in trauma.
Bais's passion for psychology and human rights is evident as she talks about improving opportunities for women in underdeveloped countries, quotes Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi, and describes her commitment to Nichiren Buddhism, the school of Japanese Buddhism that holds that people are capable of becoming enlightened in this lifetime.
Bais was raised in two countries: India, in the northern city of Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh, and the United States, in Chicago and Lincoln, Neb. At age 14, she was discovered as a model while visiting her sister in New York. A fashion scout stopped Bais on the street, and her sister quickly intervened, telling the scout that while she might allow her sister to model at some point, she was too young now. At age 18, Bais accepted her first modeling gig for a Banana Republic campaign. She has since modeled for Vogue, Pepsi, Nivea, and Bumble and Bumble, a hair-products line owned by Esteé Lauder. She has strolled the runway for "fashion week" worldwide, including in New York, London, Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia and India, with plans for events in Australia, France, Italy, Greece and Korea in 2014.
At the same time as she was pursuing her modeling career, she was nurturing her brain at Lady Shri Ram College, a prestigious women's college in India that is part of the University of Delhi. She earned a degree in psychology and philosophy with honors in 2005. (The college is the same school where Aung San Suu Kyi got her degree.) She went on to earn a master's in psychoanalysis from University College London in 2007, then began doctoral-level research in clinical psychology at Columbia University, where between 2008-10 she studied with famed personality researcher Walter Mischel, PhD, social relations investigator Geraldine Downey, PhD, and multicultural social psychologist Michael Morris, PhD, among others.
It was a formative experience learning from these greats, she says.
"To attend an intimate seminar of 10 students with Walter Mischel — the very man who pioneered the concept of delayed gratification — was humbling," she says.
Downey showed her that an immigrant woman could hold her own with superlative male academic colleagues, while Morris showed her the invaluable balance of being scholarly but well-respected by students because of his rigorous yet empathetic approach to work and life.
Hostages at the palace
But it was a shocking incident that put Bais on what she considers her true path of international psychology.
In October 2010, in the Indian resort city of Deogarh, Rajasthan, Bais had just finished celebrating her marriage to Satish Selvanathan, a private equity specialist who helps to turn around distressed assets in agriculture and frontier markets. After a four-day celebration, they headed to meet 20 of their good friends for a post-wedding safari.
As they climbed into their utility vehicle where their driver was waiting for them, five men appeared, one flashing a gun. The gunman ordered all three to move into his car, and drove the group to the palace where the bride and groom had just married. When they arrived, he pushed them through a palace gate into an open courtyard, locking the heavy doors behind them.
For the next 16 hours, they were held at gunpoint, surrounded by five loutish men and shivering in the desert cold.
"It was like something out of a bad movie," Bais recalls.
The men, it turns out, were vendors who had provided power for outdoor tents that had been used at the wedding. The gunman — who had Googled the couple's backgrounds and learned they were from affluent families — kept demanding that they sign a blank check for him, arguing that they could easily afford it.
At first the situation made Bais feel powerless, vulnerable and scared, but soon, righteous indignation took over.
"You don't understand — it's not about money," she chastised the gunman. "Don't you have daughters — how could you do this?"
Eventually, she wore the man down and he let them go. In fact, as they headed back to their car, he apologized. "I know this won't matter, but I'm sorry for ruining your wedding," he told her.
"That's where you're wrong," Bais replied. "It does matter. It is this kind of thing that moves people to greater consciousness and awareness."
The incident changed Bais's outlook on life.
"Satish and I talk about 'B.D.' and 'A.D.,' or 'before Deogarh' and 'after Deogarh,'" she says. "We don't approach anything the same way we did before, and I mean that in a good sense."
For one thing, it made her think about the differences between places like India, where corruption is rampant in some parts of the country, and the United States, which despite its imperfections, strives for a system of justice. In the aftermath of the kidnapping incident, for instance, Indian authorities tampered with and suppressed information that would have led to the men's arrest, recounting different versions of whether or not they had received an initial investigative report from Bais, for example. She later found out that rich family members connected to the gunmen had bought the authorities off.
For another, it reinforced her belief that criminal behavior is often the result of poverty and need, an impression confirmed on trips she's taken to other developing countries.
"The vendors [who kidnapped her] were so desperate for money that they'd go to extreme lengths to get it," she says. "It all ties into the caste system, to the way the government operates, to politics."
Shortly after she came to that realization, she stumbled across information about The Chicago School's program — the only doctoral program for international psychology in the world — and enrolled in 2010.
It was a perfect fit. "In Buddhism they say, 'Turn poison into medicine,'" says Bais. "In my case, the most horrendous event of my life led me to the thing I love the most" — helping people in oppressed parts of the world gain new life and liberation.
Her fellow students' dissertation topics "would make you weep," she says. They include comparing mental health symptoms in girls and women in Sierra Leone who have experienced genital mutilation and those who have not; how an art exhibit might help Australian aborigines heal from historic trauma; and the impact of Islamophobia on the mental health of Muslims living in Western countries. Her own dissertation will examine ways that high-income Sri Lankans can help their society heal from the trauma of an extended civil war, and what factors might keep them from doing so.
"The program is really … preparing us to be humanitarians and global citizens to the core," says Bais, who plans to graduate in 2014.
After school, Bais plans to pour all of her talents and interests into this kind of work, first by taking a position with an organization that defends human rights, such as Human Rights Watch.
She's already had a wealth of relevant experience. As part of her requisite field work for The Chicago School, for instance, she worked with people in Sierra Leone who have experienced long-term war trauma to help them forgive those who wronged them and build their country's human capital through practical and leadership training in areas including trauma and education.
In 2012, she worked with Tiffany Masson, PsyD, chair of The Chicago School's international psychology program and head of its Global HOPE (Healing Opportunities through Purposeful Engagement) Training Initiative, to counsel, encourage and do therapeutic play with young girls in Zambia who are living as prostitutes and have AIDS. And she was the sole person to represent psychology at the World Economic Forum's Africa and Asia meetings this year, rubbing elbows with heads of state, ministers, top industrialists and other world leaders — including Aung San Suu Kyi herself — to discuss topics such as race relations, environmental concerns, corruption and properly using human capital.
"I could see myself spending 10 more years doing reconciliation work with people who are continuing to experience mass trauma," she says.
Bais also wants to use her celebrity status to help educate more of the world about psychology. She already has offers from major media outlets in the United Kingdom and India to host a psychology talk show on the order of "Dr. Phil," but with a more sophisticated, international slant. She wants to use the media to enlighten and educate people in developing countries, for example, by bringing TED talks to countries that don't have access, such as Sri Lanka and Burma. And she plans to incorporate Buddhist principles, such as mindfulness, into a psychotherapy practice.
Finally, she wants to partner with her husband Satish on whatever humanitarian causes they're moved to endorse. After they were captured in Deogarh, for instance, they created an anti-corruption fund — it was the first entity to offer to pay legal and medical fees for the young physiotherapy intern who was brutally raped on a bus in New Delhi last year.
For that and the other inspirations that can flower from difficult circumstances, she is grateful her married life began as it did.
"Psychology teaches you how to frame things," she says. "For me, [the events after] my wedding portended the great adventures my husband and I will embark on, and the great change we will and do bring about in the world."
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