Interview with Bhakti Mathur, author of the popular Amma, Tell me SeriesInterview with Bhakti Mathur, author of the popular Amma, Tell me Series
on Dec 07, 2021
Where did you grow up and when did you move to Hong Kong? Why?
At that point, how long were you planning to stay? Do you now consider yourself a Hongkonger? What about your kids?
Ans: 1 grew up in Delhi. It can be a tough city for a girl, but it is also a city that makes you strong and independent. It certainly did that for me. That apart, when I think about Delhi the images that flash across my mind are the changing seasons – the nip in the air in October, the smell of the flowers in spring, and eating ‘golgappas’ (a kind of street food) from a road-side eatery and of course spending time with friends and family.
My husband and I moved to Hong Kong in 2000 for work. Prior to this, we were in San Francisco for a year and in Mumbai for a few years before that. My husband’s work brought us here. We had no idea how long we were going to be here, but I had hoped that it would be for long. I wanted to establish my career and was quite annoyed that I had been uprooted from India to the US and then to Hong Kong.
Hong Kong is a special city and very much home and yes, I do think of myself as a Hongkonger. Despite having only a few broken phrases of Cantonese at my disposal, I have never felt an outsider here. I achieved professional success over my banking career in the city and financial independence on the back of it. It was in Hong Kong that I found the resources and many, many extremely helpful people who aided me in my journey of becoming an author. Both my children were born in Hong Kong, which makes my ties to the city even stronger. Hong Kong has also given me my passion for fitness, hiking, and running. It’s hard not to fall in love with the trails here. Where else in the world can you be in the heart of the city and in 15 minutes be in a country park or trudging up a hiking trail.
2. Where did you work in Hong Kong initially and as what?
Ans:2 I worked as a senior relationship manager in private banking from 2001 to 2017 with ING, Bank of Singapore, and J Safra Sarasin.
3. Why did you make the switch from the finance industry to writing?
Ans:3 I started writing in 2010. I published my first book – ‘Amma Tell Me About Holi’ in 2011. I had a long, rewarding, and satisfying stint as a private banker, for 22 years, before I quit the industry in 2017 to write full time and spend more time with my two young children. It was a natural evolution from banking to writing as my writing commitments gradually increased.
4. Why did you come up with the “Amma” series? What need gap did you see in the market?
Ans:4 I write books for children on Indian mythology (17 published titles). I have two series – Amma Tell Me (self-published, 13 titles) and Amma Take Me (published by Penguin India, 4 titles). I also freelance as a feature writer, writing on culture, life and fitness for the South China Morning Post.
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. It was December 2010 and Holi, the Indian festival of colors, 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. 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 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).
My editor at Penguin came up with the idea for the ‘Amma Take Me’ Series. The series is designed and written for older children and is, therefore, a natural evolution for me not only as a writer but also as a mother who has been dealing with questions about different religions and their places of worship as they have become part of my children’s school curriculum. In the same vein, I believe the series will be a natural evolution for my readers as well - the children and parents who have liked the “Amma Tell Me” series. These children are now older, they ‘self-read’, are more aware about religion and probably pester their parents with the same questions that I am pestered with!
5. Did you have any knowledge of the publishing industry? How did you go about getting your first book published? Did you expect the response that it got?
Ans:5 The ‘Amma Tell Me’ Series is self-published. I had read a lot about self-publishing at that time and was influenced by two things – I wanted to write the book my way and to have control over the creative process. I wanted my successes to be mine and my failures to be mine. And so I took the plunge.
After that, it was a bit of ‘down the rabbit-hole into Wonderland.’ Self-publishing is not easy. It was one thing to write the book, but it was a completely different ballgame to find an illustrator, get the book printed, find distributors and retailers, and do the marketing and the PR. I was thrown into the world of learning how to run a small business. It has been hard work but at the same time a great learning experience. The biggest reward of the journey has been the warm reception that the books have received around the world and the response that I have received from parents and kids telling me how much they liked the books and who their favorite characters were. Knowing that I have been able to create a special moment for someone has been very fulfilling.
6. How do your children react to your books? When they were little and now as tweens/teens?
Ans: 6 When they were younger, I used to read to them every night. It was a bedtime ritual, the best part of my day. Both the boys are in middle school, and it is still a treat for me when they grudgingly allow me to read to them on some nights. When they were in Primary School, I had several opportunities to visit their school to talk about Indian mythology and culture and read my books to their class. I would like to believe that it made them happy.
As the boys have grown older, they act indifferent to the books as well as to the articles for the SCMP, though I still like to believe that somewhere they feel proud and happy about it.7. Who is your biggest critic? Who is your biggest inspiration?
Ans:7 My husband, who is also my editor (unpaid!) is my biggest critic, but also my biggest supporter.
My inspiration for writing is my children.
8. How and where did you meet your husband? What role has he played in your career?
Ans:8 We met in 1995 in Mumbai. We both worked for the Indian subsidiary of Peregrine, a Hong Kong-based investment bank that spectacularly crashed in the Asian financial crisis of 1997. So now that I think about it, our connection with Hong Kong started way back in 1995!
My husband’s role in my career has been huge. He was instrumental in enabling me to make the shift from banking to writing. He is my editor, my biggest critic and my biggest supporter.9. Were you always interested in Indian mythology and culture? Who/what was your biggest influence growing up?
Ans: My biggest childhood influences were my mother, my grandmother and my nanny. My mother, a librarian, 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. I would tag along with my mother and 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 started.
My love for mythology was a gift from my grandmother and my nanny. They both used to tell me stories from the two major Indian epics, the Ramayana and Mahabharata every day after I came back from school. That was the best part of my day. Those stories took me to far-off places. I remember, how much I loved listening to those fascinating tales about myriad Hindu Gods, of great kings and heroes and their triumphs over the most evil of adversaries.
10. How proud are you of being “Indian”? Do your kids feel the same?
Ans: 10 I am Indian even though don’t consciously think of my ‘Indianness’ and wear it as a label. It is simply who I am. And the best thing about Hong Kong is that it has accepted me for who I am and doesn’t require me to blend in or pretend to be someone I am not. I believe that it is the same for other expatriates living in Hong Kong.11. Recently, I saw a post about how your son felt proud of you wearing a saree after his coach told him about it? (Could you narrate the incident) Do you feel HK is culturally diverse and inclusive?
Ans: 11 I wrote an article for the SCMP about sarees and the research that I did for the column inspired me to start wearing them. I have been wearing sarees regularly for the past year and initially, my family, as well as my friends, were quite bemused. My older son (13 years) would often feel uncomfortable and embarrassed at the attention that the saree would get when I went out with him. Before we left our home, he would say, “Why do you have to wear a saree? Doesn’t it look weird?”
He became more indifferent to it over time but then one day, he came to me, with a big smile and proudly said “Amma, my coach said that he thought you are supercool as you are keeping Indian culture alive by wearing sarees.” The coach who said that is Nizakat Khan, the captain of the Hong Kong national Cricket Team, and one of my son’s heroes. Shows you the influence that sporting heroes have on young children and their points of views.12. How similar or different are your children? Whom do they take after?
Ans: 12 Overall, I think they are fairly similar. While they test my husband and my patience on a daily basis, they are both good boys and I couldn’t be prouder of them. They are both passionate about cricket and generally excel at sports while working hard and doing well in the classroom as well. I believe they are a good blend of my husband and me though I do tease my husband by saying how glad I am that they get their full head of hair from me.13. What are the various projects you are currently involved in?
Ans: Currently, I am working on the fifth book in the Amma Take Me Series on the Taj Mahal (slated for release in May 2012). I am particularly excited about this as Mughal history is fascinating and the Taj Mahal is one of the most beautiful monuments in the world.
14. Which achievements are you most proud of (personally or professionally)?
Ans: Professionally - For listening to my heart and pursuing my interests in writing, yoga, and studying further. I trained to be a coach this summer and am an ICF credentialed Life and Career Coach now. I am also training to be a yoga teacher with the Iyengar Yoga Center of Hong Kong.
Personally, I am happiest about the relationships I have built, with family and friends.
15. What do you most enjoy about living in HK? Do you like bringing up your kids here? What do you enjoy doing with your sons?
Ans: I love Hong Kong. It is home. I feel I have grown up in the city – my career as a banker was here, my children were born here, I have made many enduring friendships here. I love the vibe and the energy. I love that I can spend so much time in nature, on the hiking trails.
Hong Kong is a fantastic place to bring up children. You never have to worry about safety. The schools are fantastic as are the extra-curricular resources. As an expatriate Hongkonger, I have never had to worry about my third culture kids being able to blend in. The city accepts them for who they are.
We loved trail walking and hiking with them when they were younger and would agree to come with us. And yes, reading to them at night and telling them a story in bed was the favorite part of my day. It still is, though it happens less frequently. But I enjoy swimming with them, driving them to their cricket games on weekends and watching sports and movies with them.16. What do you enjoy most about being a mum?
Ans: The feeling of being able to love selflessly. Of realizing that I am more vulnerable and also stronger than I thought.17. What is most challenging about being a mum?
Ans: 17 Enduring your kids’ teenage years. But, I know it will pass and that it is about finding the right balance of guiding and supporting them while giving them the space that they need to evolve into independent adults.
18. After a long day, what’s your favorite way to unwind?
Ans: With a book and a hot cup of chai.
19. What are your top three tips or advice for those looking at a career switch and pursuing a passion in Hong Kong?
Ans:19 Do your homework before. Find out what you are passionate about, what a career change will entail in terms of finances, working hours, and time with family.
Make a plan for yourself and be flexible at the same time. Plan and prepare as much as you can before you take the leap.
Keep the faith and don’t give up.