Dear Abby, Let me tell you a story about my Indian name. Yes, that weird difficult one with all the As and Ns in it…
When I was born, my parents forgot to give me a name. It wasn’t because they didn’t love me. They just never got around to it.
Okay. Okay. As my mom always says to me, “Ananya, you’re just exaggerating. You always exaggerate.” I don’t always exaggerate, but this time I might be. Just a little.
My parents loved me. Maybe not as much as my brother, but they loved me. My parents were happy when I was born. Maybe not as happy as when my brother was born, but they were happy. My parents did give me a name, eventually. It took them three years and nine months — nine months incubating in my mom’s belly. It wasn’t long enough for them to come up with a name. In 1988 in India, a child was not required to have a name on her birth certificate. “Baby Girl Vahal” was enough.
The truth is my parents took so long to name me because, one, they just couldn’t be bothered (let’s be honest), and two, they had too many culturally significant barriers to overcome when naming me. As per tradition, they went to the pundit to ask about the most auspicious letter with which to begin my name. Most Hindu parents in India name their children based on this recommendation from the pundit. The pundit consulted his astrological charts.
“Her name should begin with an R.”
Despite the pundit greatly narrowing down their naming options to one letter my parents said, “No thanks. We’re gonna keep shopping.”
At least, that’s what I imagine them saying in my head after translating it to American English. Then came the suggestions from family members. Every relative and neighbor had an opinion on what my name should be. My grandma suggested Radhika. Another rejection. Not only were my parents bogged down with too many options, but they also didn’t want family members to feel offended if their suggestion was ignored.
This process would have been so much easier if they had just stuck to tradition, but that wasn’t their way of doing things. They had been rebelling their whole lives. Even their marriage was an act of rebellion. So, in the midst of all this confusion, they decided to just hold off for a few years on giving me a name.
In the end, they picked a name suggested by someone outside the family. An elderly lady, who was my parents’ neighbor, suggested the name Ananya while I was still incubating. After all the family suggestions and years of deliberation, my parents went with hers. It was a word picked from the ancient Indian text Ramayana meaning “that which is unlike any other.” My parents have told me the old lady’s name several times, but it just doesn’t stick in my mind. I have never met and know next to nothing about the lady who took me from being nameless to being unlike any other.
I was three years old when my parents finally decided on the name, but nobody was interested anymore. They all had their own names for me. My brother, Sid (who went by his real name Sudhanshu at the time — my parents didn’t do that well with his name either) decided to name me Ras Malai. It’s a popular Indian dessert that’s round, soft, squishy, and sweet — all the adjectives Sid thought applied to me as a baby. Many others in the family picked it up too.
There were some people who were just plain lazy in the nickname department and called me Chhoti (little girl). My parents had other names for me like Bittu, Cheeku, Golu…the list goes on. Most of these words didn’t mean anything. They were just common nicknames used affectionately in India. These nicknames evolved over time and went on long after I had been named.
Sid’s nickname for me transformed from Cheeku to Cheesecake and eventually shortened to Chi. I didn’t mind it. It was short and cooler than all my other nicknames. My father settled for Nannu. My mother called me by my real name unless she was picking on me. In which case, she called me Motu or Golu — both affectionate words for “fatso” in Hindi. Following the traditional Indian handbook on parenting, she wasn’t good at showing affection to her own kids. With all of these nicknames, I was more accustomed to being called everything except Ananya.
When I began school in India, people finally started calling me by my real name. It was strange to my ear because I didn’t hear it much at home and it was an uncommon name at the time. My father was in the Indian Air Force, so we moved around constantly. My classmates and teachers accepted my name even if they didn’t accept me as the perpetually new kid in class. My kindergarten teacher didn’t have a problem with my name, but she did have a problem with me being left-handed like my mother and so unlike any other child in class. She forced me to write with my right hand until I became ambidextrous for a few years before finally succumbing to right-handedness. I do believe my life expectancy is higher now that I am right-handed. Thanks kindergarten teacher. But, I digress. It only took me a couple of years to get used to being right-handed. It took me much longer to get used to my name. Being the new kid meant that people didn’t know me or my nicknames. I finally heard myself called Ananya.
When my family and I moved to the United States because of my dad’s new job, Sid began his journey of shedding his old name and identity as I began the journey of reclaiming mine. Within days, Sid dropped his “FOB-y” name and started going by Sid. Within a few months, he dropped much of his Indian accent along with most of his culture.
I completely sympathized with Sid. If I were him, I would have dropped my real name too. It was too hard to explain his name to Americans.
“What’s your name?”
There is nothing cool about a name that people mistake for a sneeze. Unlike Sid, I knew I had a cool name. I mean my parents took three years and nine months to decide on it.
I had no intention of changing my name in the United States, but others kept doing it for me. “They can call you Annie,” my Dad said as he introduced me to a group of white American men hanging out at the neighborhood pool to make them feel more comfortable. I wasn’t very familiar with American culture at the time but even I knew Annie wasn’t exactly a cool, hip name in this country (no offence to anyone named Annie). When I heard the name, I pictured an old white grandma in my head. I was neither white, nor a grandma, so I didn’t see myself as an Annie. Nope. I didn’t want a name like every other white girl in America. Despite my efforts, however, those men in my neighborhood never learned how to say my name. They decided to call me “Pocahontas” instead. Not the right kind of Indian, but close enough for them, I guess.
Once I started going to school in the United States, unfortunately, many of my teachers couldn’t be bothered to even try to learn how to say my name correctly. On the days we had substitutes, I would sit anxiously at my desk as she got closer to the Vs. I dreaded the embarrassing back and forth of me trying to correct her over and over again.
Sometimes this got to me. There were times I thought, “maybe I should listen to the grownups around me and get an easier name like Sid.” Luckily, I never caved. Unlike my name, there were times I was embarrassed of how different my culture and my parents were from everyone around us. I wanted to disown it all and give-in to becoming a typical “American” kid. Going through school having a weird name was hard enough, having parents show up to school events with funny accents was too much to handle.
It wasn’t practical to live in a mostly White, Southern American town and retain a culture that you couldn’t share with anyone except your parents. Everyone else I knew who cared about my culture was over 8,000 miles away. Our parents didn’t force Indian culture and traditions on us. As was apparent with my naming situation, they weren’t very good at sticking to traditions themselves even when they lived in India. But after all the trouble my parents went through and all the years I lived nameless, I wasn’t going to let America take it away from me. As difficult as it was and still is, I made sure people learned to say my name. I was learning how to live in a new culture while slowly shedding my own, so in the end, my name was the only part of me I had to hold on to.