By Mohanalakshmi Rajakumar
Luang Prabang, Laos
The scent of the Mekong River, wet earth and water, permeated the air. Dampness, like a blanket, folded around them, as the final weeks of the monsoon lingered in the air. Purple clouds of dusk populated the sky. The watchers below stretched their necks, hoping to hasten the moment when the moon would hang like a jackfruit over them, impervious to the hustle of human bodies gathered for the Lai Hua Fai festival. Only when the moon appeared could their boats set sail and signal the end of the monks’ three-month retreat, or Buddhist Lent. All along the shore, fathers prepared to light fireboats fashioned from banana stalks and leaves to send across the river while children hopped from one foot to another in anticipation of how far theirs would travel on the glass-like surface of the water. Mothers hung back, nestled on logs and blankets, putting the final touches on spicy papaya salad and sticky rice for when the stomachs of their family members would remind them of the lateness of the hour. The biggest and boldest boats would launch first under the glow of the full moon. Older children were instructed in technique. Elders, grandparents, aunties, and unmarried uncles watched with one eye for those too eager with the match or careless with the wicks, their ears attuned to the latest gossip from friends and relatives. Qui, Sengchanh’s wife, held the boat he had bought from one of the stalls.
The banana stalk boat hung in her loose grip on top of her distended belly. Qui’s hair was knotted into a bun at the nape of her neck. This time next year, they too would have a pudgy-fingered toddler reaching for a boat, a vessel Sengchanh would whittle for this long awaited firstborn. A boy, impatient for full dark and the moment when hundreds of boats would set sail across the Mekong, taking away bad luck and bringing in the good, like all the other boys up and down the shore, their parents catching on to the excitement.
For now, Sengchanh was content at the sight of Qui’s cheeks, flushed from the breeze, the color returning to her skin, hinting at the vigor of the woman she had been before.
“Now can I?” she asked, like one of the dozens of children eyeing the river, for the umpteenth time since they had arrived to the embankment. “Seng?”
He laughed. “No, we have to wait for the moon,” he said. He pointed at the visible edge of the orange-rimmed sinking sun.
They sat down again on bamboo stools near the makeshift eatery, recently established for the occasion. A balding street vendor in a grease-stained apron called out the names of meats as they were grilled. Seng signaled for a cup of rice wine and a young boy with longish hair ran one over to him. He pulled out a few hundred kip for a Green Spot, the Lao soda, for Qui. A few paces away the transaction was monitored by the wide-eyed stares of two children who bore a striking resemblance to each other. There were no adults around them, and from their worn shirts and shoeless feet, Seng wondered if there were any.
About The Opposite of Hate
During the 1960s and 70s, more bombs were dropped on a landlocked part of Southeast Asia than in any other war – and it wasn’t Vietnam. The turbulent history of the Land of a Thousand Elephants, the Kingdom of Laos, is the backdrop for this family saga, told as a historical novel. The Opposite of Hate opens a window onto a forgotten corner of Southeast Asia and brings little known history to life through vivid characters and settings which explore the cultural heritage of Lao history.
The Opposite of Hate explores the intersections of family, loyalty, and nationalism as Vientiane, the capital of Laos, is being taken over by Communists. The political instability drives Seng, a widowed engineer, to marry his best friend’s teenage daughter, Neela, so they can escape re-education or even worse, death. The unlikely husband and wife cross the Mekong River into Thailand as strangers.
Life in the refugee camp brings surprises along with the grime. As they struggle for survival, romances blossoms into an unplanned pregnancy. Seng and Neela get their wish of immigrating to the United States. Succeeding in suburbia, however, presents another unique set of challenges, ones that are not black and white.
This is a tale of intermingled violence, love and ambition.
Seng and Neela embody the historic cultural struggle of thousands who fled the threats of communism only to face the challenges of democracy.
About the author
Mohanalakshmi Rajakumar is a South Asian American who has lived in Qatar since 2005. Moving to the Arabian Desert was fortuitous in many ways since this is where she met her husband, had a baby, and made the transition from writing as a hobby to a full time passion.
Her work has been published in Variety Arabia, Brownbook Middle East, Isola Magazine, AudioFile Magazine, and Society Magazine, as well as 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.
In addition to print titles, Mohana has published five e-books including a mom-ior for first time mothers, Mommy But Still Me, a guide for aspiring writers, So You Want to Sell a Million Copies, a short story collection, Coloured and Other Stories, and a novel about women’s friendships, Saving Peace, which was a semi-finalist in the Literary category of the 2012 Kindle Review of Books.