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Jyoti to Jane. Srey to Sarah? It's all in the spelling

August 14, 2010 02:44 IST

Sandip Roy is fighting Sandy-ification

My name is not complicated by Indian standards. It's  not Abanindranath or Jyotirindranath. In India, the confusion was the Bengalis called me Shondeep. The rest of India called me Sandip. And everyone spelled it Sandeep.

As soon as I landed in California, my American roommate asked if he could call me Sandy.

I refused. Sandy, I pointed out is two syllables, like Sandip. If he could say Sandy, he should be able to say Sandip. Over time I've become Sand-ip (as in Sand-hip) but I've stubbornly resisted any creeping Sandy-fication.

Meanwhile around me I saw Bhavesh become Bob and Sreya become Sarah. It was a ritual of Americanization — the shedding of one name to adopt another one that you think works better to sell real estate or clean teeth. Or run for office.

Bobby Jindal has a more reassuring ring for an American electorate than Piyush. Though of course he became Bobby long before he became a politician, shedding his Indian name Piyush meaning "nectar of the gods" for Bobby meaning "a character I saw on TV." And he might soon be joined in the elite list of Indian American governors by Nikki Haley, once Nimrata Randhawa.

It's just easier, we say. It means nothing, we say. Inside, in our souls, we are still Bharat. Barry just sells life insurance by day. At night when he goes home and his wife heats up the dal-roti, he is back to being Bharat. How is it different, the name-changers argue, than the nicknames your posh English-medium school friends give you in India? There Siddharths do become Sid and Guptas become Goofy.

There is a difference. Once we had names. Now it seems, we have business cards. Those high school name-twisting can be a schoolyard joke or even a cultural affectation, a little flourish of teenaged cool, a way to stand out from the crowd. Changing your name to sell real estate is all about fitting in, whittling away the rough edges of difference, the markers of the immigrant in a culture of Dick and Jane. It's a name that's put on like a suit as you go to work. But it's a bit of an ill-fitting suit, a size too small for our identity. Until years go by and you realize more people know you as Sue now than Sujata. 

Bobby Jindal, if someone shouts Piyush in a crowded room do you even look up anymore?

Indians have already inched past the Chinese to become the third largest ethnic group in the US after Mexicans and Filipinos. By 2050 demographers tell us America will become a minority majority country. No ethnic group will be a majority alone. In that new America, will Harshad still need to become Harry for a no points 30 year fixed loan? In the old America, as Bharati Mukherjee memorably wrote Jyoti had to become Jasmine and Jasmine became Jazzy and eventually Jane.

But Americans, when pushed, can twist their tongues around names that bristle with consonants. After all they elected a man named Schwarzenegger to office.

I am not condemning the name changers. It is convenient. I, myself, have ordered food at fast food places and coffee shops and given my name as Roy. It's just easier and saves me the pain of finding my latte come with Sandit, Sandib or the dreaded Sandy scrawled on the cup. Or hear the inevitable: "Could you spell that?"

Plus as my friend Prateek says it's sometimes just more convenient to change to Patrick than have Prateek butchered all the time. I remember a young man named Aseem Bhatt which in American tongues frequently twisted into Awesome Butt.

Anyway, says another friend Sharad aka Sid, it's not like Indians in India don't pick the strangest Westernized names for their offspring. When Skylab fell from the heavens to earth, some poor Indian was named Skylab Singh. I've known people named Radium by a chem prof father. And Sharad says he even met a postman in Madurai named Kitler (with k pronounced h in Tamil). And Indians have been Anglicizing their names long before Skylab fell to earth. After all our pride and joy, Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore is really a Thakur. But Tagore just sounds more regal.

In some ways perhaps, we the lesser descendants of Tagore, are just following in his footsteps in America turning Rahuls into Rauls and Anamikas into Annies.  Yet I remember the first time I went to England and heard my uncle Samir and aunt Joyati referred to as Sam and Joy it jolted me. When I went for my aunt's funeral and saw all the cards and flowers addressed to Sam, reminiscing about Joy, it felt surreal as if I was at someone else's funeral, trespassing on someone else's memory. My aunt wore saris all her life. She loved cooking dal and Gobindabhog rice. But she became Joy.

Some people are embarrassed about their name change. A friend told me her brother Rahul became Roy but won't talk about it. But some are puffed up with pride, as if their name change is an accessory like an American passport or a plasma television. Remember the Kapoors, I mean the Coopers, in the hilarious British sit com Goodness Gracious Me?

In another episode of Goodness Gracious Me, a pasty-faced Englishman faces the flip side of the name game when he goes to India. There no one wants to call him by his real name Jonathan. Too complicated, his Indian colleagues complain. He demurs but soon realizes that his career is going nowhere as Jonathan and becomes Joginderpal Sivaramaguru to everyone's delight. Perhaps in a world of a rising India, this will not be a joke anymore.

Perhaps the tide is turning. (Maybe all those Spelling Bee champs have made desi names a little more cool.) When I met my friend Aaron, I asked if his name was Aroon. But no, he said, it was Aaron and his Marathi mom  chose it because it was close enough to an Indian name.

However years later he is a successful businessman. He flies frequently to India where he has set up an office. Now he introduces himself as Aroon to everyone, Indian or not. Another friend told me his children actually like the meanings of their names and don't even want anyone to shorten it.

Aaron was lucky. His mother gave him a name that could pass in both cultures. But I wonder why we want to change our names, we try to find something that's close but not quite the same, a second hand thrift store version of our name. As if it's all about passing. Just go all out and call yourself what you want  to be. If you must change your name why not turn Piyush into Bobby – there's a certain chutzpah to that. I mean if I was Badruddin I really would not want to spend my life as Buddy.

Or else we can call all our children Neel and Sheela and stop worrying about it.

Sandip Roy