Elegantly dressed Bhakti Mathur, the writer of self-published Amma Tell Me series (Anjana Publishing), is pleasant and an excellent conversationalist bubbling with life contrary to what one expected while meeting the banker-turned-children’s writer. Caffe Tonino at Connaught Place at noon that too on a weekday seems a perfect place for the luncheon meeting with the Hongkong based author, in the town to launch the part two of the Hanuman triology “How Hanuman Crossed the Ocean”, of the series.
Unable to contain my curiosity I ask what made her decide to write and that too children’s books? Her muse she reveals is her two children. In 2010 she had this “strange and bizarre” urge to write and being a banker she toyed with the idea of profiling different successful businessmen and highlight their rags to riches journey. “Around November-December with Holi coming in the next three to four months, I decided to write a story on the festival for my older son Shiv in a manner I wanted to narrate to him. My husband seconded the idea. So the initial plan was shelved,” says Bhakti giving full credit to her first born. She refers to her two children as the best critics being blunt and honest. “In the Krishna book I was skeptical about adding the Putna episode as it speaks about breast-feeding. I narrated it to my children and they insisted that it should be there in the book. For them she was just a demon killed by the Lord.”
The books have delightful illustrations by Maulshree Somani. “I am lucky to work with her. We collaborate by sharing ideas and I am glad that we are on the same page.” Besides the drawings she feels that the simplicity of the narrative makes her books stand out. “Been a mother I am able to connect with the young readers and the mothers who read them aloud.”
The master in finance and control from Delhi University has been in Hongkong since 2000 with her husband had never thought of writing. “I was fond of penning an odd poem or two, all sporadic and nothing consistent besides writing journal, again on and off,” she says. But the seeds of writing were already embedded and with opportunity they not only sprouted but rather well. Nine books to her name are ample proof of that.
“Three factors influenced my writing. My mother read aloud stories to me, including those by Dr. Seuss. She was a librarian so I spent my summer vacation and other holidays at the library. Thus I was exposed to books, stories and tales. Secondly, our male help, aptly named Bhagwan, narrated stories to me from Ramayan and Mahabharat daily after lunch. In fact my third book, ‘Ramayana’ is dedicated to him. Last but not the least was my paternal grandmother – a children’s book writer – with whom I was for a short time. An ardent follower of mythologies she made me memorise shlokas and Hanuman chalisa. From then on, Hanuman is my favourite god and I still chant the chalisa everyday,” Bhakti adds.
The Caffe Tonino staffer brings in the soup of day, zuppadel giorno, cream of cauliflower. Enjoying it Bhakti appreciates its flavour and taste. Her first book was followed with one on Diwali and then came the mythologies, the Krishna triology, Ramayana, Ganesha and Hanuman. “These are the things I liked hearing when I was growing up and I wanted to tell and share them with my kids. Hanuman was my favourite god, while I love the Ramanyana and am totally fascinated by Ganesha.” While researching on Krishna she culled out so much material that she decided on a triology. “There were several demons I too had not heard of and I was thrilled to include them.”
The insalata rucola con pere (Italian rocket leaves with pears, cheery tomotaes, walnts in honey balsamic dressing) is brought in. She clearly likes it. How does the long-distance runner and a yoga enthusiast, manage to strike a balance between her diet and her love for food? “I have been always conscious about weight even while growing up. I avoid fried food, aerated drink and use no sugar in tea or coffee. I try to eat food as close to natural state as possible. In fact we make bread at home and you’ll be surprised to know that it last for two days only while those available in the market last for days. So you can imagine the level of preseveratives in it,” explains Bhakti and adds “I do treat myself at times like share a dessert once a week or two.” She candidly admits that though she can prepare dal, bindi, chicken, mattar paneer, mutton she prefers to spend time with her kids or running or reading. “I have decided recently to learn one special dish from each of my close friends. These I want to serve to my family, friends and well wishers since serving self cooked items to guests lends warmth and taste. Cooking is an exceptional creative art which gets instant feedback in the form of appreciation. It is very fulfilling.”
Like all mothers Bhakti also faces problem feeding the children. Being innovative she exposed them to varied cuisines like Italian, Mexican, Japanese, Indian, etc to avoid monotony. “They grew bored with same snacks, like biscuits and fruits. My cook and I devised surprise snacks with the condition that they ought to try it and then decide whether they like them or not. Surprisingly, in majority cases they liked it.”
Praising Hongkong she says it has good Indian restaurants which provide excellent sev puri, bhelpuri, chaat, pani puri, upma, poha etc but she reserves her best for Japan. “They use fresh ingredients and are perfectionist. I recommend foodies to take trip there and eat not only Japanese cuisine but other ones too.”
Inspired by Sarah Brennan, author of children series, the stories are narrated in stanzas of four lines and rhyme making them interesting. Every book ends with a message which is not preachy. “My experience taught me that children do not like straight dos and don’ts. After reading aloud to my kids I discuss with them in a conversational style what lessons we can draw, making it a participative exercise.”
We round off our interaction with the author paying handsome compliments to the chef for the food while refusing his offer to try desserts and instead opting for for cappuchino. Her books will shortly available in Hindi too thus making them available to larger audience. “I am happy as it will be very useful to Room to Read with whom I am associated as a writer ambassador,” she says.