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Avani Modi Sarkar
Co-founder of Modi Toys

My Unexpected Struggle: How to Impart My Cultural Heritage to My Child

“I never realized how much I took everyday things I grew up with—from the food I ate to the language I spoke—for granted until I wanted to pass them down.”

I was in labor when my husband had a sudden change of heart. I was 5 cm dilated when he told me he wanted to go back to the drawing board for our daughter’s name, despite finally managing to agree on one after nine long months. Luckily for him, I needed to divert all of my energy into delivering our child instead of strangling him, so I said, “sure, honey,” and tabled that argument for post-delivery.

Our daughter remained nameless for the next two days while my husband and I hemmed and hawed over one of the biggest decisions of her life. I was perfectly fine calling her “the baby” for another five days, but unfortunately the hospital had a strict policy against discharging newborns without a real name on the birth certificate.

Having grown up with my name constantly butchered (Avani was always pronounced Uh-vaa-nee instead of Of-knee, and I was too shy to correct people), I was adamant about choosing a name that was impossible to mispronounce—but one that was still in keeping with Indian tradition. Despite desperately wishing I could shave off the last two letters of my name and just go by “Ava,” I appreciate my name for what it is: unique, rich in meaning and a tie to my motherland of India.

My husband, Avik, felt differently. He’s no Tom, Dick or Harry and has also had his fair share of mispronunciations; he’s been called everything from “Vick” to “David” on a Starbucks venti latte. So he wanted to give our daughter an Americanized name that didn’t require a lot of, “Wait, what is it? How do you spell it?”

Being the rational guy he is, my husband cited studies going back 70 years that demonstrated the negative effect unusual names could have on employment and socio-economic status. Ultimately, I had to pull out the labor card to end the debate with him: “I endured 14 hours of labor and a second-degree tear! And you won’t even let me name her?” It worked like a charm. We named her Naavya, derived from a traditional Indian name Navya, which means “praiseworthy.” (Pronounced like “Nadia” but with a “V”).

The truth is, I wanted to represent our Indian heritage in the one thing that was always going to be a big part of her identity. Unlike my husband, I was born and raised in India. It didn’t matter that I hadn’t lived there in over 25 years, because India still lived inside of me. Frankly, I was afraid my daughter was going to grow up to be like my husband: Indian in heritage but Americanized through and through.

I of course knew this about him before getting married, but I figured I was “Indian enough” for the both of us. I can speak, read and write both Gujarati (my mother tongue) and Hindi (the official language of India). He can only speak Bengali (his mother tongue). I enjoy celebrating all the Indian holidays, whereas he’s learning about them alongside with our now-2-year-old daughter. I love watching Bollywood movies. He’ll tolerate them for my sake. You get the point. (We connected over our love for spicy food and hot sauce variety packs, in case you're wondering).

As I lay there in my hospital gown and mesh underwear, it suddenly dawned on me: of the two of us, the onus of passing down our culture would fall squarely on me—just as teaching Naavya any sport would be solely my husband's responsibility. How was I going to do that? YouTube? Disney? Is there an app for this? I didn't get very far into my planning, since a one-day-old infant is apparently very needy and distracting.

Photo: Avani Modi

Once our party of three settled in at home and fell into our new daily routine of poop, pump and play, our parenting styles began to emerge at unsuspecting milestones. For example, when Naavya was old enough to begin solids, questions like, “should we introduce her to chicken now, later or never?” began to pop up. I was raised a vegetarian and chose to remain so even after I was old enough to rebel against my parents. While my dietary restriction definitely puts a damper on our selection of date night restaurants, it hadn’t occurred to us what this would mean for our small family going forward. Ultimately, we decided to let Naavya try a little bit of everything and let her guide us, because—shocker—most kids are picky eaters as it is. (For the record, she’s heavily leaning vegetarian. Avani: 1, Avik: 0; but really, who’s keeping score?)

When Naavya turned one, I threw her a modest Pinterest-worthy birthday party. Later that evening, as Avik and I sat around with our respective parents, the topic I had been dreading came up: mundan. It’s a ceremony performed by many Hindus usually after the first birthday in which you shave off the baby’s hair, because it’s believed to purify the child of their past life. Both Avik and I had a mundan when we were Naavya’s age so a part of me thought it would be nice to continue the tradition. But Avik couldn’t rationalize the need to put Naavya through a seemingly traumatic experience. While I secretly agreed (because really, which mother wants to go through that?), I lamented over the fact we were breaking away from a tradition that held special meaning not just to our parents but to our ancestors too.

Then Naavya turned 2. It was as if someone turned the mute button off on her because it was suddenly non-stop chatter about everything and anything, most of it marked by “mommy mommy MOMMY!” as she clamored for my attention. As fascinating as it was for me to see her discover, learn and mispronounce new words and sentences everyday (“mommy carry you baby” was a personal favorite of mine, which she said any time she wanted to be carried), a part of me felt guilty too. Avik and I had both grown up bilingual, learning our respective mother tongues from our parents, but now English had become our primary language at home. I couldn’t speak to Avik in Gujarati, nor he to me in Bengali, so the only times Naavya was exposed to either languages was around her grandparents, for whom English is still very much a second language. I conceded that level of limited exposure would suffice for now, and decided that once Naavya was old enough I’d enroll her in classes to properly learn these languages.

Photo: Avani Modi

Naavya had her father’s facial features, but I didn’t want her to inherit his indifference toward our culture. I never realized how much I took everyday things I grew up with—from the food I ate to the language I spoke—for granted until I wanted to try to pass them down. What was considered the norm for me in my childhood had dramatically changed course in a single generation. I was afraid there was only a small window of opportunity to make sure I squeezed in every ounce of Indian-ness I had to offer Naavya. What if time ran out like it did at the hospital?

If there’s anything I’ve learned in naming our daughter, is that no matter how much you plan, life has a funny way of throwing a wrench into it at the 11th hour. (Or maybe that’s just my husband). But we have a lifetime of milestones to go, and we’ll have to take each one as it comes. After all, embracing our roots isn't just about writing an ethnic name on a birth certificate; that’s often only the beginning.

Avani Modi Sarkar is the creator of toys, memories and a baby—vis-a-vis Modi Toys, Ever After Proposals and Naavya, respectively. She was inspired by the birth of her daughter to create multicultural toys that spark curiosity in her, and future generations, about their Indian roots. The first product from Modi Toys, the mantra-singing plush Baby Ganesh, has won the hearts of big and small alike, making it the best selling go-to-gift. Avani also hosts monthly charity events called Modi Joy to raise money for children’s charities. She lives in New Jersey with her husband, Avik, and their 2-year-old daughter, Naavya.

Published April 2019

PHOTO: Avani Modi