Last year, Mindy Kaling, creator of the upbeat series Never Have I Ever, gave birth to her son. One of the gifts she received was a collection of plush toys from Modi Toys, a boutique toymaker based in New Jersey, US. Kaling described the toys on Instagram as “…a fun, engaging yet subtle way to introduce them (kids) to Indian culture, starting with diversifying their playrooms and bookshelves.” Baby versions of Hindu gods Ganesha, Krishna and Hanuman with squeezy bellies, these toys when pressed, belt out shlokas (verse, proverb or hymn, usually religious in nature). To complete the experience, there are corresponding storybooks to accompany the toys—How Ganesha Broke His Tusk, The Curious Case of Krishna and so on. “I’m so psyched my daughter knows the story of Ganesha and has a doll to show her friends,” noted Kaling.
That’s the wow factor of Modi Toys, founded by siblings, Avani Modi Sarkar and Viral Modi. Clarifying that the toys are “not just toys”, Sarkar says their mission is to help the next generation of South Asians “take pride and interest in their roots and Hindu heritage”. The duo and their oldest brother grew up in the US after their parents moved there. The parents were fairly religious and the children were encouraged to pick one ritual of their choice and stick to it. “As a result, I grew up reciting the Gayatri Chalisa whereas Viral grew up reciting the Hanuman Chalisa,” Sarkar says. Coincidentally, both the siblings became parents in 2017—the two daughters were born a week apart. Shopping for toys and books in the US proved to be hard, especially the kind that would keep the children connected to their culture, they realised. They ideated, developed prototypes and in 2018, with a $25,000 seed capital, launched their brand of toys and books. The first toy—Baby Ganesh—sold out immediately.
The roles of Chief Inspiration Officers, Chief Quality Officers and Chief Beta Testers are given to the kids in the family. “Since my kids and niece get special early access to our prototypes, their favourite toy is always whichever one is the newest one,” says Modi. The plush toys are helping the Indian diaspora connect their children to the culture they have left behind. “That was exactly our intent! My brother and I are not only children of immigrants, but we are immigrants ourselves. We have a sense of connection to India and our culture,” says Sarkar, recounting the story of four-year-old boy who was hospitalised for a 10-week chemotherapy. “His mother told us that during his entire stay, Baby Ganesh and Baby Hanuman never left the boy’s side, giving him comfort and giving the parents strength,” says she.
But if you thought the toys were just for children, think again. Someone bought a Baby Ganesh to present it to his grandmother along with his wedding invite. A son recounts how his father, a soon-to-be grandfather undergoing aggressive chemotherapy for acute myeloid leukaemia, was given a plush toy to hold on to for “he may very well be on his last few days of life and if he couldn’t see his first grandchild at least he could take comfort from the toy.” Buoyed by good reviews and sales, the founders left their day jobs and are now full-time entrepreneurs. The toys now have a strong presence in the US market. Their website pings with online sales notifications every so often. The duo is now targeting Canada, the UK, Australia and India.
Kaling’s Insta endorsement is, of course, a huge encouragement. “That was absolutely surreal! In fact, I have IG posts dating back to 2018 to somehow get the toys into Kaling’s hands, and there she was a couple of years down the line giving the brand the much-needed fillip,” Sarkar gushes. Looks like the gods heard her.
The toys now have a strong presence in the US market. Their website pings with online sales notifications every so often. The duo is now targeting Canada, the UK, Australia and India.