What’s in a name?
If you’re one of those people whose name is a four-letter word (pun intended) or can be shortened to a sensible four-letter word, probably nothing. Of course, you love your name, think your nickname’s pretty cool and move on to more important things in life. Lucky you. You’ve never been that weirdo with that weird name no one has the guts to even attempt saying.
Really, you think people never get your name right, you Ameets and Aroons and Hais? Try Sriramaprakash. That’s right, no breaks in between. And I saw you blink there.
Somehow, all parts of my name are jinxed. I was born Chaitanya VS, prefer Chaitanya Vembar but I’m officially Sriramaprakash C Vembar.
North Indian teachers called me chey-than-ee-aa-vee-ess. Friends teased me with Chutney-aa or Vembar-Sambar. I’ve responded to being called my similar-sounding sister’s name, my dad’s name, a pharmacy’s name (CVS robbed me of the only easy version of my name), a Starbucks beverage (Chai, anyone?) and now respond to a bewildered look followed by, “Er… You.”
When I introduce myself, people blank out for a bit and then ask me to repeat it, and Indians then solemnly inform me that Chaitanya is a guy’s name. I say, no, it’s unisex. But they insist, some even vehemently, because no girl has ever been called that before. So we’ve had invitations, prizes, legal documents arriving for Mr. Chaitanya, and the look of surprise on people’s face when they finally meet me no longer surprises us. My wedding invite looked like a gay wedding, and if I take my husband’s name, it reinforces the maleness of my name. Seriously, I wanted to be called Chaitanya Aadarsh, but its implications would be worse for Adi.
All that with my actual first name. Now my erroneous passport that carelessly shuffled a few harmless initials around makes people unequivocally think of a guy when they hear my name—a weird one at that.
Now, just like everybody else, I love my name. All of it. The long one’s my dad’s name, so I love it too—on him. And I hate the ISKCON parents for naming their kids (incidentally, all boys) Chaitanya. If you’re called Chaithanya or Chaitra or Tanya, I dislike you just a wee bit. I want to be unique, just like everybody else.
But I wish I could change a few things about it.
First, I wish I were a guy with a girl’s name instead. Being a girl has its perks, right? I had to find my own way from the airport when I moved to the US for my Master’s, a stranger in a strange land, and find new room mates and everything because the eager single guys at the India Club thought I was a guy, and the brownie points wouldn’t count if they weren’t being a knight in shining armor to a lost and lonely female student. One guy actually told me later that he’d have given me a ride if only he’d known I was a girl. I vehemently boycotted the club all through my program.
Second, I wish people would at least try to say my name right. Hey, you say Schwarzenegger, don’t you? Fine, I couldn’t say that for the longest time, so you’re forgiven. But Chai, as in Chai-tea latte and Tanya are easy to put together. Just don’t call me Tanya, I’ve seen too many vamps on soap operas with that name. It annoys me when people don’t even get Vembar. The R is important; Vembaaa tells me you’re a lazy goat.
But in a world of two-syllable names and little exposure to foreign names, I often lose out on the sayability scale.
However, every dark cloud has a silver lining, and I’ve made the most of it. For starters, I never have to think of icebreaker topics. A warm smile followed by, “That’s me, it’s a tough name, isn’t it” almost always elicits a sheepish grin from the addressee. I get an instant you’re-one-of-us smile from everyone when I introduce myself at ISKCON. I had ambitious plans to share mine and dad’s frequent flyer numbers until somebody else probably tried and got caught and now we’re required to enter age and gender. And it’s always with a pleasant surprise that people realize I’m a girl when they meet me. There is an unspoken self-sexism that exists among the males sometimes.
Finally, I thank my lucky stars I don’t have one of those funny Indian names that get transliterated into scandalously funny nicknames. I have some of you on my friend list, so I’ll skip examples and save my friendships. My due respect to you folks, but I feel your pain. And I sincerely hope you’ve learned to laugh at yourselves too.
After all, weird is a form of unique, isn’t it?