“Our parents' generation were the doers, but now we're asking, “But why?”
What happens when you blend life experiences together with your superpowers and lean into that confluence to bring to the world something that is inviting, knowledgeable and playful?
This episode’s guest, Sunita shares how her inquisitiveness and early experiences, together with her 25 years in speech and language therapy, helped her write books, introduce toys, and provide content to help demystify the complexity of Hinduism in her platform, The Jai Jais. We hear how Sunita is constantly inspired to learn more, dig deeper, and does so in such a way in which we all get to benefit... even if you follow or subscribe to another religion or culture. As she puts it “I’m just a regular middle-aged mom who wants children to think that religion is not boring and it doesn’t have to be done in a solemn way.” It’s no wonder her platform has enjoyed the success it has so far and has inspired all ages to learn more and ask why.
If you’d like to tell us your story or chat about your thoughts on culture, family, and heritage, we always love to chat. Find us on social @rootandseedco and subscribe to our newsletter to never miss a Root & Seed moment.
Hey, my name is Anika Chabra and you're listening to Root & Seed, a podcast about tradition seekers who were sparked to explore, define, and celebrate their family and cultural identity. We're back! If you like what you hear, please don't forget to subscribe, rate, and review our podcast on your favourite podcast player. We've been told that it helps others find our podcast. So help us get the podcast Gods on our side!
Last time we spoke two ‘tell it like it is’ sisters, Zoe and Brooklyn, who had recently moved to Europe. And while they celebrate their cultures in different ways, they both found the move to be very interesting in shaping their current relationship with their backgrounds.
For episode two, we were so excited to talk to another entrepreneur, Sunita, who has used her professional expertise together with her love and respect for her culture to birth a platform called The Jai Jais. The business includes a selection of books (written by Sunita) and recently launched toys, all in service of her mission to bring ancient Hindu teachings and traditions into the modern world, so that it continues on for generations to come.
At Root & Seed, co-founder Jenn and I have always been pretty upfront about the fact that we're also on a journey to understand our backgrounds. We are not arbitrators, but boy do we have respect for those who are allowing us to get in touch and celebrate our cultures. It's platforms like The Jai Jais that puts celebrating within arm's reach - and for that we are super grateful.
We start our interview at the beginning with Sunita speaking about the influences that shaped her early relationship with her heritage. Here she is.
The biggest influences were my grandparents. So as kids, I've got my brother and I've got my two cousin-sisters. So every time there was any holiday or break we'd spend time with our grandparents. So they would tell us stories every morning, they'd do their malas (prayer beads) or they'd pray. There's always a diya (a small oil lamp) being lit in the house. So we became quite inquisitive. And I think even with my mom, I was quite lucky with the way that she's taught us. Because when I grew up, I grew up in a very small English town called Macclesfield, and it is in Cheshire and it's a very kind of English Town and me and my brother were the only Indians in the school. And so we went to Catholic school, so we'd have the rosary beads on one hand and then we'd have the mala on the other hand. So we'd know Our Father and Hail Mary yet Mum would teach us Gayatri Mantra (a Hindu prayer written in Sanskrit) at home. And I think looking back now, when we were little we were like, "Mum, why do we have to do this? Why do we have to do that?" When it comes to the festivals, every Navratri we'd always be at the temple nine days, nine nights with garba (Indian dance). When it was Lord Krishna’s birthday, you got to stay up at 12 o'clock. And I think such a food culture around the festivals as well, like when we'd fast or my Mum would make sweets and things, it kind of… it was such a family thing.
Sunita had us reminiscing about our own grandparents and elders and the gifts of spending time with them and understanding tradition, culture, and religion and we felt a tinge of nostalgia in her loving recollection. Now, as an adult, Sunita has taken those experiences big and small to the next level, by bringing The Jai Jais to the world. For those listeners who don't know the word Jai Jais is a sweet expression that you often hear elders saying to their grandchildren to encourage them to pray. They would say, go do your Jai Jais as often in front of home temples. When Sunita became a mom herself, she noticed that her kids were starting to get curious, just like she was as a child.
They just became very inquisitive about it because the actual Mandir (Hindu temple) that we had at home in our previous house, was in my son’s bedroom. So he would say things like, "Oh mommy, why has Shiva got a Trishul like King Triton?" and "Why do we have Gods who are like animals?" I'm like, but it's not a monkey God... it's not an elephant God... there is so much symbolism behind it. You know, it can be quite stereotypical that the Hindus have got an elephant God and a monkey God. But that's not the case. You know, Hanuman was a vanara, which is not a kind of monkey. There was a whole story behind why Ganesh did have a head like an elephant and it's soaked in so much kind of symbolism.
Being a speech and language therapist, I kind of know the background of how children learn and develop language and reading and stages and visuals. So I thought that I can use my skills in language development and apply it to my series of books. I know what kind of stages and visuals and vocabulary would suit each stage. And that's why we kind of spanned across four. Cause we always say "it's for babies and beyond" because there's so many grownups saying, “we've learned so much that we didn't know growing up from what you have actually written”. You know, I listened to the Hanuman Chalisa since I was knee-high to a grasshopper and it was only three years ago when I wrote this book about the Hanuman Chalisa, I actually understood what it meant. And I think about what it was. I suppose growing up now, our generation is so much more inquisitive and sometimes it's the balance between how clever our ancestors were with… And it's sometimes it's a big melting pot of kind of culture, about tradition, about rituals, but also more importantly, the core messages that have come across from the scriptures. And sometimes I'll write and someone will say, “oh, well, that story is not right. Or that story was wrong. And this scripture said this and this spelling is this, and this is actually why this happened.” And was talking to a friend recently about it the other day. He's very knowledgeable in this area. And he said but Suni, the differences don't matter. It's the core messages that kind of matter. And I think that's what The Jai Jais want to do is kind of show sometimes that some of the rituals and the things that we do… is actually religious or was it tradition? Actually, there were scientific reasons behind why some of the practices took place.
And I think it gives, I think children will adapt to those festivals and rituals if they understand the meaning behind what they do, because my parents' generation were the doers, they didn't question…We're now saying, "but why?"
Ah, okay. So much to say we totally agree that we belong to a generation that wants to understand and we also wonder if this could be because we're experiencing a loosening of the shackles of staunch religion and blind tradition. Which means that when we do invite religion and culture into our lives, we want to know “the why”, just like Sunita put it, beautiful!
Speaking of asking why, Sunita answers the question on what she feels she's learned the most about so far, and we really love that her sense of curiosity continues even as an owner of a culture platform.
It made me realize how much I don't know. And actually the things that I've written about. Like now I'm kind of six years on. So each year on Holi and I'm researching and writing or speaking to my Guru, NamalJi who I've been speaking to recently, and his take on things are so interesting with what he kind of comes out with because. One of the things in the UK is we teach religious education in schools. I know that they don't kind of do that in the States. And they have just done a review of 2,000 schools in the UK and the curriculum taught in Hinduism. And they found out that it's still very stereotypical. They are talking about castes, which isn't religion. They make negative connotations to certain things. Because we've always known that Krishna liked his butter. Historically, if you look at Krishna with butter, what they called him is the butter-thief. Now, actually, if you look at the word thief, it's not really Godly. How could you relate a word like thief to a deity?
So we call him “Makhan Chor” but we can get that into a different way. It's not a literal translation. And it was interesting to kind of see that, that they're reviewing this whole syllabus now, and I'm kind of supporting some work behind that, to show them that Hinduism is so much more. We’ve got such a rich history of yoga and all the influences, like the original Yogi Shiva, you know, we've got all the kinds of Ayurvedic teachings and stuff that have come from scriptures and the Dhanvantari who came from the churning of the ocean.
And, and I think it's really fascinating to kind of see how now, you know, we talk about the five elements. Hindus kind of personify things like the planets, like the Navagrahas (Nine Planets). And it was funny cause I was writing, I think I've got my social media planner/calendar and there seems to be a day for everything, a day for jelly a day for… you guys in the States have days for everything, peanut butter, you name it there's days for it!
And I think there was a day of mountains. I'm Googling “is there a Hindu God of the mountains?” And they're like, yeah, it's Himavat who is Parvati’s father. And then we've got a goddess of forest, and we've got a goddess of this and that. And I'm like, yeah, it's kind of in everything. And these are the gods and goddesses that are not kind of talked about. You know, there's also Apsaras and Gandharvs which were like heavenly beings that supported and entertained the Gods. There were shapeshifters. I didn't know anything like this kind of growing up. And my Mum and Dad laughed at me. They're like, “Well, you got to tell us what you know today” because I’m always like you never told us this. My brother's like “she's kind of like the one that knows everything now, isn't she” I'm like, “no, I just don't know half of it.” Cause I'm just discovering every day I learn something new, which is why I love it so much.
We know exactly how much excitement there is and learning new things every day. And we love that Sunita feels exactly the same.
Next, She recalls how she brings religious and cultural celebration into her home. Every day, it starts off with Sunita recalling how her boys ask Alexa to play a special morning mantra and then Alexa promptly and responsively playing it.
So every single morning when we come downstairs for breakfast, the first thing the kids say is, “Alexa, play Hanuman Chalisa”. So we will never start our day in our home without the Hanuman Chalisa. Oh! She’s playing it. Alexa, stop! So we hear the Hanuman Chalisa everyday. In the evenings, when the kids go to bed, we have our little Jai Jais time. So, I've got the toys now. So the kids are really excited that they've got their set of toys. But what they both do is….they'll depend on the day and choose which Jai Jai they want to sleep with. So, Syan goes the other day as his tooth comes out. So he's got the tooth fairy and he goes, I'm going to take Lakshmi (Goddess of Wealth) to bed because she'll bring me money, not the tooth fairy. He went to bed with Lakshmi thinking he's going to get some money under his pillow. And then yeah, the other one was like, well, I've been really brave today, mommy, cause I fell on my face. So I'm going to sleep with Hanuman (God of Strength) tonight. So they'll say why they're grateful and what kind of God they want to relate their quantities to. We'll always say the Gayatri Mantra and a few other Mantras before they sleep. And then Wednesday and Sundays are my pooja days. So I do quite lengthy sort of a Shiv pooja on a Wednesday and a Sunday and the boys will kind of join me as well.
Yeah. And I think more than anything, I was talking about and I got interviewed a while ago, and I was talking to the journalist before and she said “it's very interesting because what you do is quite kind of religious. Yet, on your personal Instagram, you might be there, with a little bottle of wine and you're quite normal, you know, you dress, normally, you talk normally and then you'll be suddenly talking about God and would say “And this guy was the bad guy” and I'm like….I'm a mom. I'm a kind of middle-aged woman who wants to inspire children to think religion is not boring. It's relatable in this generation. There's so much that we can learn to better ourselves, but it doesn't always have to be in a very kind of solemn way. If that makes sense.
Wow. How incredible that the celebration of her background includes Jai Jai time with her boys and how they have learned the symbolism and core values of the Hindu Gods and have incorporated it into their lives. And her honesty on just being a mom, who's bringing religion into the next generation simply and with greater understanding.
When we were recording this with Sunita, she was preparing for a big family wedding. And so we thought we'd asked her something from a Root & Seed conversation tool that might bring out some real emotion, respect, and love for her family. So we asked her “who is an important person in your life?”
Okay. So I would say my Grandfather, he actually passed away two years ago when he was nearly 102 years old. And he was always my first storyteller. I regret to this day that when he used to sit at the table, and wack me with a ruler, I never learned to read Gujarati. But he was always an inspiration because he was so moral with what his standards were and how he always expected us to rise early, study, have fun, learn things, kind of be kids, but, and he'd always give us kind of stories behind what we do and why we kind of do things. So him and my Grandma. My Grandma is such a big foodie. So I learned so much from her, my Mama, my Auntie, who probably made us mega-foodies in our family too. You know, it's really hard to pinpoint one because even my Father I've learned so much because he had a really tough background growing up. And he always promised that when he had his family, that we wouldn't experience what he went through. And it's actually interesting because during lockdown, we always said to him, "Dad, you've had such a fascinating life, write it down because when Syon and Dhiyan, my children are older, I want them to read it”. He wrote and he wrote, and he wrote and, you know, get the A4 textbooks that your kids get. He wrote three of those. So now I've got my father's whole documented life in this. And it was actually, there were times he'd be writing and crying and it read something out to me and Mum and we'd start crying and things that I didn't know. And it was just like, well, we've got this now. This is so precious. So it is so hard because each of those four people and my brother as well, he's always been my voice of reason. He's always been kind of my voice of reason… into so much that I do and why I kind of do things and always put me back on the right path.
We don't blame Sunita for having a hard time picking just one important person in her life. It just goes to show you that there's no right way to answer our conversation tool questions. It's clear to us that Sunita is celebrating her cultural background in pretty much everything that she does. We appreciate her love of learning and the core lessons implicit in that learning. From curiosity and learning to share more to sharing, learning across your platform on social media and in her books and toys to the realization that drilling down to the core lesson and meaning of a story is the payoff, not necessarily the religious observation. This comes to life strongly in how a complex ancient story can be simplified and has the power to inspire across all ages.
Next time we speak to Abdul-Rehman Malik, an award-winning journalist, educator and organizer. We love his internal drive to be a means or a muse in his life mission and how that comes to life in his long list of initiatives. He proudly represents the Muslim faith and all that that means and has the potential to mean in his podcast. “This Being Human” in collaboration with the Aga Khan Museum. He feels it takes real confidence in knowing your own roots in order to have compassion for everyone else's culture. And we couldn't agree more. It's a podcaster to podcaster interview you won't want to miss.
Root & Seed is hosted by me, Anika Chabra, Executive Produced by Jenn Siripong Mandel, and Edited by Camille Blais.
Hosted by: Anika Chabra
Brought to you by: Root & Seed
Executive Producer: Jennifer Siripong Mandel
Edited by: Camille Blais
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