Annie could hear Bhagwan Singh’s wagon before she could see it. It jingled and jangled with its pots and pans as it came down the track.
The early Sikh history of Australia, unearthed in the last decade or so, has fascinated us endlessly.
Now there’s a children’s picture book about it.
Written by Adelaide-based author Jane Jolly and illustrated by Di Wu, Star of Anise was released by the National Library of Australia in February this year.
In it, little Annie and her brother Arthur are enthralled by a Sikh trader who comes by frequently with his wagon filled with wondrous wares.
Watching Bhagwan Singh cook his dinner, they learn about a secret spice – star anise.
“Smell,” instructed Bhagwan.
Annie held it to her nose and sniffed. It smelt of liquorice and bark and faraway lands.
Warm and fuzzy, the book draws you in to the kids’ enchantment as they take in the new experiences.
“I had read about the hawkers, cameleers and Sikh traders mistaken for Afghans, and thought there’s a book in this,” writer Jane Jolly told Indian Link. “It’s a bit of our history that few people know about.”
She sent off a manuscript to the National Library, and they liked it.
“The book is for many and varied age groups,” Jane revealed. “There’s a non-fiction bit at the end about the Indian hawkers of the 1800s and about Sikhism. It is from National Library archives, so it promotes their collection too.”
As a teacher Jane has a special interest in all religions and has read of Sikhism. She took great pains to make the Sikh aspects of her story as true and correct as possible, such as in the greeting Sat Sri Akal.
“I researched Sikh names and attire of that era and had it all fact checked by local Sikh associations,” she revealed. “I love the greeting Sat Sri Akal, and at the launch I signed copies with the message Chardi kala.”
(Chardi kala is a Sikh teaching that prescribes a positive, buoyant and optimistic attitude to life.)
For illustrator Di Wu too, the book offered a chance to look closely at another culture. An award-winning artist, the Chinese-born Di has travelled to India multiple times, following his studies in Tibetan Buddhist art.
His well-thought illustrations in soft pastels render the book wonderfully wholesome, transporting you successfully into the kids’ world of intrigue at the novelty of it all, and into the world of the travelling shopkeepers.
“I made initial sketches based on books and old photos that Jane sent to me,” Di described. “Then, with advice, I put in details of the time, such as in the style of hats etc.”
Di is particularly partial to the turbans.
“I love the Sikh turban,” he related. “I think it makes the men look so handsome.”
In the book, Bhagwan changes his turban, and Annie takes his dusty one to her mum to wash.
“Quite a few people have told me since the book came out that they have memories of their mums washing the turbans for hawkers!” Jane laughed.
Why star anise as the spice of choice?
“Because I think it is a beautiful spice that has a lovely flavour and smell, and particularly for kids, a fascinating shape.”
Star of Anise is Jane’s tenth picture book, and the third published by the National Library. Her body of work, encompassing children’s stories set in Vietnamese, Iranian and Indigenous cultures as well as special children, reveals she is drawn to otherness.
“I am drawn to otherness,” Jane agreed. “I love learning about other people. I love other cultures and learning about them, joining in their festivals.”
Clearly, this is an attitude Jane wants to pass on to her readers and to her students. The life lessons from Star of Anise are significant, perhaps more important today than they were in the late 1800s: embrace different traditions, be open to diverse world views.
“I’d like little readers to learn that their world is not the only version of life – to step out of their own lives and look at how others live,” Jane concluded.
READ ALSO: ‘Ritu weds Chandni’ by Ameya Narvankar
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