I don’t know what went through my father’s mind when the elderly Irish nuns in the principal’s office in Loreto Convent, Ranchi, suggested that he reconsider the name he had chosen for me. Apparently, I was too sweet a child to have such a common name.
I was four years old and my name was Neeru. I remember being flattered by the attention. To my eyes, these were powerful, authoritative, kindly women. My parents seemed intimidated by them. It was very important for them to get their child admitted to this prestigious convent school.
“What are your brothers’ names?" the principal asked me.
“Nitish and Manish," I answered.
“Would you like to be called Natasha or Manisha?"
There was already a Manisha in our neighbourhood. I didn’t want her name. “Natasha," I answered. Just like that, I had a new name.
I had never felt anything amiss in this story about how I was renamed within minutes, on the whim of someone who was a stranger to us, till my English friend Dawn pointed it out to me when I was 19. I had been breezily repeating this anecdote whenever anyone asked me how I came to have a Russian name. “I’m named after my brother actually," I’d say. “It was an Irish nun’s idea."
“How racist!" Dawn had exclaimed with disgust. “How dare she suggest that your own name wasn’t good enough for you?"
It took years for this to sink in. I spoke to my parents about it, but discussions about race, caste, class, structural inequalities and systemic discrimination are not my parents’ most comfortable choices when talking to their children. They are both first-generation graduates in their respective families, and for them it is an achievement to have found their feet in the fast pace of urban India. They did whatever was required of them to give us access to every opportunity they could afford for us.
My mother had chosen the name Neeru for me, inspired by the character of a “very good girl" in a story she had read in a Hindi magazine called Sarita. My earliest memories confirm that I had no plans of becoming the kind of obedient girl that Sudha, my mother, had imagined. Over the years, I would disappoint her repeatedly and in many different ways. I would also make Sudha proud in unexpected ways. For her, I have always remained Neeru. My own brand of Neeru.
Although he had not resisted the renaming of his daughter in the room in which it took place, my father had intervened in his own way. When we moved to Kolkata, he changed the spelling of my name to Nitasha when he was enrolling me in a new school. It felt like an Indian name to him now. His name for me.
This time he had to deal with my quiet rebellion. I changed the spelling back to Natasha when we moved to Delhi and I was in yet another new school. I didn’t want an Indian-sounding name. I preferred the authentic version, the one that I found in Russian films that we watched on Doordarshan, and in my father’s copy of Leo Tolstoy’s War And Peace.
By the time I left school, I had begun to rebel against my second name—Badhwar. Every time I filled a new application form, I would try to get away with not using the second name. I would write my mother’s name instead of my father’s name wherever I could manage. My Delhi Transport Corporation bus pass, my British Council and American Library membership cards, even my Provident Fund forms, when I first started working, had just my first name on them. I was trying to fix something that seemed dissonant to me.
When friends asked me about it, I’d say: “My family is looking forward so keenly to seeing me married and losing this name, I thought I’d just lose it anyway. Problem solved."
My husband noticed that I had begun to use Badhwar more often after we got married. Sometimes, when I speak aloud to myself these days, I often call myself Badhwar.
Unlike my parents and me, Afzal doesn’t leave any of his thoughts unspoken. “How come you have become a Badhwar since you have been living with me?" he has asked me on more than one occasion, not satisfied with any of my replies. “You used to insist that you are ‘just Natasha’ earlier."
Mostly, I smile in reply, letting him know that I may or may not know the answer to this. If I feel that an identity is being thrust on me, I may not allow it to stick. If I feel that it is being threatened, I may wrap it more snugly around myself. Maybe I’ve just become used to seeing both names together in print and on my Facebook profile. They seem like one name now. Maybe I am bigger, and I need to use my bigger name. Who knows?
Our youngest child brought up the topic of names recently. “Mamma, can my name be Naseem Badhwar Beg?" she asked me, sitting at the dining table after she had returned from school.
“Do you want it to be?" I asked her.
“Yes, Mamma," she said. “I want the full family name."
I may have thought it was cool to drop my father’s name as a feeble protest against patriarchy, but for my child it is her mother’s name, and she wants it included in her own formal name. It feels ironic and sweet and reminds me of the circle of life all over again.
Natasha Badhwar is a film-maker, media trainer and author of the book My Daughters’ Mum.
She tweets at @natashabadhwar