“I cannot be happy with what any ordinary woman would be happy with,” says Maya Bathija in the course of our hour-long discussion on her life, career, books and her battle with cancer.
This reluctance to settle for the ordinary is what made this small-town girl into a successful entrepreneur and author with a never-say-die attitude.
Close on the heels of launching her first book - Paiso: How Sindhis Do Business - Maya spoke to HerStory from Dehradun where she was giving a talk. In her book, Maya writes about the extraordinary lives of five Sindhi families, who are known for their business acumen, and the empires they have built over the years.
Maya’s life is no less extraordinary. She was born into a conservative Sindhi family which settled in Salem in Tamil Nadu after the partition. Maya’s father was a moneylender, and she was educated in Yercaud because Salem did not have good schools.
The second of three children, Maya was an introvert and took to books early on in her life, and the postman who delivered the books she ordered became her best friend.
“Our school encouraged us to read but did not encourage us to choose the books. The school library had plenty of books, but they were mostly classics or those books that were taught in class. I ordered books from Bangalore,” says Maya. This bond with books set the foundation for what Maya was to do in life.
Following her marriage to her long-time friend in 1980, the couple moved to Mumbai and that is when monotony began to set in.
Since books were her first choice, Maya bagged an opportunity to work at a bookstore, which was part of Contemporary Arts and Crafts in South Mumbai, run by Jennifer Kapoor who founded Prithvi Theatre.
Later, she worked in another bookstore, Danai, in Bandra.
Her stints at these bookstores gave her an understanding of how a bookstore functioned, and what was lacking in the space. “I realised that one could not order a book; they just had to pick up what was there. Since I knew what was available in the godowns of the bookstores, I tried to make their reading experience better by giving them the opportunity to choose a title. I would simply fetch them from the godowns when orders came in,” she says.
This need gap sowed the seed of a business idea, and soon enough, she started her “Maya's Dial-A-Book” service in 1998. The service ensured readers could choose any book, and it would be delivered at their doorstep within 48 hours. This was a boon for dedicated readers in Mumbai as the weather and the busy city life was not conducive for active book hunting.
Soon enough, the Dial-A-Book service was a huge success. “I ran that business for seven years successfully. From being just a delivery service to even pairing up with Max Touch, the telephone service, as one of their premier add on service, it had a great run,” she says. Maya decided to wind it up as most bookstores had their own delivery service in place.
Maya next began with exploring writing. Her husband published a monthly magazine called ‘The Sindhian’ which chronicled the life of Sindhis all over the world. “I’ve been reading books all my life, and I knew I could write. I became the lead - content,” she says.
Destiny had plans in store for Maya - she was diagnosed with breast cancer. “I refused to cow down. I did not wear a wig, wore the biggest bindi, and looked my best during that phase,” she says.
Having taken a break from writing, Maya decided to give her public relations skills a chance, and joined Frazer and Haws, a high-end silver store, as their public relations off. “I walked into their office and asked for a job. I guess I got the job because of the way I looked,” Maya chuckles at the memory.
After her treatment, she got back to putting The Sindhian together. “After 14 years of working on the magazine, I wanted to become an author, and I quit it,” she says.
Having harboured a dream since childhood to become an author, Maya decided to give it a shot. She decided to visit publishing house Penguin, and “as luck would have it, I got to meet the business head,” she says. Fate played favour again and Penguin, which was already tasting success with a range of community books, was looking for someone to work on a book on how Sindhis do business. For the publishing house, it could not have found better than Maya.
Working on a tight deadline, Maya’s debut book is out on the stands and is being received well.
Having jumped many hurdles with elan, Maya has taken to each one as an opportunity and managed to ace each one.