A few days ago I was invited by my son's preschool to talk about Diwali and share the essence of the festival in a classroom in San Francisco that has children of different origins and nationalities. With the increasing count of the Indian diaspora, Diwali is a globally known festival now. It is even celebrated in the White House. Nevertheless, the task of talking to a class full of preschoolers and acquainting them with Diwali seemed challenging. I knew I had to make it fun as well as relatable to them, something like the celebrations during Christmas (that they are more familiar with).
Growing up in India, I have seen Diwali being celebrated in all houses in the neighbourhood we lived in. Rows of lit diyas and candles adorned the rooftop of all houses, tiny flashing electric bulbs on some, rangoli at the doorstep of each house and an abundance of gujiyas, laddoos, mithais and nuts floating around. I wanted to take those festivities with me to the classroom. I wanted to read out a book on Diwali and do some festive activity with the children in the classroom.
So my search began and it led me to an illustrated book called The Diwali Gift. It tells the story of Diwali through three characters, Suno (Listen), Dekho (See) and Jaano (Learn). The three characters in the book look as contemporary as Dora but are inspired by Mahatma Gandhi's monkeys.
The Diwali Gift
The illustrations were brilliant, the three main characters contemporary and it depicted the true festive aspect of Diwali. As I read the book in the classroom, I could see twinkle in the little eyes, a sense of curiosity and a desire to learn more about a new festival, a festival of light, happiness and prosperity.
Later, we made Rangoli from cardboard, shiny papers and mirrors. We painted diyas, made Diwali cards for the parents with handprints of the little ones and packaged it all in brown bags to take home. Many homes that do not celebrate Diwali must have learnt about the festival that night from their little pre-schoolers. Celebrations and festivities are independent of religion. The world is shrinking and we are all raising global citizens.
The classroom session left me intrigued, so I contacted and met up with the authors, Shweta Chopra and Shuchi Mehta, two San Francisco Bay Area mothers of Indian origin, who are extremely passionate about keeping kids connected to their roots and, and assimilating Indian culture to a larger global culture. In today's times, it does not matter where we live on the map, but it is important for our kids to be able to comprehend and to stay connected to their roots and culture. It is also important to represent that culture in a manner that is relevant to all.
Shweta Chopra (left) and Shuchi Mehta
Together they have founded a company, 3 Curious Monkeys, with the idea of creating apps and books and other media materials related to Indian culture. The idea was to create something that was mainstream, global, appealing but also a lot of fun. It took months of intense research, long hours of writing and editing, developing an app for tablets/phones, finding an illustrator and reviewing illustrations.
The book is just one of the many available sources on their website that I took with me to the classroom. There is a larger initiative to make Diwali reach all classrooms worldwide, to create classroom materials for teachers and fun activities for the kids.
Beside the book, there is an app called "Indian Dress Up Party" that engages young children in a "dress-up" activity to show them the diversity and richness of Indian attire. There are curriculum materials for educators that are being used this festive season in classrooms in US, UK and many South Asian countries.
As their next step, these entrepreneur moms are thinking of adding new activities to the app and other books about other Indian festive celebrations, rituals and food. There are 25 million people of Indian origin scattered across the globe and it is time we did something meaningful and creative to assimilate the culture that we are so proud of into the global sphere -- 3 Curious Monkeys is a humble attempt at doing just that.
This Diwali, if you are on foreign shores like me, this could be a very fun and interactive way to introduce all kids to the festival of lights. Happy Diwali!