Faraway tales come home

Ellicott City woman preserves Indian heritage in children's book

January 28, 2007|By Sandy Alexander | Sandy Alexander,sun reporter

In the Indian folk tales that appear in the book Tales from a Faraway Land, a brave prince rescues a cursed princess, Mother Earth saves her long-lost daughter and a sage helps end a drought.

All of these mythical characters have found a real-life champion in Priya DasSarma of Ellicott City, who worked with her mother-in-law, Seba DasSarma, to preserve the 14 Indian stories and introduce them to new audiences.

It is a task she said is particularly meaningful as the mother of two children, ages 7 and 10.

"It is important for my kids to realize that they come from a certain context," she said. "There is not a lot out there for my kids to say, `That is from my culture.'"

Seba, of Dunbar, W.Va., received authorship credit for the book because she recalled the stories she had heard in India, often from her family members, and shared them with her children and grandchildren.

Priya typed, edited and illustrated the tales to turn them into a book, which was published in September by Xlibris.

Priya, 37, said she was intrigued when she first saw some of the tales recounted in letters Seba had written to her son, who is Priya's husband. They included traditional stories from the Bengal region of India and elements from two epic Hindu poems, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata.

Seba's family moved to the United States in the late 1960s, and Seba "wanted to make sure that [the stories] stayed in the family," Priya said. Seba was a high school English teacher in India and later became a librarian at West Virginia State University.

Priya's father is from western India, and her mother is from New York. As her family - including her Indian grandfather - lived in numerous countries, Priya said she held on to her Indian identity as something steady while her environment changed.

"I had sought out literature and stories," she said, "and, when I met my mother-in-law, I found out she was a treasure trove of all this."

Priya's literary ambition competed for time with her microbiology career. She studies bacteria at the University of Maryland Biotechnology Institute in Baltimore and, as a side project, prepares kits for schools to use in their science curriculums.

So compiling the stories turned into a 10-year project, with family members contributing feedback and numerous rounds of editing. Priya's son and daughter were a built-in test audience for the book.

When her daughter was 4, she was the one who said there should be pictures. That led Priya to spend one summer drawing illustrations for the stories.

Priya also wanted to make the stories accessible to people who have no knowledge of India, so she included numerous parenthetical asides that explain certain words and characters. She also toned down some violent images that she found inappropriate for children.

"It was a learning experience," she said, from choosing a spelling for translated words to discussing which stories to include.

Sometimes, she said, she would defer to her mother-in-law because they were her stories and because "I wanted the voice of the narrator retained."

Eventually, the project was ready for friends and family members who wanted copies. But the DasSarmas decided to see if they could spread the tales further by seeking a publisher.

Indian culture is not reflected in many bookstores and libraries, Priya said. "I couldn't find it for my kids. There is very little out there."

Now she trying to get more people interested in the tales with readings at independent bookstores and festivals.

Having prepared a display on the Hindu festival Diwali for the Miller branch library, she is scheduled to appear at the library system's Asian Expo in May.

Fritzi Newton, coordinator of the library's cultural connections project, has been working for several years to provide more material of interest to the county's large Asian population, which was almost 11 percent in 2005 census figures.

"We have a large Indian population in Howard County," said Newton. "I'm sure [the stories] will be a hit at the Asian Expo.

"Folk tales sort of capture the imagination of people from young children to adults," she said. "I think that's the case with her stories."

sandy.alexander@baltsun.com

"Tales From a Faraway Land" is available at www.Amazon.com, www.bn.com and through Borders bookstores.

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