Getting closer with God
Bhakti Mathur and her sons are learning and introspecting about various religions and the universal values that they propagate. All the teachings have been distilled into Amma, Take Me to... series, through which Mathur has started a conversation with young minds
On her trips to India, Bhakti Mathur and her two boys, Shiv and Veer, often visit religious shrines and places of worship. The Hong Kong-based former banker has an agenda up her sleeves — firstly, to introduce her children to the country of their origin and the many festivals and mythology tales that make India a very vibrant and inclusive country. Secondly, the interactions, questions and the introspection that occurs finds its way through the books that Mathur has been writing for her children and other readers their age.
Her first book was Amma Tell Me About Holi! in 2011 and now she is working on a new series — Amma, Take Me — in collaboration with Puffin Books. So far Mathur and her kids visited Golden Temple in Amritsar, the Sri Venkateswara Temple in Tirupati, the Dargah of Salim Chishti at Fatehpur Sikri. In February 2019, they visited Shirdi and the visit was described in her latest book Amma, Take Me to Shirdi.
We chat with Mathur to know how she converses with her children about religious faiths, rites and rituals...
- What do your boys think of the visits to India and the shrines they have visited so far? What sort of questions or observations do they make?
Given a choice, Shiv and Veer would have preferred a beach holiday or a visit to Disneyland. However, once they reached the destination — whether it was the Golden Temple, Tirupati, Dargah of Salim Chishti or Shirdi, they were enthralled. Each of the trips had been a unique experience for them. They have been fascinated by the sights, sounds and stories behind the monuments. That led to endless questions — what, why, where, how.
- The books are based on the conversations I have had with them answering their questions as we walked through these monuments. We visited Shirdi in February 2019. They wanted to know why Sai Baba never revealed his name or religion, how he got the name Sai Baba, did he really perform miracles, what did he believe in?
They were fascinated that Sai Baba loved to sing and dance; he loved animals and shared his food with dogs and cats, that he had a horse as a pet; he spoke to plants while gardening and that he had so many friends and followers.
- Do their friends have similar observations or feedback? What does religion or faith mean for them?
That’s a tough question to answer. They are lucky that their school in Hong Kong has a big focus on exposing them to different religions. They have visited temples, mosques, churches and synagogues through school visits.
To them, religion is probably a combination of rituals, places of worship, a higher power and beliefs. What I have tried to teach them through the books is that all religions at their heart have the same universal values of love, kindness, generosity and courage. I hope they are imbibing that.
- You had mentioned that as a kid, you had been to Fatehpur Sikri. Have your impressions as a child/youngster overlapped with that of an adult Bhakti?
As a child, I believed that the Sufi saint Salim Chishti was a magician, who could make any dream come true. As an adult, I now realise that it is the power of belief, faith and hard work that makes dreams come true.
The Dargah of Salim Chishti will always be a magical place for me. I have always felt the presence and blessings of Shaikh Salim Chishti in the Dargah. And that has given me the strength to pursue my dreams.
- How has your perception towards religion changed vis-a-vis Amma, Take Me to... series? Did you learn something new about a faith?
The most enriching part of writing the Amma, Take Me series has been the amount I have learned about the history and practices of different religions — Sikhism, Hinduism and the Sufis.
My perception of religion has not changed but it has been reinforced. Religion is not rituals, or some dogma — religion is being kind and being the best person that you can be. All the faiths teach this.
- Did you wish that you had books like these, introducing you to different religions, in your childhood? How would have they helped you like they are helping Shiv and Veer?
Yes indeed. I think books on religion and history can be quite boring, preachy and didactic. But if the stories are told from a child’s point of view — it would pique his/her interest. The questions are the questions they want to ask. That’s what my aim has been in the series — to make the books fun and interesting for kids. Having my kids, who are 11 and 9, ask questions has helped me (hopefully) to get into their minds.
- What do children need most — moral values or introduction to diversity — through literature?
Both. I think children need role models and the first and most important role models are their parents. The parents need to internalise and practise the values they want their children to imbibe. Children don’t need to be preached to — they need to be shown the qualities to cultivate, to live a happy life.
Literature and stories are a wonderful medium to show them how characters behave and respond to situations and the consequences they face. History and mythology are wonderful tools for parenting.