From Dunes to Dior, by Mohanalakshmi Rajakumar
Today we have an excerpt from a memoir by Mohanalakshmi Rajakumar, about her time as a South Asian American woman living in Qatar. Mohanalakshmi is a writer, scholar and mother who has written a number of successful books about her life and experiences and, as you’ll see from this excerpt, does that exceptionally well. If your appetite is not whetted simply by that, you can check out the trailer for the book here. Take it away, Mohanalakshmi!
I AM MUHANNA
“That’s really long.”
This, the standard response to seeing the enormity of my name in print, was universal and startlingly unoriginal, whether from the checkout counter clerk or the substitute teacher. Really, I always wanted to reply, I find yours short and insipid.
My maiden name, Mohanalakshmi Rajakumar, always ensured I stood out while growing up in predominately white suburban neighborhoods across the United States, announcing I was different even before I materialized in the body, with brown skin, black hair and dark eyes confirming me as child of immigrant Indian parents rather than hippies turned yuppies. Many of the years during middle school and high school were spent in a small city in North Florida where I was rare, strange, special, and unique. This was the 1980s, a decade before Americans were aware it was chic to be interested in cultures besides their own.
I mistakenly thought of going to college in North Carolina, as a cultural relocation to the north. A few weeks into the semester, I was like a fly in a glass of milk and most people had about as much interest in my Indianess as they did in the northern practice of calling Coke“pop.” Yet even here, there remains a gap between my name and who I really am — sort of like the vast gap between the substance of grey matter in our craniums and the miraculous marvels of
modern history lurking within that dark tissue.
From rare, exotic, different, I have become an anomaly: the monkey that, given enough time, and left alone with a typewriter, produced the works of the great Shakespeare — in other words a dubious, purported genius among my species.
Here in the middle, between Europe and Asia, my name advertises that I come from India, a country that supplies roughly 50% of the migrant workers in the Arabian Gulf.
The number one export in the Indian state of Kerala, the one that neighbors mine, is the young Keralite male, aged 25-45, capable of fulfilling any number of the low skilled jobs the affluent societies of the Gulf have not performed for themselves in decades. The sub-continentals — Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Sri Lankans — are the drivers, maids, cooks, nannies and construction workers.
Yet, every day I go to work in this intensely class and racially conscious society to an office, sit behind a desk, wear a suit, and type at a computer. The Indian woman striding in high heels, the non-white foreigner who isn’t cowed with her head down, body enveloped in a fading house dress, waiting for madam to decide on a purchase so she can take the shopping bags.
Perhaps the most comical reactions to my name began when I moved from the expatriate heavy Education City to the national university, Qatar University. It was during my three years there that I discovered Mohana sounded very much like Muhanna, a very common and popular man’s name in the GCC.
“You are Doctor Muhanna?” was the common refrain when I showed up for meetings, in the aforementioned suit and heels, usually the only woman in a room full of men in traditional thobe. “I am,” I learned to say with a rueful smile.
The most dramatic reactions were when I was pregnant and working, up until the eighth month of my pregnancy. During this time I wore the traditional abaya of women of the GCC as a way to minimize my morning routine and also draw attention away from my dual purpose as an incubator of life and professional woman. The female body in Qatar is like the attitude many people have toward young children, only here the sentiment seems to be breasts, hips, and legs are better if unseen or heard. As senior manager of a growing start up, I must tell you that modest maternity wear was always the furthest thing from my mind. So I developed a collection of abayas, five in total by the day of delivery, which I wore for nearly six months. The reactions to the sight of a pregnant woman, wearing an abaya, clearly not Qatari, and showing up for a meeting scheduled for Dr. Muhanna, were probably some of the funniest moments of my life.
“I didn’t want to tell you this,” Rima, my very first Arabic tutor, said sighing, “but your name does not have a good meaning.”
“MoHUnA,” she said pulling at the edges of her headscarf and lining up the sides of laminated note cards, “means dejected or one who is disappointed.” She waited a moment before looking up at me, the curved rims of her eyeglass lenses framing soft brown eyes.
“My name is Mohanalakshmi,” I responded, “and it means beautiful goddess of wealth.”
But the Bagavagita is not part of “the Book,” nor Hindus people of “the Book,” like Muslim, Christians, or even that vilified enemy, the Jews. And this is perhaps why it was news to my tutor that Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth in Hindu tradition, could never have been anything other than parental blessing upon a child.
Those people of that polytheistic religion, monotheistic Muslims might say, if they stop a moment to think about their servants, who comprise an invisible class of workers. These men and women are trapped somewhere between adulthood and adolescence because they are forever regarded as “girls” and “boys.” Unlike me, with my western education, they are drivers, messengers, tea bringers, and carriers of shopping bags, never to be more, often treated as less.
All my life I have been a counter culture character, running counter to the main story, without ever intentionally trying. And here, only three hours by plane from my birthplace, I find that I’m more unique than ever.
“She keeps good company,” my college professor said the night before my wedding to assembled friends and family. “Of one name women the world over: Elizabeth, Madonna, Mohana.”
Mohanalakshmi Rajakumar is a South Asian American who has lived in Qatar since 2005. Moving to the Arabian Desert was good in many ways since that is where she met her husband, had a baby, and made the transition from writing as a hobby to her full time gig. She has published three e-books this year including Mommy But Still Me, So You Want to Sell a Million Copies, and Coloured and Other Stories. Since she joined the e-book revolution, she dreams in plotlines.
Her work has also been published in AudioFile Magazine, Explore Qatar, Woman Today, The Woman, Writers and Artists Yearbook, QatarClick, and Qatar Explorer. She has been a guest on Expat Radio, and was the host for two seasons of the Cover to Cover book show on Qatar Foundation Radio. She was the Associate Editor of Vox, a fashion and lifestyle magazine.
From Dunes to Dior is available as a ebook from Amazon.com, and more information can be found at www.mohanalakshmi.com or by following Mohanalakshmi on Twitter at @moha_doha. If you are interested in reviewing the book, please contact the author at Mohanalakshmi[at]hotmail[dot]com.