On bungled names and inescapable identities

Megha Ganapathy mug

Related Posts

My name is Megha. It’s pronounced May-gha. The second syllable, “gha,” doesn’t exist in the English language.

My last name, Ganapathy, is even more complicated: It adds an extra syllable to a traditional Indian surname modeled after the Hindu god commonly referred to as Ganpati.

Moving around in India, I realized there was a vast chasm of cultural differences and understanding between different regions of the country. My last name makes perfect sense in Chennai, the city where I was born, but when I moved to Bombay at a very young age, the added syllable and seemingly alien spelling ensured that almost everybody would pronounce my name wrong.

It can be infuriating to have your name stick out like a sore thumb, especially when you must accept the fact that you didn’t choose to make it different.

Our names, beyond indication of the whims of our parents, are cultural markers — they can tell others where we’re from, if we hail from a more or less privileged part of society and what religion or faith we’re born into. Indian names also come with meanings: Parents often name their children after the fortunes they wish for them — love, happiness, success — or the qualities they hope they will have — bravery, strength, beauty. Sometimes these meanings can include professions that parents hope their children will pursue or that are ancestral to their family. In myriad yet subtle ways, names all across the globe carry expectations and tie us to ideas that, ultimately, we do not choose.

I read an article recently that detailed how some names in India have begun to change. It talked about how parents in urban areas in India might tend to pick names that are less traditional and more global, names that don’t necessarily have cultural connotations or meanings in regional languages. These are names that are unlikely to be bungled by foreigners or are devoid of the cultural intonation that has the power to produce prejudice or bias. I don’t blame them.

These Westernized names, such as “Tia,” “Kyra” or “Alia,” are pronounceable. They are usually either one or two syllables and easily uttered in cultures all across the world. They are also, at some level, markers of perceived or aspirational wealth — indicators of a desire for upward mobility in an increasingly globalized world. The specificity of tradition and culture makes it difficult to blend in abroad.

I grew up disliking my own name. I didn’t hate it, but I recognized that it made me different. It reminded people that I wasn’t actually from Bombay, despite having spent most of my life in this city. I didn’t like what my name implied either — I wasn’t particularly religious, nor could I relate to the region or ancestry into which I was born. I felt, and still feel, conflicted when I explain this to people.

In fantasy novels I read growing up, one’s birth name was often something to be treasured and valued but also used sparingly, for it was usually the protagonist’s Achilles’ heel in some magical way. “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy and Ursula Le Guin’s novels, for example, both treat “true” names as weapons of their own kind, as they possess the ability to reveal crucial information about the holder that wouldn’t be made known otherwise.

While real life is certainly less dramatic, I do feel there is some truth to this idea. Acknowledging the power of our names is equivalent to acknowledging the power of where we come from, no matter how storied or displeasing our ancestral clues may be. Over time, I’ve come to terms with my name, mentally reclaiming its connotations and associating it with my own identity as I want to see it.

As a freshman at UC Berkeley, I have to make conscious decisions in how I approach my name. Most people can’t pronounce “Megha,” and despite every bone in my body telling me that there’s nothing wrong with correcting their pronunciation or repeating it so they can hear how it’s really said, I can’t help but feel slightly embarrassed to take up three extra minutes of space in a conversation. Wouldn’t it just be easier to let people call me “Meeka” or “Mikka” or some combination of the two and continue on with my day?

Perhaps, but I still try to insist on the proper pronunciation when I feel I can. Saying my name the way I like to say it is both an act of confidence and an acknowledgment of my personal identity. Plus, years of being prodded on the topic have hardened me to this particular brand of awkwardness.

The flipside? It is undeniably empowering when someone makes the effort to pronounce my name right — six syllables, in all their glory. It’s a validation of my identity in an alien country, an acknowledgment that although this pronunciation is something that may require slightly more effort, it is important. It also welcomes me into conversation, opening up space for the seemingly foreign and encouraging a specificity of culture we sometimes shy away from.

In different worlds and different circles, our names and their implications will come to continually mean different things, but the most powerful thing we can do is to own that identity for ourselves.

“Off the Beat” columns are written by Daily Cal staff members separate from the semester’s regular opinion columnists. Contact the opinion desk at [email protected] or follow us on Twitter @dailycalopinion.