What did you read as a child? Many of us in India grew up on a diet of books (remember Enid Blytons?) starring red-haired and blue-eyed children, who tuck into buttered scones for tea and take ginger beer along for picnics. While these stories were, and still are, entertaining and enlightening, my peers and I craved stories about brown-skinned and black-eyed children like us—children who prance around the vibrant terrains of India, play hopscotch on mud-plastered floors, climb mango trees on hot summer afternoons, and explore the golden dunes of Rajasthan and the cool white marble of the Taj Mahal.
Well, my generation may not have had access to such books, but today’s children can definitely enjoy and learn from books steeped in the gorgeous colors and languages of India. MeeraMasi and Tulika are two children’s book publishing companies which bring out such products. MeeraMasi is based in the United States, while Tulika is in India; interestingly, both were started by enterprising and creative women who wanted to publish books with which Indian children would identify. Their books have also introduced people from various cultures and countries to contemporary India.
“Can I wear ‘Juhi Tails’ in my hair today?” “Can we get a camel to ride?” These are questions that little children ask their parents after devouring the adventures of Jay and Juhi.
A little Indian-American girl points to the sun and says with glee, “Mommy, look, suraj nikla(the sun came out),” a term that she learnt recently from her Chote Mote Makade board book. Young readers invariably want to explore India—just like the brother-sister duo, Jay and Juhi, the popular protagonists of the adventure-culture series conceptualized and published by MeeraMasi. The children’s book publisher is known for its high quality bilingual books in English, Hindi, Punjabi, and Gujarati.
Sisters Sonali Sahni Herrera and Sheetal Sahni Singhal created MeeraMasi in summer 2005. After a lot of hard work and research, they released a five-set nursery rhyme board book series with a sing-along CD called Khushe Manao in February 2006. Herrera, a marketing professional, and Singhal, a bharatnatyam dancer and teacher, wanted to publish storybooks that would “create curiosity in children about Indian culture and language.” They do just that by working with education experts and passionate authors to come up with stories that will get children excited about all things Indian.
MeeraMasi literally means “Meera Aunty”; masi is a term used for mother’s sister. “Since we are sisters,” Herrera says, “we are also each other’s children’s masi, and we of course enjoy doting over our nieces and nephews. The kids, in turn, love Masi.” Herrera has two kids, ages three and five, and Singhal has four children ranging from five to 17 years old.
As a company name, “Masi” was chosen because “[aunts] are so much fun; they are always the ones who tell the coolest stories and the funniest jokes,” while “Meera” has an easy flow. According to the sisters, “Now every child has a Masi to share Indian culture with them in a fun way!”
True to their name and mission, Herrera and Singhal have produced learning tools that help children of Indian and non-Indian origin appreciate Indian culture and languages. The Jay and Juhi Adventures series is about siblings who explore the history, art, geography, and culture of India through the use of a magic flute and an electronic encyclopedia. The Khushe Manao Series is for anyone more than six months of age and was one of the first Hindi board books to be released into the market. MeeraMasi also brings out learning tools such as Varnamala Geet, counting books, and “opposite-word” books to help children learn the Hindi alphabet, numbers, and antonyms.
While the stories and rhymes are interesting and educational, and the illustrations are lively and colorful, there is a secret that make MeeraMasi books so unique. “All of our books contain either a sing-along or read-along audio component. This is a very important element, as it helps with proper pronunciation as well as stimulates children through another sense,” explains Herrera. The books also have Hindi script with English translation as well as an English transliteration “for all those like me who might have grown up speaking and understanding Hindi, but not learning the script, and who want to be able to read to their children in Hindi.”
MeeraMasi’s popularity can also be attributed to their emphasis on quality. “We always want to stay true to our mission of good quality as far as content and materials go, because we know that is the only way we can build and sustain a good customer base,” says Singhal. “We want Indian kids to give equal value to Hindi children’s literature. We want to show them that there is something out there that is equivalent to all the English children’s literature that we are all so familiar with.”
Their challenge is now to “get Hindi bilingual books the same shelf space as Spanish and Mandarin in the United States.”
Put together with a lot of care, each Tulika book depicts a world that a child can explore, characters that s/he would want to be friends with, and stories in which the little reader can participate. There’s the series about Bahadur the baby elephant and his friends in the jungle; there’s Sunu-sunu the Snail, who lives in the corner of your garden. The Why Why Girl has innumerable questions, and Sabri has a passion for drawing and penchant for colors. Rifle through the Tulika shelf or scan their catalogue, and you’ll encounter other interesting characters like Basava, who lives on the edge of the forest and has fireflies for friends, an eccentric king who loves curly, crisp jalebis a little too much, and Takdir the tiger cub and Lai-Lai the baby elephant.
Pick up any Tulika book, and you are sure to get hooked. Stories about children, animals, and birds, both contemporary and folk, come together with a medley of rich colors and innovative styles of illustration. The worlds depicted are enchanting and quirky, and the protagonists are easy to identify with. Characters like Gagan, Bahadur, Malu, and Appu speak English as well as several other Indian languages.
“Our focus is to give children images of India that we would like them to grow up with—images that go on to show how all parts of this world come together to make it a diverse and dynamic whole,” explains Sandhya Rao, an editor, author, and a founding member of the Chennai-based independent children’s book publishing company.
In 1996, Radhika Menon, Tulika’s Managing Director, and Rao, got together and created their first book, Line and Circle. Like the founders of MeeraMasi, they started with a desire to provide children with good books in English and other Indian languages that they would enjoy and to which they could relate. Over the past 13 years, Tulika has created 129 titles in nine languages: English, Hindi, Bengali, Gujarati, Kannada, Malayalam, Marathi, Tamil, and Telugu. Rao recalls that initially shops in India were reluctant to stock books in Indian languages. “But now,” she says, “we have people asking for bilingual books.”
With titles like My Mother’s Sari, The Never-ending Story, Norbu’s New Shoes, and Busy-Busy Grand Aunt, Tulika books reflect the real India and real children, “the life, times, and concerns of contemporary India.”
Rao explains that the Tulika team works closely with authors, illustrators, and translators to present ideas, folktales, and issues to children in a sensitive way. “We are very particular about the kind of stories we choose, and do not promote stereotypes. Our books reflect us, and we want other children across the world to read stories about us.”
Learn more about the books and publishing companies at www.meeramasi.com and www.tulikabooks.com
Chandana Banerjee is an independent writer based in India.