Did you know that May is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month? In honor of this fact, I want to share one of my favorite newish picture books by a Southeast Asian American author and illustrator.
“PRIYA DREAMS OF MARIGOLD AND MASALA,” written and illustrated by MEENAL PATEL, is a sweet story of a grandmother, named Babi Ba, sharing vivid memories of India with her granddaughter Priya as they make rotli, a type of Indian flatbread. As they roll dough, Priya asks, “What is India like?” This inquiry serves as the catalyst for a journey through the grandmother’s birthplace — a sensory journey of food, sounds of the city and sights of the market. Patel’s descriptions are tangible; Priya (and the reader) can smell the cumin and masala at the market as it “tickles your nose.” We can feel the “hot sun on (our) face” after it rains, and we can hear the “quiet swish-swish” of a sari as a woman walks through a shop.
The grandmother’s joy and comfort in these memories is infectious, both for Priya and the reader. These stories spur Priya to action, calling on her classmates to help design a marigold garland for her grandmother to hang over her door during winter. Upon receiving this gift, Babi Ba tells Priya that the best way to carry your home — or your memories of such a place — with you is to share it with others.
Every time I go back home to California, I bring my family to my favorite place by the ocean. At this point, I could describe the sound of the waves crashing on the rocks as you stand overhead. I could describe the burning thigh muscles as you ascend the stairs back to your car. I could describe the cold rush of air across your face as you walk the dusty trail closer to the overlook. Though my home is not quite as far as Babi Ba’s, I understand the joy inherent in memories of home and in the sharing of those memories.
Patel’s illustrations are just as colorful as Babi Ba’s memories. The spreads that include people milling about the city feature a diverse array of skin tones. The saris worn are both colorful and simple in detail, and most characters are featured with round, rosy pink or red cheeks. The spreads featuring cityscapes are sharply angled, mashing colors and patterns purposefully and carefully. Patel’s color palette manages to be both muted and colorful simultaneously; the collection of browns, oranges, pinks, red, yellow and navy are delightfully twee. (Somewhat relatedly, if you have ever seen Wes Anderson’s 2014 film “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” you will likely notice the similarities in color there.)
In the author’s note, Patel describes visiting India as an adult and recognizing how the things that made her feel different back home were parts of daily life there. This visit allowed her to interweave the various threads of her identity and to understand how those “unique threads” make up who she is.
You can find “Priya Dreams of Marigolds and Masala” here. If you’d like to see more of Patel’s art, you can follow her on Instagram @meenal_land.