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Meet the NJ author setting the record straight on Desi culture

Priya Kumari launched a publishing house to combat misinformation about India.

We're continuing the conversation on diversity education this issue. Today's Gup Shup interview features East Brunswick resident Priya Kumari, who runs the independent publishing house Eternal Tree Books. She also wrote a children's book that was endorsed by the Dalai Lama.

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Priya Kumari wants you to know India is more than its poverty

Priya Kumari holds her book Leaf Talks Peace

Photo courtesy of Priya Kumari

Priya Kumari grew up surrounded by books in the bookshop her father owned in Siliguri, India. So imagine her surprise when, here in New Jersey, she turned to books as a way of sharing Indian culture with her children, and the books failed her.

Book after book on India focused on the country's poverty, depicting pictures of beggars holding burned rotis. They also contained inaccuracies or missed key cultural details. One book about Raksha Bandhan didn't include the word rakhi in it once.

“Isn’t that like wiping away the culture from a cultural book," Priya says, adding, “Each book used to make me sad. Poverty is not the only thing that defines India."

The trained accountant got frustrated enough to do something about it. At first, she made books for her own children, but soon her friends wanted them, too. Priya published her first book, My Raksha Bandhan, in July 2020, and followed it up a few months later with The ABCs of Virtue, which won Best Book in the Children’s Education category at the American Book Fest in 2021. It features a values-based way of learning the ABCs.

“We always teach ‘A is for apple, B is for boy,’ and I didn't want to teach that. I wanted for my children to learn values as their first words, because I think values are what will define them,” Priya said. In her book, A is for active and B is for brave.

Her third book, Leaf Talks Peace, includes a foreword by the Dalai Lama. It tells the story of Buddha and his message through the perspective of a leaf on the bodhi tree that Buddha sat under.

Last month, the prolific author published two more books, My Holi and My Diwali, co-authored with her sister, Komal Garg. Priya sat down with me to share a bit about her journey and where she hopes to go from here.

A page from My Diwali

A page from Kumari and Garg's book, My Diwali (Photo courtesy of Priya Kumari)

Priya, I think a lot of people share your concerns about how Desi culture is depicted in American media, whether it’s books or film or TV. But not everybody does the work to do something about it. What motivated you?

P: It just became my passion. I am closely tied to my roots, and I know what India is like. In one Diwali book I saw, Lord Rama was wearing leaves and the decoration of Diwali was not even a decoration of the holiday. These were all Google Images that were put out in the form of a book by a publisher, and libraries stocked them. There is no check right? So authenticity is lacking. And that is what I'm trying to do — bring authentic content on India and Indian culture, which will elevate everyone’s view of India as well as create cultural harmony.

When cultural books fail to convey accurate information, how do you think that affects our ability to understand one another?

P: These books that contain mistakes are not creating awareness. And if there is no awareness, then why are we talking about inclusion? Research shows that biases already start setting in from the age of three months. So by five years of age, children have their notions about each culture and which is bad, which is good. If we give them the right resources at that time, I'm sure we can create harmony in the world.

Even in the new season of Sex in the City, they were referring to a lehenga as a sari. How difficult was it with a whole cast of hundreds of people, not even one Indian was there to tell them that this is not a sari, this is a lehenga? It breaks my heart, like where are we as a community?

It just tells you that there is not real diversity in that writer’s room, right? There is nobody who can easily point out, ‘Hey, this isn’t a sari.’ We’re still just scratching the surface when it comes to diversity and inclusion.

P: The publishing industry especially is a very closed industry, and making a space here is very, very difficult. I started this whole thing as a mission to get my books into libraries, so that books are available to the community for free to know about Indian culture. But I have not been able to achieve that yet because distributors don't take small publishers and there is a whole process. Hopefully, I'll have that eventually.

From a community point of view, it has been really heartwarming. I did a Kickstarter pre-order event for my book Leaf Talk Peace, raising more than $7,000, and for my books on Holi and Diwali, I raised more than $4,000. So that gives me hope that yes, people are looking for this content. People ordered from Germany and the UK for their nephews and nieces. It’s just wonderful, and that gives me hope and confidence. You need to be motivated, because a single children’s book can cost $10,000, and that’s all taken from savings. It’s been a difficult journey, but it’s just starting.

As a fellow mother, I have to ask how you managed to publish these books. Where did you find the time?

P: So I am a chartered accountant from India. I worked with the Big Four there. I did my CPA here, but I came into publishing, and then I didn't have time because I have two young kids as well, so I left my CPA career. Publishing was taking all of my nights basically, and during the day I was taking care of my kids.

This season, I will do some CPA work so that I can invest in my publishing venture, because it is very investment intensive. I do want to support this venture, be it working multiple things at a time. I'm ready to put that effort into this, because this is something which I'm doing to give back to society, and I want it to happen.

You published your books independently, and you have also published four other authors now through your company. Do you plan to stay independent, or would you work with a big publisher to get your books distributed more widely?

P: I don't think I'll be looking for a bigger publisher, because what happens is the same thing which is happening now: the content gets diluted. I don't want that. I set up my own independent publishing company because I didn't want the control over the content and illustrations to go to someone else. Once I have a distributor, I think I can reach libraries and schools as an independent publisher. Right now, my books are available in bookstores through a wholesaler. But I started this to get my books into libraries because that's where people get the perception about the culture. That's where people go for free books to learn about everything. Not everyone will go online or in-store to buy books.

I wanted to ask about the endorsement from the Dalai Lama. How did that happen? That’s incredible.

P: That helped me to put my foot into the door in this industry. It elevated me from just a self-published author to someone who writes good books. Of course, it was not planned. I wrote this book on the concept of interdependent origination of life from a conversation I had with my then five year old. I wrote that poem, got it illustrated and made it into a book. I was submitting it to many leaders and authors, anyone in the field of Buddhism, and I also submitted the book to the office of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. I didn't expect anything.

I heard back from his office after two months that he wrote a foreword for the book. I was crying, and I didn't have any words, because that was an endorsement I never even thought of and getting that endorsement made me feel that this work is needed. His endorsement meant a great deal to me.

After that, [The International Buddhist Confederation] launched the book in India, and the president of India [Ram Nath Kovind] also joined the event. I couldn't travel, but my video message was played for the launch. The journey has just been amazing to me. At the same time, it shows me that much work needs to be done.

Okay, so everyone I interview, I always try to sneak a restaurant recommendation out of them. What’s your favorite Desi restaurant in New Jersey?

P: My favorite is Chand Palace in Piscataway. They have the world’s best spring rolls. Chand Palace has a buffet, so I pay for that, but I think I fill my stomach only with spring rolls!

Thank you, Priya!

Photos from the Leaf Talks Peace book launch in India

Photos from the Leaf Talks Peace book launch in India (Courtesy of Priya Kumari)

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You'll receive the next edition of Central Desi in two weeks. It's about the midterm elections and young Desis getting involved in local races across New Jersey. Until then, here are some reminders:

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