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Ek chai…doh samosay…chaar rusk…paanch dhoklay…saat ildi…nau pakoray…dus ladoo…Now, isn’t that a fun way to learn how to count?
A recent children’s book focused on teaching children Hindi through fun Indian snack foods, One Two Three Chai: A Hindi-English Counting Book, does exactly that. With bright, colorful illustrations of some lip-smacking Indian snacks, the book teaches young children how to count in Hindi from one to ten.
California-based techie Varun Bhartia wrote One, Two, Three Chai for his nine-month-old daughter, Veera, with the aim to connect her with her roots and teach her Hindi. Growing up in Minnesota as the only person of Indian origin in his neighborhood, Bhartia also wanted to show her something authoritative and professional in the language which makes her feel that Hindi is acceptable and ‘equal’.
Hailing from a technology and entrepreneurship background, Bhartia completed his MBA at Harvard Business School and studied engineering at the University of Arizona. Previously, he founded an Ed-tech company and is currently a Product Manager at YouTube, where he focuses on building new features for Kids and Families. Outside of work, he loves finding new ways to make his infant daughter laugh and write children’s books that appeal to adults and kids.
In this exclusive interview, he talks to us among other things about how NRI parents can use the book to help connect Indian children to their roots, plans to develop versions of the book in other Indian regional languages, and donating proceeds from the book to help fund education for underprivileged children in India.
How did you think of creating a book focused on teaching children Hindi through fun Indian snack foods?
My fondest memories are visiting family in India and catching up over food. From elaborate “breakfasts” at 11 am, to devouring street food in the middle of the night (knowing full well that I would get sick), food has always been more than just consuming calories.
Indian food for me has always been a bridge that enabled me to connect my western upbringing in the US with my family in India. I realized from an early age that Indian food and snacks are a key part of our culture. I knew that if I were ever to write a children’s book about India, it would revolve around food in some way.
It’s also just fun to illustrate samosas with faces.
As an NRI parent, how did you feel a book like this would help connect Indian children to their roots?
When I was six, my family and I moved from a relatively small town in India to St. Paul, MN. I was the only Indian person in my grade and we were the only non-white family in my neighborhood.
Even though I had a wonderful childhood, a large part of my youth was spent trying to fit in and be more ‘American’. I pretended to like hot dogs and baseball, while hiding elements of my Indian roots. Even when I went to college I tried to go by Mike, believing that I could fit in better. The only problem was that I couldn’t remember to respond to Mike. This wasn’t entirely a bad thing, I learned to adapt and persevere in many situations that others might find uncomfortable.
It wasn’t until my late 20s that I truly felt comfortable in my own skin and could embrace my identity. I love Indian food, and I wasn’t embarrassed to tell others. I love Bollywood music, and I wasn’t afraid to share playlists with both Bollywood and American music.
Part of my desire to become more ‘American’ was influenced by the fact that growing up I had nothing that was relatable and credible that made me feel it was okay to be Indian. As naive as it sounds, my secret hope is that this book is a small reminder for my daughter and kids around the world that it’s okay to embrace cultures that may not be the majority.
What is the response you have received from children and parents?
It’s been unbelievably positive! My friends send me videos about how they memorized the numbers and the associated food, and sing it in the car with their kids.
My favorite audience has been grandparents! They absolutely love reading this book to their grandchildren. The book serves as a true generational bridge for grandparents
You are donating proceeds from the book to Ekal to help fund education for underprivileged children in India. Tell us more about this.
Yes! I couldn’t be more excited! I owe so much of my happiness and success to luck. At a young age, I won a ticket to America. My family wasn’t rich, nor did we come to the US for education or even employment. We were just lucky to get sponsored by my aunt and uncle.
Others aren’t so lucky. Especially during Covid, I hope the proceeds from this book not only provide safety and knowledge for underprivileged children, but more importantly encourage them to dream big and believe that anything is possible.
Ekal is an organization that I’ve gotten to know well over the years. Its mission of helping children in rural India not only personally resonates with me but is one of the most effective ways that I can give back. For just a dollar a day, Ekal can support a school with 30 children and a teacher!
What are your plans for developing versions of the book in other Indian regional languages (Gujarati, Telugu, Punjabi, etc.)?
Yes! I shared an early draft of the book with some friends at work. The response was insanely positive, and I got a ton of requests for languages around India.
I’m super excited to release five more versions by the end of the year covering Gujarati, Punjabi, Telugu, Tamil, and Bengali. I’m partnering with friends who speak those languages and can help me understand the unique cultures and food around India. Each version of the book contains food that is appropriate to the region where the language is primarily spoken. I’m learning so so much about all of India!
Do you also plan to develop books with different concepts in the future (such as colors maybe)?
Yes! Besides the different versions of the book, we’re also working on a Hindi alphabet book, as well as a Maggi cookbook that covers all of the creative ways to make Maggi noodles. Of course, this is just a fun project designed to make people laugh. I get really excited about creating experiences that make people laugh and bring joy, and I create new things when I have time.
Neha Kirpal is a freelance writer based in Delhi. She is the author of Wanderlust for the Soul, an e-book collection of short stories based on travel in different parts of the world.