A childhood spent devouring books established a strong relationship between Bhakti Mathur and the written word. And many years down the line, a finance degree, marriage, motherhood and moving countries later, the banker digressed to weaving words into stories herself in 2010. As author of the self-published series for children” Amma tell me”, Mathur dabbles in mythology, a subject that has always fascinated her. Having simplified the stories of Rama, Hanumana, Ganesha and Krishna, her latest series is on Durga. In this interview with Ria Das, Hong Kong based Bhakti Mathur explains her love for storytelling and the reasons why explaining mythology to children is so important.
The love affair with books
I was born and raised in Delhi in a middle class family. My biggest childhood influences were my mother, my grandmother and my nanny. My mother was an avid reader. In my childhood I remember being ‘read to’ much more than I read myself. One of the first books I recall hearing is ‘Horton Hears a Who’ by Dr. Seuss while sitting on my mother’s lap. I fell in love with it. My mother worked as a librarian and as a result I landed up spending several hours in the library as a child. I suppose libraries are great and inexpensive babysitters! I remember spending entire summer holidays in the library devouring books. I think that’s where the love affair with books first started.
While growing up, many a lazy afternoon were made adventurous by stories from Enid Blyton, the Nancy Drew series, Agatha Christie, Sherlock Holmes and JRR Tolkien. Next came M.M. Kaye, AJ Cronin, Daphne du Maurier, Somerset Maugham and I was hooked for life. But my favorite stories are from Indian mythology. And as a reader I find myself going back to them again and again. Some of my favorite authors who write on mythology are Eknath Easwaran, Devdutt Pattanaik and Ashok Banker.
How the banker turned author
While I enjoyed my work, I always had a longing to do something else with my life, something more, something bigger, and something more fulfilling. For years I could not figure out what that was. I finally had my eureka moment in December 2010. The Indian festival of colors ‘Holi’ was round the corner. I was looking for a good book to explain the festival to my older son who was two years old then. I couldn’t find anything that I liked and got an idea to write one myself! I decided to make it a series and called it ‘Amma Tell Me’ (‘Amma’ means mother). I set up my own publishing company and called it ‘Anjana Publishing’ (Anjana being the mother of my favorite God, the monkey God Hanuman).
The biggest reason that I find myself going back to Indian mythology is that the stories serve as a wonderful parenting tool to highlight the values that we want our children to imbibe
‘Amma Tell Me’: About mythology
The motivation for writing the ‘Amma Tell Me’ series was to share with my sons the fascinating stories from Indian mythology that I had grown up with. But I found that there were no resources that were simple to understand and that captured the rich imagery of mythological India that is such an integral part of these stories for me. So I went ahead and started writing the stories in a style that I think kids find fun and non-preachy and collaborated on the illustrations to bring out the imagery that I want my stories to convey.
I often get emails from parents telling me how much their kids enjoyed the books, or how they as parents have learnt something new. The best letters that I get though are from children who have read the book or have been to one of my story-telling sessions. They often write to me telling me who their favorite characters are with vivid drawings! This is the most rewarding part of writing, knowing that you have been able to create a special moment for someone or have touched someone.
The spell of mythological tales
As a mother of two hyperactive young boys, who otherwise cannot sit still for a minute, I know that the only way I am going to hold their attention is with a good story. And stories from Indian mythology never fail me in this regard. How can they? Which modern tale can boast characters of the stature of mythological ones – the gods incarnate, the mighty kings, the learned sages, and the fearsome demons, placed among the most memorable and momentous of settings? Or match the substance of the plots that invariably involve a challenge faced, an obstacle overcome or a difficult question resolved? These are perfectly crafted stories as otherwise they would never have survived the ages, passed on from generation to generation, many a time in warm beds similar to ours, for thousands of years.
But the biggest reason that I find myself going back to Indian mythology is that the stories serve as a wonderful parenting tool to highlight the values that we want our children to imbibe. These are the universal values of courage, determination, perseverance, generosity and morality, of what is right versus wrong. And these stories are equally applicable to us adults who in the busyness of life’s routine fail to think about what really matters.
Children are the biggest inspirations
My inspiration are my two children Shiv, 8 years and Veer 6 years old. They are the ones that keep me going! And all my other young readers who I meet during book reading sessions or in schools. Besides that I have been greatly influenced by the book ‘Creative Visualization’ by Shakti Gawain and ‘Bhagvad Gita’.
If we educate our girls and yet give them the message that their purpose in life is to marry and bear children, it’s the wrong message that we are sending.
The challenges of self-publishing
Writing is tough because I write in rhyme and am still trying to get a good grip on the rhythm and meter. Also children are very intelligent and perceptive and do not like being preached too. So the other challenge in writing the books was to keep it simple and non-preachy.
The biggest challenge was when I decided to publish the books myself. So my challenge was learning to run a business. I found self-publishing hard. It was one thing to write the book but it was a completely different ball game to find an illustrator, get the book printed, find distributors and retailers, and do the marketing and the PR. It has been hard work, but at the same time a great learning experience.
Education opens doors to women empowerment
‘Women empowerment’ means financial independence for women to me. And that comes from education and the way we bring up our girls. Both these factors are equally important, the latter more than the former. If we educate our girls and yet give them the message that their purpose in life is to marry and bear children, it’s the wrong message that we are sending. The first things that girls should be taught is how to be independent financially.
Another factor that is very important is how we are bringing up our boys. How are we teaching them to look at women? Are we bringing them up as individuals who respect others?
The mothers and fathers of boys have a big responsibility in shaping our boys.
Advice for the fellow writers
Writing is hard work. And writing for children is very hard work. Like with anything else, the more you do, the better you will become. The harder you work, the faster you will improve. That is my endeavour for myself as well! Start, keep at it and keep trying to improve. Use all the resources that you have. Join a writing group, read books on writing and create a network of writers who you can meet with regularly.