We meet children’s book author (and saree enthusiast!) BHAKTI MATHUR at her peaceful home on the Peak in Hong Kong.
Who lives here: Bhakti, husband Anurag, their two boys, Shiv (13) and Veer (11), two dogs, Rafa (from Hong Kong Dog Rescue) and Sam (a Golden Labrador from a breeder in Australia), and helper Dolores.
Where is it: The Peak, Hong Kong island
Style of home: “Warm, colourful and homely!”
Where are you originally from? What do you miss about it?
I grew up in Delhi. It can be a tough city for a girl from a middle-class family, but it’s a city that makes you strong and independent. I think that’s what I got out of growing up there. 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.
When did you come here and what brought you here?
My husband and I came to Hong Kong in 2000. Prior to this we were in San Francisco for a year, and Mumbai before that. My husband’s work brought us here. I worked as a relationship manager in private banking from 2001 to 2017 with ING, Bank of Singapore and J Safra Sarasin.
Before we ask about your lovely home, tell us what you do in Hong Kong now.
I left the banking industry in 2017 to focus on writing and to spend more time with my children. I write books for children on Indian mythology – I have 16 published titles, with the 17th slated for release in June. And I have two series – Amma Tell Me (self-published) and Amma Take Me (published by Penguin India). I also freelance as a feature writer, writing on culture, life and fitness for the South China Morning Post.
While I enjoyed my work in banking, I always had a longing to do something more fulfilling with my life. For years, I couldn’t figure out what that was. I finally had my eureka moment in December 2010. The Indian festival of colours, Holi, was round the corner. I was looking for a good book to explain the festival to my older son who was then two years old. When I couldn’t find anything that I liked, I got the idea to write one myself!
What was the next step?
I decided to make it a series, and I called it Amma Tell Me (“Amma” means mother). I then set up my own publishing company, Anjana Publishing; Anjana is the mother of my favourite god, the monkey god Hanuman.
I wrote the Amma Tell Me series to share with my sons the fascinating stories from Indian mythology that I’d grown up with. There were no resources that were simple to understand and that captured the rich imagery of mythological India – such an integral part of these stories. So I started writing in a style that I think kids find fun and non-preachy; and I collaborated on the illustrations to bring out the imagery I wanted my stories to convey.
The series has 12 books, including on the festivals of Diwali and Holi, and on the Hindu gods Krishna, Hanuman and Ganesha, among others.
The second series, Amma Take Me, introduces readers to the history of the major Indian faiths through important places of worship. Styled as a travelogue of a mother and her two young children, the books are based on conversations I had with my children as we visited these fascinating places. They link history, tradition and mythology to bring the monuments alive. There are four in the series, including one on the famous Golden Temple in Amritsar.
The books are aimed at readers aged eight to 12 years.
And one more distraction first: tell us a bit about your fascination with sarees.
My recent rediscovery of my love for the saree is akin to falling for an old ex-flame! There is excitement, a tingling freshness to each caress and yet also the comfort and security of a shared past in every embrace.
My love affair with these garments began when I was around 10, with a beautiful pink saree woven with silver threads that my mother wore. I was thrilled to tag along with my grandmother as she went saree shopping, fascinated by the endless shelves piled with neatly folded colourful sarees, entertained by the salespeople – always men – unfolding and draping the sarees on themselves, and amused by the haggling over the prices while countless cups of tea were consumed.
Soon, college and work took over and sarees took a back seat. I would wear a saree a few times a year, on Diwali, at a family wedding or for a special occasion. A few months back, while writing a feature on sarees for a publication, I started to research this iconic garment. As I spoke with textile scholars in India about its origin and evolution, I thought of my wedding trousseau (comprised of sarees), lying in a trunk, unopened for years.
I opened my trousseau box and took out all the sarees my mother had collected for my wedding, 23 years ago. There were handwoven sarees from different parts of India – brocaded Banarasis from Varanasi, pure silk Kanjeevarams from Tamil Nadu, Balucharis from West Bengal, among others. The old flame was rekindled. I started wearing them, one by one, for business meetings, for lunches, dinners and sometimes for no reason at all.
As I draped myself in the whole six yards, I realised the amount of effort my mother had invested to curate this collection – different sarees from all across India, each with its own identity, traditional design, motifs and colours. I felt my mother’s love through these sarees. Most importantly, when I draped a saree, I felt beautiful, confident, sexy and feminine – like a woman ready to take on the world!
Today, I share my love for sarees by wearing them as often as I can. I also share posts on social media wearing different weaves and give a bit of the history of each type of weave.
Okay, now to your home! What brought you to this location on the Peak in Hong Kong?
We have always lived on the Peak, since we came to Hong Kong, and we’ve changed homes four times. We’ve been living in this house for the past eight years. What I love about it is the amount of light and air that we get. It’s bright and happy. We have a sunroof that allows a lot more light to enter.
I also love that we have a roof (600 to 700 square feet). It’s where I spend many hours writing in the winter, and reading all through the year. And it’s also the cricket ground for the boys – many a match has been played here under the term “roof cricket”. The fact that the swimming pool is five steps away from our roof is an added bonus.
I also like that the house is on different levels, with each level offering privacy.
Tell us a bit about the location; what do you like most about the neighbourhood?
I love the greenery and the peace and quiet on the Peak. We have two dogs, and it’s great to have so many trails starting close by where we can take them for walks. I’m an avid hiker. I love walking on Severn Road (a 40-minute walk) – the views are stunning – and I also enjoy Peel Rise (1.5 hours), and down to Pok Fu Lam Reservoir and up to Lugard Road (1.5 hours). I also love the fact that I can be in Central in 15 minutes and back home climbing a hill in another 15!
You have some fabulous art in your home; could you tell us the story behind two or three of your favourite items?
“She” by Samir Mondal is a water colour on paper and the first painting that my husband and I bought. Saffron Art (saffronart.com) was exhibiting a few artists in Hong Kong and as soon as we saw the painting we knew it had to be in our home; the imagery and the colours were so striking. Mondal is an Indian artist (born in 1952) who is known as the “watercolour man”. His main contribution to Indian art has been the revival of the watercolour painting (samirmondal.com).
We also have an untitled old painting by Jatin Das that I bought in 2005 in Mumbai. I loved it for its simplicity in depicting a woman who looks both traditional and modern at the same time. The use of colours is subtle. Das (born in 1941) is an Indian painter, sculptor and muralist.
What about your furniture; is it old or new? Bought here or abroad? Do you have a favourite?
All our furniture pieces have been bought in Hong Kong over the past 20 years, from different places. The places we tend to frequent are Tequila Kola, Indigo, TREE and Bowerbird, and also Shambala when it was open.
My favourite piece is a wooden centre table and side stand that we purchased from Shambala. I love the interplay of colours and the earthy touch.
What’s your more recent purchase for the home?
The blue-coloured table. I love where we have placed it and how it contrasts against the yellow wall.
Where do you do your writing?
I write primarily in three areas. The dining and television area opens into the living room and gives an expansive feeling; it’s full of light. A part of the ceiling is glass, and the sun’s rays make me feel cheerful. There is a huge bookcase behind the dining table that I love looking at – there are more unread books on it than ones that have been read! Working from the dining area also allows me to keep an eye on the kids once they’re back from school.
I also use my study to write. I love the aquamarine wall and the books that adorn the shelves. In winter, I write on the roof. I love the sun, being in the open and writing surrounded by nature.
What’s your favourite space in the house and why?
I love reading in the living room; it’s warm and cosy. And I love looking at the plants on our balcony. My husband plays the guitar, and many evenings I sit listening to him as he practices in the living area.
Find out about Bhakti’s book projects and more at bhaktimathur.com.
See more in our Living in Hong Kong section!
This article first appeared in the Summer 2021 issue of Expat Living magazine. Subscribe now so you never miss an issue.