Bhakti Mathur, The Banker Turned Writer, Knows Mythology
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because this is one way to raise the next generation.
By Sonali Kokra
Picture this: You’re a private banker and a mother to two excitable boys. You decide it’s time for your kids to hear the stories you grew up listening to. You visit bookstores, seeking children’s versions of the mythological epics that enraptured you as a child. Nothing satisfies. What do you do?
If you’re Bhakti Mathur, you write the damn book yourself.
At 42, Mathur — a Hong Kong–based investment banker — is the author of the popular Amma, Tell Me series, sold in six countries. The books introduce children between the ages of 3 and 9 to Hindu mythology. That’s no easy task: Those myths, like their Greek or Roman counterparts, number in the hundreds of thousands, with no shortage of gods (with multiple names, no less). In the lead-up to the publication of her ninth book, Mathur earned an invite to this year’s Jaipur Literature Festival, the largest free festival in the world.
Funnily, though, Mathur’s writing venture could not have had a humbler start. She self-published her first book, Amma, Tell Me About Holi! She knew zilch about logistics and found herself running to the post office to courier one book at a time to readers. Thank god(s) for her banking background, which made her more competent at the biz side than your average creative. And that biz side may be surprisingly fruitful in India, where there’s a huge market for modern kids’ books that retell classics. Mythology is hot, says Reena Puri, executive editor of Amar Chitra Katha, a comic-book publisher that, thanks to colorful, straightforward storytelling about gods and goddesses, has sold millions of books worldwide since the company’s inception in 1967. Not to mention the diaspora — Mathur has lived in San Francisco and Hong Kong — where anxious parents find themselves hankering for a tangible way to transmit the old country’s values. More than a third of Mathur’s total sales are from the U.S.
Mathur’s work fits into a controversial zeitgeist in which Hindu stories have become political.
Why all the fuss about old epics? “Ours is a living mythology; the gods in the books are there on our altars,” says Puri (and on calendars, in rickshaws, in films, on television, etc.). And then there’s a modern explanation. Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings — “confusing fantasy (nobody’s truth) with mythology (a culture’s truth) is quite common,” says Devdutt Pattanaik, one of India’s most prolific mythologists. There’s also an impetus to revive Indian cultural history that under colonialism went unwritten for years. For Amma to tell of festivals like Holi and Diwali or epics like the Ramayana is for Amma to preserve rather a lot of culture.
Mathur’s love for Hindu mythology started young. An only child from a middle-class family, she often felt an outsider in her prep school. The best part of her day was spent after school with her caretaker, a kindly old man who regaled her with stories from the Hindu epics. Lost in the world of mighty kings, learned sages, fearsome demons and the gods incarnate, she floated into contentedness. It’s odd, hearing a banker talking about magical creatures with such excitement. More so, when you see slim, bright-eyed, professional-looking Mathur in action. While talking to her, you can almost feel her brain whirring — making lists, taking notes and generally filing away information to ponder over later. It’s evident that research really is her favorite part of writing, as she had claimed in our first conversation.
Thanks to the “lingering sense of insecurity” over her childhood financial situation, she ended up in banking. “Is there anyone whose dream is to become a banker?” she says, laughing. Armed with a master’s degree in finance, she moved to Mumbai from New Delhi in 1995 for her first job, where she met her husband. Two years later, they were married — but within a week of the wedding, the company declared bankruptcy and her husband lost his job. They headed to San Francisco five years later; then Hong Kong.
Mathur’s reach is limited — she has sold only 85,000 copies, which isn’t bad in the tight Indian market, but a pittance globally. One reason could be that her books offer only a surface understanding of the subject. They are great pictorially and as an introduction — definitely better suited for a youngster of 3 than 9 — but if you’re hoping to familiarize your child with the finer details of the stories that make up Hinduism, you’re going to be a tad disappointed. And Hindu mythology is itself “tough to understand,” says Pattanaik.
Another interesting wrinkle: Mathur’s work fits into a controversial zeitgeist in which Hindu stories have become political — the ruling conservative party has been accused of deploying them selectively, and a cohort of mostly Western scholars sought to create a comprehensive library to gather the poorly recorded Hindu classics. The wrong portrayal of Hinduism, in the eyes of some right-wingers, is enough for a book to be banned (as University of Chicago professor Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternate History was) or to incite protest.
Mathur figures she’s far from the politics, though, and begins first and foremost with the reactions of her sons, who serve as her guinea pigs. They’re not always pleased. Recently, her son Shiv grew angry with his mother when he discovered she was not actually the author of the Ramayana. “‘You copied him?’” she recalls her son asking. “I’m still not sure if he’s forgiven me.”
- Sonali Kokra, Sonali Kokra is a journalist and writer living in Mumbai.Contact Sonali Kokra