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Staying connected to the essence of what it is to be Indian

Life&More November 3, 2018
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Team L&M

British-born-Indian author Sonal Sachdev Patel recently released her latest book, GITA: The Battle of the Worlds (HarperCollinsChildren’sBooks, Fiction, Rs 250, 104 pages). Based on Paramahansa Yogananda’s interpretation of the Gita, the book covers some of the key spiritual messages within a fictional adventure story+ for children. It is a modern-day instructional manual that brings to life the precious nuggets contained in this sacred text. It connects Indian children with their heritage and aims to help them understand the meanings that sit behind the symbolism. With meditation at its core, the universal messaging in the book appeals to both children and adults alike.

Complemented by beautiful and original illustrations which are a key part of the book and sketches by Soumitra Ranade, the book, published by Harper Collins India is a captivating and thought-provoking addition to the children’s book and educational genres.
Although taken from Hinduism’s scripture the Mahabharata, Sonal and co-author Jemma Wayne-Kattan, are keen to emphasise the universality of the GITA and hope that by transforming it into a story aimed at children aged eight to 14 will help promote greater spiritual understanding and tolerance from an early age.

We had a chat with the author…

When and how did you come up with the idea of writing a book to connect Indian kids with spirituality and heritage?
My interaction with the Gita began when I was a young girl. My sister and I slept on a bunk bed. The top bunk was the most sought-after place to sleep. It symbolised power, victory and ultimately superiority. Born five minutes before she gave me seniority which meant the top bunk was mine. Our family temple was in the corridor outside our room – a collection of statues and pictures of various Hindu Gods and Goddesses. The two that had the greatest impact on me were baby Krishna – his eyes magnetising and inviting; and Ma Amba – a fierce woman leader – trident and sword in hand seated atop a tiger. A role model for me.

From that special height on the top bunk, I would often wake to the sight of my mother, seated in front of the temple, the dim light of the diva gently illuminating the yellowish pages of the Gita she was reading. I did not read the Gita myself until I was much older, but I saw what a magical relationship she had with this book.

When I did finally read the Gita when I was pregnant with my daughter, I found the text dense and difficult to understand. It was a desire to take the inspirational messages of the Gita to my children in a modern and relatable way that led me to want to create this new work. It was at that time that I approached my childhood friend, Jemma Wayne Kattan. Not only had we been friends for many years, but she is a woman’s prize listed author too, and I knew she would be a wonderful partner to collaborate with.

And why write for kids alone? Don’t you think even their parents and grandparents have no clue on our connect with spirituality and our heritage?
The first thought was to create a story that was accessible for my own children. Being an Indian living abroad I was keen to connect my children with their heritage. I remember Jemma saying that as a storyteller, the story itself was appealing to her but the messages too – as really they are so universal and could appeal to children of all faiths and one. It was important to us from the start that the story be engaging and compelling in its own right. We knew that we didn’t want to preach messages to children, but rather weave some of the key concepts of the Gita through the story itself.

On one level, it could be read as simply a magical adventure, but on another, it would introduce children to some of the concepts from the Gita. Children may not understand all of these ideas at once, but there would be a beginning there, a basis for discussion with parents, and a chance to appreciate these ideas on deeper levels as the child grows.

In addition, we have found a number of parents and grandparents buying the book too, because they too haven’t read the Gita and would like to know what it is all about!

How much time did it take you put your thoughts on paper?
The creation of the book was a relatively quick process. It took us about a year to complete but it was the publication of the book and the process of developing and iterating on the illustrations that took longer. We love what Soumitra Ranade has created and feel it really adds to the reader’s experience.

You have been a disciple of Paramhansa Yogananda for over two decades and even learnt yoga and meditation. How have you managed to remain close to Indian roots despite staying away from its heart?
Yes. My guru’s teachings have had a huge impact on my life and I am very grateful for them and the guidance they have offered. Paramahansa Yogananda teaches about the universality of all religions, and I have always felt a strong love for Lord Krishna. It is for this reason we wanted to show what it felt like to be connected to Krishna – or that universal spirit that Krishna represents, and we describe this in the book when Krishna reveals himself to Arjun.

I think it is because I am away from India that I am all the more aware of staying connected to the essence of what it is to be Indian. To me, this is the deep spirituality that underpins our culture and traditions. We make the effort to celebrate festivals at home and to attend Navratri celebrations because we want our children to relate and understand their heritage.

A strategy consultant, an MA in Economics and a management graduate… How and when did you get drawn towards spirituality?
I was first introduced to Paramahansa Yogananda’s teachings when I was 11 years old. My mother took me and my twin sister to a meditation convention in Los Angeles. Twelve was the minimum age to attend but we managed to sneak into some of the lectures anyway. We say it is easier to get forgiveness than it is to get permission sometimes!

The lectures blew me away. Although I was young, the messages appealed to me instantly and I knew immediately this was a path that I wanted to follow. There were no leaps of faith to be made. I remember a monk speaking who said, “Practise meditation, and know for yourself.”

I loved how empowering that was. Through my teenage years particularly, the teachings of Paramahansa Yogananda were a real rock in guiding me. They are spiritual and also so practical, which is what makes them so relevant to all ages but young people particularly.

Your thoughts on philanthropy and related activities…
Many of the issues we are seeing in our society such as gender violence, discrimination and mental health stem from the same root – lack of respect and empathy for one another; and ourselves. Therefore, it is my belief that education is the most important area to invest in – but not traditional education. As Mahatma Gandhi said, “Education which does not mould character is absolutely worthless.” We need a value-based education – teaching empathy, respect, dignity and compassion – to supplement our traditional methods if we want to promote tolerance and foster peace in our communities. I believe we must start in the early years. Neuroscience tells us that the brain is most neuroplastic at this time when a child’s personality and moral framework is still developing. As Nelson Mandela said, “No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”

Is there a particular reason to have the book except the covers, even the illustrations in black and white?
One of the many advantages of using a big publisher like HarperCollins is that they know all about the final packaging and delivery of the book. As the target audience is for ages 10+ we decided black and white illustrations would be the most appropriate.

Tell us more about GMSP Foundation and the work you do…
GMSP Foundation as set up by my parents in 2006. They wanted to find a strategic way of helping others. Our Foundation invests in women and girls as a focus as they are changemakers and lift up their entire communities. We partner with dynamic and driven grassroots NGOs to work at the community level, particularly around livelihood creation, legal support and the perception of girls and women in society. This last one is a broad but important one – changing the way girls are perceived and valued is a key part to creating respect and equality in our society.

Is your energy different during different times of the day or night?
I am definitely a morning person! I achieve more in the early morning time than I do in double the time later in the day when other distractions start to creep their way in.

Ever struggled with a writer’s block?
Yes! Many times. When this happens to me, I find the best thing to do is to leave it aside, meditate, take a shower and have a good night’s sleep. Sometimes it’s resolved in a day, sometimes in a week or a month – but I always get there eventually!

Who has been the most inspirational person in your life and why?
My mother. My mother came to the UK in the late 60s from East Africa after she married my father and joined his family of 13 siblings! Her life totally changed but she always took it in her stride. Obviously, I never noticed it then, but when I look back, I see the grace with which she handled her life and whatever her situation. The time which stands out the most to me was when she was diagnosed with breast cancer when I was in my teens. It was in the days when cancer was not so prevalent, and whilst we were all shaken by the diagnosis, she was completely calm. She sailed through hair loss, chemotherapy and recovery without a word of complaint. Some people talk the talk, but my Mother walks the walk too.

It was also my Mother that instilled Indian culture into our home. She would stay up late at night making rangolis when we were little. I remember going to sleep seeing a colour stained wooden board on the table and waking up to a masterpiece of Sita, or Radha Krishna or one year a spectacular peacock. She would light divas and make mithai no matter what else was happening, and one thing that happened like the clockwork was her pooja. Never in my 39 years have I ever seen her miss it. She reads a chapter of the Gita every day without fail. Determination, grit, smarts, grace – she has it all. So, she isn’t just inspirational because she is my mother but because she is a very special soul.

A day in your life
My day starts with the chaos of kids getting ready for school. The daily discussion about why we are having porridge and not coco pops for breakfast, last minute homework that hasn’t been done the night before; and on good days, some precious moments in our meditation room for a short period of concentration before dashing out the door to school. Then to the gym and to the office to work primarily on the running of our family charitable foundation – a charity that works with women and girls in India and the UK. Then back to school to collect the kids and all the fun and games of after-school activities. Dinner, introspection journals on some days, stories and bed. I try to balance my work around the kids as I am mindful that all too soon they will be grown up and not need me anymore. (Sob!)

Plans for future…
My plan for the future is to continue to work in social impact. I genuinely believe we can change issues such as gender violence if governments make a change to our education system. Our academic system is evolving – including coding, modelling for example, but it is not evolving to include “how to live” skills. What does a child do if they get angry? Jealous? Depressed? What tools do we equip them with to deal with these emotions that they might feel within themselves and towards others? How can they learn to respect others that are different from them? We need to find ways of teaching respect, love, empathy to all children. It would save billions in spending on policing, medical treatment to name a few if we were able to embed this kind of approach into schools. It is more than just a subject on the curriculum, but a way of teaching that needs to filter through the whole system. I have seen examples of schools that work in this way and if only we can extend this – I believe change will come – even in our lifetimes.

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