Creating rituals, routines, and traditions are encouraged in Ayurveda as a means to foster consistency in one’s life. A regular ritual is said to have a grounding and nourishing effect in generating internal stability. One of the many reasons why we love San Francisco based artist and author, Meenal Patel’s new children’s books Priya Dreams of Marigolds and Masala. A story about the bond sharing daily rituals created between a granddaughter and her grandmother. In our latest, chit-chaat we talk about the inspiration behind this story, and the love, memories and multi-generational nourishment received from traditions and rituals.
What inspired you to write books for children?
My first book from a couple of years ago started off as a one-off gift for one of my nieces before I even decided to publish it. I made it for her after she visited me in San Francisco. I wanted her to have a memory of her visit and also loved the idea of her having a book with a character who looks like her and has an uncommon name (at least uncommon in the US), something that I didn’t have when I was growing up. Seeing her interact with that book, something that she could relate to and see herself in sparked a desire to share that out with others so I decided to publish it.
Representation and diversity in art and stories are really important, especially for kids. All kids deserve to have exposure to a variety of imagery and stories – ones where they can see themselves reflected and ones where they are exposed to people who have different experiences. Kids need those opportunities to see themselves as heroes, to celebrate what makes them unique and to feel connected to other people. A lot of my artwork also features strong women and girls. I think it’s important for people to be surrounded by imagery and stories of strong women – as inspiration or as a reminder of their own strength.
Rituals are one a strong theme in your latest self-published children’s book Priya Dreams of Marigolds and Masala, and are a significant part of our South Asian narrative. What are some rituals you have carried forth into your home from your parent’s or grandparent’s home?
A lot of the rituals that I practice are around food. I love a morning cup of homemade cha the way my mom makes it. The sensory familiarity is so comforting – from the smell while making it to the ritual of having a warming drink in the morning.
I also love to cook a lot of Indian foods. Besides being delicious, Indian food carries so much wisdom within the ingredients and preparation. Whenever I’m sick or not feeling well, I want kitchari. I think my desire for that goes beyond nostalgia. I think my body knows what it needs to heal itself and that certain spices and preparations of food can help do that. It’s so interesting that there are elements in Ayurveda that have been integrated into my entire life even if I didn’t realize it.
Beyond that, I have a small space for my version of a mandir with pieces that have been handed down from my family. And I’ve become un-shy of asking guests to remove their shoes when they come into my home!
The relationship between Priya and her Babi Ba (her grandmother) are based in the daily ritual of making rotli, this just tugged at my heart. I remember my Nani making roti when I returned home from school. She would make us special “baby” rotlis rolled up with ghee and sugar, and she did this well into adulthood. What are some of your favorite rotli memories?
Oh my goodness! I love that you have a similar memory! Both of my Bas would make us rotli with ghee and sugar, too. We called it sugar babi. My Ba would take the first few, hot fresh rotli from the stove, drizzle it with ghee, add a generous sprinkle of sugar, and fold it into quarters. She would have a big smile as she handed the sugar babi to my sister and me. My mom does the same for my nieces now. At one point they called her Babi Ba.
I think cooking was a way for both Bas of caring for us and I think they took a lot of pride in that. Beyond sustaining our bodies, to me food is such a wonderful way to show love, share, and connect with people.
Much of the daily living, spiritual, food practices, traditions of South Asian culture is rooted in Ayurveda. Whether we are aware of the influence of this time-tested science in our life or not, it is woven into the fabric of our culture. Passed down from generation to generation, most commonly through the women of the family. As a South Asian female artist, what is woven into the fabric of your artwork?
I only realized recently that my art style has some strong visual South Asian influences even when it’s not necessarily around South Asian specific themes. Sometimes the shapes, patterns, and colors that I use appear to have roots in my background. I love patterns and little detail work – almost a modern interpretation of Indian textiles and paintings. Perhaps these things are woven into my style because they are familiar and I grew up exposed to them. I also love western modern design styles, such as Scandinavian design, so my style is a mash-up of western and South Asian influences.
In Priya Dreams of Marigolds and Masala is all about the relationship between two females, one what we would call her kapha stage of life and one her vata stage of life, why was it important for you to tell and illustrate a story of two females from different eras?
My grandparents played the biggest role in passing our family’s history and traditions to me. We had so much to learn from each other even though we’ve lived completely different lives. My grandparents experienced things that I may never fully understand but could try to through listening to their stories. And respectively, they couldn’t fully understand the clash of cultures I was experiencing as I grew up in the US. But the moments where we could meet in the middle was through our daily rituals and that brought us closer. And it’s those things that I carry with me now.
One of my favorite parts of your book is the comparison between the Priya’s home in the U.S and the homes in Gujarat. No matter where our home may be, the traditions, rituals of our cultures can be carried forth. As generations move forward, cultures shift and change, what are some cultural traditions you hope will continue in your life and future generations?
I’m glad you liked that part of the book. Growing up I was immersed in my family’s culture through the everyday things that happened in my home. Not necessarily the big holidays, though those are lovely too. When I went to India as an adult it was the everyday things that I saw there that might be foreign for other visitors but were so familiar to me because they were a part of my home life. That familiarity really struck me. And I was comforted by this sense of greater human connection – these people halfway across the world doing things the way I did halfway across the world. Even though I had this sense of being so different growing up (and some loneliness attached to that) because my friends or kids at school didn’t do things the way my family did, all along there were all these people who DID do all those things. They were just somewhere else but nevertheless, they were there. That’s comforting to me. That’s where those pieces at the beginning and end of book come from. It was a moment for me to touch on this mix of loneliness and sadness but at the same time this beautiful idea that we are connected to other humans and histories that we don’t even know through the traditions we practice. There’s comfort in that to me.
For me and future generations, I hope that the love and commitment to family carry forward. I also hope the food traditions carry forward because I believe they carry so much more than physical sustenance and offer a great way to reach out and draw people into your culture. There are so many stories woven within food.
In every page of your book, there is an element of nature, whether it is on a piece of cloth, outdoors, in the kitchen with steam coming off the cup of chai or the changing of the seasons. Can you talk a little about this?
I think nature is the best teacher of life cycles. It’s a common element that we can all relate to and find connection within our lives. It’s something that is ever changing yet familiar. Nature’s life cycles relate to the idea that even as traditions evolve with generations, there are strong threads maintained in our habits that keep us connected to our heritage if we want it to.
What do you like to chaat on with your cuppa chai?
I’ve always loved gattiya. And my mom or Foi’s chevdo! They both have their own special versions.
Meenal Patel is an artist, designer, and author based in San Francisco, California. She is inspired by family, childhood wonder, strong women, textures in nature, and her Indian-American heritage. When she’s not making art, she loves reading to her nieces, cooking chana masala, eating ice cream, visiting her home state of Minnesota and being in the beautiful outdoor spaces of California.