You and I, we’ve known each other for about two months now, and I think it’s time we had The Talk.
About my name.
In fact, many of you begin your emails to me with the query: Should I call you Mitra? Kalita? Could it be S?
Names matter, we all know. If they didn’t, Sreenivasan wouldn’t become Steve when he called up Iowa to sell warranties on washing machines. Bombay wouldn’t be Mumbai, Madras wouldn’t be Chennai, Uttar Pradesh wouldn’t have seen the secession of Uttaranchal… or Uttararkhand… or whatever it’s going by this week.
With director Mira Nair’s latest flick dissecting names as badges of identity, let’s move this discussion out of the oil—and masala-splattered kitchens of The Namesake and into the workplace. Because what and how we call ourselves has long been defined by what we do for a living.
For starters: Call me Mitra. At age three, I had the lofty job of attending nursery school in a New York City suburb. If you asked my classmates to pronounce Sanghamitra, a name chosen by my Buddhist father, a blank stare would have greeted you and, very possibly, a slur, a joke, a mauling of the name Emperor Ashoka also gave his daughter. I opted for Mitra, not knowing it meant “friend,” not knowing it was a Bengali last name, not knowing really anything except that it was easier for my friends—and me—to pronounce. I said it as MEE-trah. Years later, as I entered journalism and grappled with paperwork requiring my legal name, I created the byline you see every Friday.
Thus, I sympathized with Gogol Ganguli, the protagonist of The Namesake, as he made the same decision on his first day of school, to shun his “good” name of Nikhil for the familiar pet name—only to reverse his decision and become the all-American “Nick” in the soul-searching college years.
Similarly, in my dozen or so nights reporting in India’s call centres, I have appreciated why Shailendra chose Charlie, and Laxmi donned Laurie, and Mohammed became Mike.
But I didn’t necessarily agree with it.
Something about the whole name conversion thing in India and overseas struck me as terribly dishonest—to both self and others. What began as a name change evolved into a total persona. So even after Arindom-cum-Andy took off his headset, he remained Andy drinking Coronas at the bar, shopping Benetton in the mall, swaying to Shakira on the dance floor. It was almost as if by talking to Americans during his night and their day, adopting the Boston Red Sox as his favourite team, talking about the snowy weather—even as he sat in the air conditioning of Gurgaon, he could be one of them.
Or shall I say us?
For all my passing judgment, I somehow maintained it was okay for me the American Born Confused Desi to remain “Mitra” because the name still sounded Indian (and Iranian, too, I later discovered). Through my 20s in a rapidly diversifying United States, I grappled with Punjabis and Gujaratis who chastised me for not saying Mih-TRAH. Then again, they also converted my singoras into samosas, and corrected the Assamese way I said masala (moh-so-la, like I was taught).
And then I moved here last year—living among people who could finally pronounce Sanghamitra. But I couldn’t bring myself to use the name. Nearly three decades after defining myself, I still felt like a Mitra. I still wanted paranthas for dinner some nights, and pasta on others. What was the difference between my identity crisis and a call-centre employee’s?
I talked over the dilemma with Ashish Martin Chauhan, an accent coach and trainer at Convergys, the world’s largest call-centre operator.
When I called him, the first thing he commented on was my mispronunciation of Ashish. “But it’s okay,” he assured me. Sometimes he goes by Ashish, sometimes Martin and, to his mother, still Chotu.
“It’s a very complicated thing. We cannot adapt to the American lifestyle and keep up with the Indian one,” he said. “We’re somewhere in the middle, not here, not there.”
My state and sentiments, exactly.
In another conversation this week, Aman Lal, the human resources director at Keane Worldzen’s business process outsourcing service, told me that more Indians are preferring their own names. “People being what they are makes more sense to people today,” he said. “India is more and more on the global map.”
Some like to anticipate what the world will look like when and if India emerges as a superpower: A seat on the Security Council, clean drinking water, electricity in every village? Or will it be when a guy named Gary decides to go by Govindarajan because it represents greater economic prosperity?
Until then, I really don’t think we can condemn those who choose the reverse. But if you don’t mind, I’ll remain Mitra. Not quite Sanghamitra, but not quite Mary either.
(We welcome your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org)