Hindu legends brought alive for children
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ACTUARY Sarika Besesar-Ramdhani grew up knowing Bible stories, but none of the stories of her own religion, Hinduism. And how was she to pass this knowledge on to her 3-year-old son?
Lockdown made her change all that, with the recent publication of her first book, Hanuman and the Sun.
The book was launched late last month to coincide with the festival of Hanuman Jayanthi, the birth of Lord Hanuman.
“Now children can understand why we are celebrating. It’s because Hanuman was born on this day and this is who he was, this was his mom and this was his dad,” she said.
“After becoming a mother I was disappointed there was no appropriate children’s literature on Hinduism in English,” the 36-year-old health economist said.
“I would import books from India, but the story lines were unappealing and often of very poor quality and the images terrible, so violent. There are demons in Hinduism and the gods all carry weapons, but this was not appropriate when reading to a child before going to bed.”
She said lockdown gave her the time and interest to research and write the stories.
“I was still working full time and my son was home full time, but we couldn’t go anywhere ‒ so this became my escape. I started researching these stories. They’re so passionate and once I found out how beautiful they are, I fell in love with them and wanted to make them available to children.
“The Hanuman tale is about a little boy who wakes up hungry and can’t find food. He sees the sun, thinks it is juicy fruit and he makes a journey to go and swallow it. Along the way, Hanuman encounters the famous gods of Hinduism and his destiny,” she says.
The story is also a good introduction to the main gods of Hinduism.
“He meets Lord Brahma, the creator, Lord Vishnu, the preserver and Lord Shiva, the destroyer. He also meets gods of fire and wind and water. So it’s an appropriate book for an introduction of Hinduism to children.”
She said British artist Emily House, who is based in South Africa, did an “amazing job” of the illustrations.
“She brought the gods to life very classically but in a very modern way down to what they wear and what objects they carry. Her fresh perspective will help adults and children.”
While the book is aimed at children between 5 and 8, adults can enjoy it too.
“Hinduism still lives in South Africa but has survived by word of mouth and strict practice. Hindus practise it but don’t understand why. Growing up in South Africa they never had access to this literature ‒ first there was indenture and then apartheid.
“My parents didn’t know these stories and didn’t teach them to us ‒ so many adults are enjoying them and for many it is the first time they are hearing them.”
Besesar-Ramdhani says she had always attended Christian schools, matriculating from Durban Girls’ High School. “I can tell you Bible stories but wouldn't be able to tell you Hindu stories,” she said.
She believes her day job actually helped her write the book.
“People stay away from Hinduism because it’s perceived to be complex and trying to simplify things isn’t easy. Hinduism has so many sources of text and some may be conflicting, so I would do a lot of digging.
“My day job helped me as I was capable of sifting through large amounts of data to get to the truth documented in scriptures that are hundreds of years old.”
Besesar-Ramdhani followed an actuarial career because at school she loved maths, but today probably uses her language skills as much.
“I went to a career counsellor. I didn’t want to do medicine because I didn’t like the sight of blood, and chose actuarial science because it’s very difficult, but I love a challenge.
“But I hated my first job as a traditional number cruncher. I then met a person who worked in the health policy space and took a job with a private hospital group analysing health policies and reporting back for lay people. They’re complex and no two are alike.”
She is currently studying health economics.
When it came to writing the book, she found that there was no publishing house interested in religious books, so she set up her own ‒ called Stories for Shiv ‒ funded with her savings.
She also said every book sold be matched with a book donation to an underprivileged child.
Besesar-Ramdhani is already working on a second book, also focused on Lord Hanuman, which also tells the origins of the Diwali festival.
- Hanuman and the Sun
The Independent on Saturday