Two years ago while pregnant with her first child, Sailaja Joshi was determined to find a set of children’s books that narrated the stories of India’s heritage and culture. As a sociologist and anthropologist by training, Sailaja understood the critical developmental role of representative literature and wanted books appropriate for her daughter from the minute she was born. The disappointing results startled Joshi. More often than not, the books she found were problematic in their depiction of South Asians and were intended for older children.
That’s when she decided to solve the problem herself. Joshi launched Bharat Babies, a publishing company with the mission of designing and producing developmentally appropriate books that tell the story of India’s heritage. Bharat Babies’ first book, Hanuman and the Orange Sun, is expected to launch in May 2015 and is available for pre-order.
I recently sat down with the busy mother and entrepreneur to talk about the intersections of faith, representation, and identity. The following interview has been edited for length.
NB: Before this interview, I was thinking about how many portrayals of children of color in books are very historical. Only recently have they started featuring kids doing kid things. From that perspective, what kind of stories do you want to tell with Bharat Babies? Is it specifically Hindu stories or religious stories?
SJ: I think it’s a lot of things. Right now, and probably for the next year or two depending on our funding situation, our stories are going to focus on religions that call India home. And that’s because there is a clear need in the market for developmentally appropriate books that tell the stories of Hindu culture, that tell the stories of Islam, that tell the stories of Jainism, Sikhism, and Buddhism. There aren’t any texts that address any of those faiths in a way that is respectful, or in a way that’s developmentally appropriate. That’s one of the ways I hope Bharat Babies can come to life and fruition.
We are thinking hard and critically about the stories we’re presenting, as well as the communities we are representing. I never want to say there is one right way to represent a culture or a community, or that Bharat Babies is doing the best job at it. This is why we have started to gather what we call “cultural advisors,” or individuals who are passionate about sharing stories from their communities.
I recently spoke to a mother who couldn’t contribute with writing or financing, but wanted to help our effort. And now she is going to help us create stories for our Sikh community! I love how this mother is helping us in such an important way, but what we give her is also going to help her children and help her community.
By no means do we think we can do it alone, or even want to attempt to say we can do it alone. I’d much rather have all these wonderful bodies of knowledge to inform this process so we can create it together.
NB: Speaking of characters your daughter can relate to, let’s talk about Harini, the spunky main character of Bharat Babies’ first book. Can you tell us about Harini and how she was developed?
SJ: I approached our author, Amy Maranville, with the company idea and later approached her with the text, when I quickly realized that I had a vision for the company but didn’t have the capabilities to write as a children’s writer. It’s an incredibly difficult art and I wanted someone who was well versed in that space.
From her research and education, Amy knew that having a character a child could relate to was essential. When she came up with Harini, I instantly loved her, and our illustrator Tim Palin, brought her to life. It has been so amazing to hear that not only my daughter — who is obsessed with Harini and loves to see pictures of her on my phone — but also other children really relate to her and seeing themselves in her. It’s incredibly rewarding at such an early stage to receive feedback from both parents and their children.
NB: Harini is depicted as a bright little girl with short black hair. More importantly, she is not fair-skinned. If you look at the old school Amar Chitra Kathas many of us received when we were younger, many of the main characters were very, very pale. Was there a specific decision on your end in how Harini’s skin color and hair were presented?
SJ: Yes! Amy and I felt very strongly about making Harini a darker skinned girl. We both understood that there aren’t many book out there with characters that look like my daughter. And my daughter certainly isn’t the only one.
NB: How do you think book characters impact how children create their own identity, especially in terms of beauty? In the past, a lot of your work as an anthropologist touched on how South Asian American women conceived of beauty and the complex interaction of South Asian and American norms.
SJ: Being able to see yourself and see yourself in a positive light, whether it is a simple character in a book or a more complex character in a novel, helps you to realize that there are multiple facets to your identity. The decision to make Harini darker skinned was tactical and purposeful for us, but at the end of the day, it’s not something that’s part of the story. It’s not something we ever plan to make part of the story because she’s simply an Indian girl who is also American.
We very much wanted Harini to have that dual identity. We wanted Harini to eat a mix of Indian food and American food, and maybe interchange her English words with Telugu words or another Indian language because that dual identity was important to us.
To get back to your question, on a very basic level, my daughter very clearly knows when it is her and when it is not her. She can tell the difference between a book that has a white boy with blue eyes and a book that has a brown girl with brown eyes. For her to see herself at the very basic level is critical so she can understand that her identity is represented in a larger culture and context.
NB: What motivated your shift away from academia?
SJ: I left academia last year, after the first year of my PhD program. I had been working for four years towards getting into a PhD program. I took on extra master’s degrees, speaking at conferences, writing papers — really immersing myself in the academic world. After a year in the program, I understood a couple of things. One, my heart wasn’t in it. I loved teaching students, working with students, and creating lesson plans. I even liked the mundanity of correcting papers. But I disliked writing papers myself, despite enjoying conducting the research for them. And that’s your life as an academic and it can easily be 80 percent of your life. It’s write or die.
I also realized that the dedication needed to be even moderately successful in academia was at minimum a 60-hour week. I took a look at myself: I was a mother and I had a husband who was also an academic. It just wasn’t going to work with the vision of the mother I wanted to be for my daughter and the way I wanted to support my family. I realized that it would mean being absent, a lot. I recognized that I had these other goals, these other dreams, which could merge better with my vision. And so I left.
NB: How easy was it for you to leave academia behind?
Very, very hard. I have always wanted to be a professor. Always wanted to be a doctor. I used to play “college” when I was little, setting up my stuffed animals in a room to present my scientific reports and teach them. It was something I always, always wanted to do. So telling my family that I was leaving was incredibly difficult.
People were very shocked and I think people thought I was leaving because it got “too hard.” In reality, I was leaving because it wasn’t for me; it wasn’t the right fit and it wasn’t the right time. It was always available to me again.
NB: The work you’re doing now is material that academics down the line can research — looking back and examining texts. Like, there will actually be a body of literature out there with South Asian Americans in them for someone to study.
SJ: Part of the push I also felt was that I didn’t think I was doing enough. It takes so long for any manuscript to get anywhere, for any research to be done, and nothing felt actionable. Nothing felt relatable. Everything felt like it was taking such a long time, and it wasn’t going to go anywhere. I wrote both of my theses, and I remember thinking this is great, but now what? What am I going to do with this eighty-page document?
Leaving was the best decision I ever made. Quitting and leaving something helps you to understand your failures, helps you to understand yourself, and helps you to rise and succeed. While the work I was doing on South Asian American women is still completely underrepresented in the social sciences, I think of the work that I’m doing now as sort of an extension of that. It is still working with the same communities and thinking of them in a critical way. It’s just presenting that information in a very different format.
NB: I was reflecting on Bobby Jindal’s recent statements on not believing in “hyphenated Americans,” referring to his own heritage as an Indian American. It seems to me that Bharat Babies’ vision is to walk that line of hyphenation in a way that is not assimilation, but educational.
SJ: I am very proud of both of the identities that shaped my life. I grew up here in Massachusetts where everyone claims to be Irish American, and it is very weird to me to not have a hyphenated place. There are very few people who can really claim to call themselves “American.” To be American is to be part of a melting pot of a variety of different cultures and communities.
Bharat Babies is definitely not about assimilation, but of education and recognition of the growing community that exists here in the United States and acknowledging that they exist, and helping children find a language in which they can understand this culture and these communities.
NB: And while simultaneously negating misperceptions, maybe?
SJ: Absolutely. This is very political in that sense that I grew up in a place where India was a unit. I was expected to know everything about India because I was the only Indian person in the classroom, but Bobby O’Hara didn’t have to know everything about Ireland. I had to represent my culture and my community — I had to explain why we had the dot on our forehead and why cows were sacred.
I remember going to school in Indian clothing and wearing a bottu, bindi, on my forehead. I was very proud of it, but kids used to say, “Oh, I can’t believe you’re getting married!” And even my teachers would say that! They just presumed that it was a trait of marriage. I wasn’t old enough to explain the detailed nuances surrounding the bottu, so I just stopped wearing it. I no longer felt comfortable wearing it.
Being able to have accessible literature for children where they can understand the cultural milestones and celebrations is important. We are a growing community here in the United States with a rich history and background that has been taken for granted and written incorrectly about for so long — and continues to be misrepresented.
NB: As the diaspora continues to grow, there are so many South Asian Americans who are not first gen, who are not second gen. Rather, they are third and fourth generation. Sometimes, under the circumstances our families have come to this country, we haven’t had exposure to that knowledge of why or how we do certain things. It seems like these books will be educational for parents who simply have not had access to that kind of cultural information.
SJ: In the Hindu youth work that I did, I met a lot of young, married families who started to become young parents. A lot of the laments I heard were, “I don’t remember those stories,” or, “My naniji told me those stories, but we just do it.” Part of Bharat Babies’ mission is to empower parents with the knowledge of their culture that they can then pass on.
It was so difficult for that first and second generation who had to come here and often had to assimilate, because if you weren’t in a highly populated diaspora community, you just had to go with whatever was on TV and explain your heritage. Or, you just melted away. Krishna became Chris, and India was only at home, while America was everything else.
I hope that part of what Bharat Babies can do is help families recognize those gaps in knowledge and fill them. The goal is also to help classrooms and libraries educate audiences about our community, our heritage.
Nina Bhattacharya is a public health professional and lipstick enthusiast with a passion for facilitating dialogues on faith and feminism. She previously served as a Fulbright fellow in Indonesia. You can find her on Twitter at @onlynina.