Four years ago, a week apart, siblings Avani Sarkar and Viral Modi became first-time parents to daughters Naavya and Aadhya, respectively.
Inspired, the new parents went searching for a way to connect their newborns to their Hindu faith and South Asian culture.
Finding none, the two founded Modi Toys, a toy company focused on helping the next generation of South Asians – one of the fastest demographics in America – be proud of their heritage and dual identity.
With offices in Edison, Modi Toys is celebrating its third birthday in August. The business expanded 189% during the pandemic; as did Sarkar, who welcomed another baby, daughter Saanvi, born in March 2020, and Sarkar is readying for her third child in weeks.
“We were both entering this parenthood journey together,” Sarkar said. “We were confronting ourselves with a lot of questions that had never dawned on us before as an aunt and uncle. Now we were mom and dad.”
She admits they were worried.
“We are raising first generation Indian-American children,” Sarkar said. “How would we ensure that our kids were connected and appreciative of their heritage and their faith? We didn’t want to lose what was really important to us, really meaningful to us, and a big part of our dual identity.”
Sarkar and her brothers grew up in a culturally immersive environment in Franklin. Immigrants, she came to live in the U.S. from India at age 8; Modi was 14 and their eldest sibling was 18.
“We spoke our mother tongue, ate ethnic food all the time, went to temple; we never felt we left India behind,” Sarkar said. “When we became parents ourselves, we realized that we don’t feel really confident in how we are going to raise our daughters with the same kind of seamless effort that our parents seemed to have.”
Plus, they knew that the primary language at home would be English, there would be peanut butter and jelly sandwiches aplenty, and temple visits would not be weekly.
‘It was kismet’
Neither Sarkar, who lives in the Skillman section of Montgomery, nor Viral, who lives in the Franklin Park section of Franklin, where the siblings grew up, ever expected to become entrepreneurs. Voth were happily ensconced in the 9-to-5 corporate world.
It was kismet, said Sarkar, who has a background in business-to-business marketing while Modi was in consulting.
“Our personal lives intertwined. We kind of forged on this path at the same time and our paths crossed,” she said. “Had we not, I don’t think we would have come up with this idea together.
“Having our daughters at the same time made us ask ourselves, why aren’t there toys like this? We both were invested emotionally in this. And that’s when we had our eureka idea. And that’s where our mantra-singing plush toy Baby Ganesh came from. When we couldn’t find it, we decided ‘let’s make it.'”
Modi Toys now features several mantra-singing, Hindu-themed plush toys.
Along with Baby Ganesh (elephant head god), there is Baby Hanuman (monkey head god) and Baby Krishna, all available in 10-by-6-inch sizes. Each sing three mantras and have corresponding books, written by Sarkar, that tell a Hindu theology tale connected to each god’s traits. Ganesh represents “good luck and good fortune,” Hanuman represents ” strength and energy” and Krisna represents “love and devotion.”
This year, Modi Toys is adding four new products to the line, including a musical crib mobile; the alphabet book “Desi Devis,” featuring 26 South Asian women from past and present; and several plush toys, including Saraswati Devi, the “goddess of knowledge, music and arts.” Many of the new products focus on the goddesses of the Hindu faith and in turn, women empowerment.
Based on the sales they have seen from the start, Sarkar knows Modi Toys has filled a void.
“We realized that the problem we thought was unique to us was actually not unique to us at all,” Sarkar said, adding their latest book, which she also authored, was inspired by her daughters and the lack of Indian women representation. “We are not raising this next generation of South Asian children with the same set of tools our parents had.
“People realize they want their kids to be really connected with all these other things, but also don’t want them to lose sight of where they come from and all the things that make them who they are — faith, culture, traditions. Parents want to be able to preserve that and pass it down.”
Sarkar said their toys are “more than just a toy.” They also are an educational aid due to the mantras, or prayers, vocalized by each plush toy, she said.
The products, which can be personalized, also have had a significant impact on adults. Sarkar said she has had many customers of all ages let her know that the toys had special meaning for them personally in both good times and bad.
The Modi Toys project
Since its conception, Modi Toys has become part of a broader movement to make playrooms and bookshelves more inclusive. Recently, actor and director Mindy Kaling featured Modi Toys on her Instagram page.
“I’m so psyched my daughter knows the story of Ganesh and has a doll to show her friends,” Kaling said in the post. “They are so well-made and adorable!!! @moditoys is a family-owned small business, and I feel #ProudtobeIndian when I think of their creative contribution to the lives of kids.”
“I am still not over this,” Sarkar said of Kaling’s tribute. “Like many South Asian women, I have been a fan of hers for years and years. And now, she has our products in her home.”
The next goal is to get Vice President Kamala Harris to notice Modi Toys, Sarkar said with a laugh.
“And her middle name is Devi, so I feel like we have a connection there,” she said.
For more information go to www.moditoys.com.
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