What’s in a Name? – Mahtab Narsimhan

My grandmother chose my name; Mahtab. It means moonlight in Persian. While I was in India, I loved it. Almost everyone could get it right and it sounded wonderful when pronounced correctly. Unfortunately, I was to lose it for a good many years before I could claim it again. 

I immigrated to Canada in April 1997. As I stepped out of Pearson Airport, the blasts of icy air and the worry of how long it would take me to call this place “home” dampened my spirits. 

I was lucky enough to be hired by an IT (information technology) recruitment firm as an account executive within twelve days of landing in Canada. I knew nothing about IT; I thought ORACLE (a database) was the lady from Matrix who tells Neo he is not the one and that SOAP (Simple Object Access Protocol) was for washing up. I was plunged into an acronym soup and it was a very steep learning curve. 

Alongside a tough job, I had to navigate the ways of life in Canada. 

  1. After a few heart-stopping minutes of driving with a firefighter’s truck on my tail, blasting its siren, I realized that you do NOT try to outrun it. You pull over. I admit, I may not have remembered everything in the driver’s manual. Since then, I’m the first to pull over when I hear a firefighter’s siren on the road. 
  2. In winter, even if the sun is shining, it’s not warm outside. You do NOT go out with wet hair. After my frozen hair snapped off at the ends and I got a severe earache, I never did it again. And I wore a touque.
  3. The first year in Canada was also the time I attended my first PRIDE parade in Toronto. I was delighted and heartened by the diversity in Canada. But the colourful packets thrown out by dancers on floats are NOT candy and should never be handed over to a four-year-old without close examination.  

I’d left a lifetime of friends and family behind and I desperately wanted to fit into Canada, to call it home. I refused to go back to India a failure and so, my husband and I worked hard to make ends meet. We lived in a rental apartment in East York. We’d picked up some cheap stuff from Goodwill and the first year we slept on a mattress on the floor. Plastic patio furniture served as a dining set. We picked up an old sofa from a neighbour in the building. Almost everything in our apartment was second-hand and the apartment barely felt like home. But, I had more important things to worry about and that was making ends meet. 

Sales is always hard and more so when the economy is weak. I was constantly pressured, cajoled, bullied and yelled at, to work harder and close more deals.  One of the biggest drawbacks, according to my boss, was my name. Few Canadians could pronounce it. They called me Mata, Martha, or the woman whose name starts with M. My boss thought it was a huge impediment to my sales ability if clients couldn’t even pronounce my name. I had to change it to something easier. 

Every fibre in my being rebelled at it but I needed the job badly and wondered if I might be fired if I refused. If I could learn to say Siobhan (pronounced Shivonne), why couldn’t the Canadians try harder to get my name right? It was a losing battle and I was told my name would be changed to Matty.

hated it. 

I’d already given up my home, my friends, my family, my comfortable way of life (We were in the Middle East before we immigrated) and now I was supposed to give up my name? If I didn’t even have that, then what was I left with and who was I? I convinced myself that it was a small price to pay for what I had set out to achieve: a better life for me and my family. 

 In the beginning, using the new name was hard. “Hello, this is Maht—Matty.” As time passed, Matty flowed more easily from my lips. I felt like an imposter, but I reminded myself I was doing this for my family and a secure future. During a particularly hard year when sales were at an all time low, our boss called the entire sales team into his office for a meeting. He started out by saying “I’m going to fire all of you! You are all useless!” 

I only heard—“You are useless.” 

I’d never been fired in my life and nor had I been yelled at. Not since I was a child. It wasn’t a pleasant experience. I had two choices; quit or prove him wrong. 

Mahtab—the timid side of me, was ready to quit. I’d already quit my previous job as a Front Office Manager in India because it was hard and mind-numbing work, with very long hours. Wouldn’t it be easier to just walk away from this too? I knew that even though my family would understand, there is one person who would be terribly disappointed with my decision.

Me. 

Matty—the stronger side of me, decided to give it her best shot. I’d lost a lot, including my name. I wasn’t going to lose my self-respect too. When I quit, it would be on my own terms.  

Over the next ten years I climbed the corporate ladder in leaps and bounds. I went from account executive to VP Operations with a team reporting to me. I was second in command to the CEO and many in the company wanted to emulate me. I was glad I hadn’t quit because I was making a ton of money and I was a fighter. I had proved my boss wrong and I had survived the corporate world. 

I thought life would be smooth sailing from there on, but I was so wrong. My father was diagnosed with stage four cancer in early August 2003. He passed away on September fifth of the same year. It was sudden and there hadn’t been much time to get used to the idea. The first funeral I attended in my life was my father’s. It was a tough time and I turned to books for solace. I loved to lose myself in a fantasy world. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix had been released that year and like millions of others, I loved that series. Loved losing myself in Rowling’s imaginary world. 

At the time, I also started maintaining a diary. I jotted down anecdotes of life back home when we were all a family. These jottings and musings morphed into a plot involving adventure, fantasy, and Indian mythology. Four years later this story was published as THE THIRD EYE under the name of Mahtab Narsimhan.

My writing had given me back my identity. But it had also given me a lot more. It had given me a direction in life and a career that I was deeply passionate about. I was thirty-nine when my first book was published, and it won the Silver Birch Fiction Award in 2009. I quit my job at the IT firm after twelve years and at the height of my career. My boss refused to accept my resignation (we’d come a long way from the time when he wanted to fire the entire sales team). But I’d had enough. It was time to move on, and so I did, on my own terms. 

I had hated Matty – the name and everything associated with it. In hindsight I realized that part of me was a fighter and still is. Now, when Mahtab is discouraged with a manuscript rejection (and there are still plenty!) or some disappointment life throws at me, Matty takes over and insists that we keep going, keep fighting, keep writing. Matty reminds me of the lowest moments of my life and how I fought to overcome them. Matty will never let Mahtab give up the things that matter. I now need and appreciate them both. 

It took me a while to re-learn my name: “Hello, my name is Matt—Mahtab.” 

The taste of my real name is delicious, a once-loved flavour I had almost forgotten. Bittersweet. 

Category: Blog

4 comments

  1. Whoa. Thanks for sharing your story.

    Mahtab is a lovely name. If you had continued to hate “Matty” it would have been understandable but I love that you grew to love that part of you, too. (Also am still chuckling about the firetrucks part.)

    What incredible writing.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.