What’s in a Name? Plenty.

Yep it’s a long name and it’s fine if you don’t quite get it first time

Photo by chuttersnap on Unsplash

SSending me out into the world with the name Suchandrika Tia Chakrabarti was a bold move by my parents. It’s a gift, on many levels. For one, it makes every introduction to a new person a chance for me to get the measure of them. Occasionally, just a Suchandrika Chakrabarti, or even just a Suchandrika (Sue-CHAN-drick-ah), is too much, too long, too unusual to even be tried out. It’s tossed away with, “Got a nickname?” Sure, try Suki, even though my official nickname’s Tia — but that’s a whole other thing we’ll get into, later.

I’m careful not to share a nickname too quickly, though. There are those who get offended by me offering up a shorter version of my name too soon. No, they want to wrestle with Suchandrika, curl the tongue around the vowels, change the satisfying “ch” into a hard “k,” swap out the “d” for a “t,” show this exotic, disobedient collection of letters who’s boss.

Occasionally, just a ‘Suchandrika Chakrabarti’, or even just a ‘Suchandrika’, is too much, too long, too unusual to even be tried out. It’s tossed away with, “Got a nickname?”

“Is it Sri Lankan?” It is not. How fun that you tried to guess, though, like you’re figuring out what species of butterfly you have pinned to the table. Then there was the time that someone assumed my religion over the phone. He thought he could read my beliefs from my syllables. He was wrong.

The introduction becomes a power play and, apparently, I’ve turned up with an advantage, but you will manage to categorize me, you will, and you won’t notice that I’ve been reading you the whole time. I’ve filed you away, somewhere towards the back of my mind.

OOnce, when I was young and on work experience, I had to call up members of the British National Party, a far-right political group that used to advocate forced “repatriation” of non-White people, until dropping the policy in 2001. Just five years later, I was tasked with calling a number of their representatives up. I decided that my name would get in the way of the story. I rang the numbers and introduced myself as ‘Sue’.

One person I spoke to thought I was calling from The Telegraph newspaper, as she was expecting them to ring. As she talked, her voice pure treacle, I imagined the other life in which I’d said my real name, and wondered what she would’ve done. Tried it out? Hung up on me? Hurled abuse? Gently persuaded me to “repatriate” myself from the country of my birth to one I’ve visited three times?

These responses to my name uncover two sad truths. The first: the puzzle of a name that I present upon a first meeting seems to give me too much undeserved power. The second: as there are so few representations of Brown women like me out there, it’s easier to insert cliché in place of my individuality.

Here are the real stories.

Chakrabarti is a Bengali surname, meaning “Ruler of the country” or “Emperor.” The surname is used by Brahmins in the Indian states of West Bengal. The Sanskrit čakravartī literally means “wheels rolling” — čakra meaning “wheel” plus vart meaning “to roll or turn.” It describes a ruler whose status means his chariot can go anywhere, without obstruction. The surname is honorific: At some point way back, my dad’s family swapped the family name they already had for this prize.

Fun fact: My Uncle Nirmal was forced to anglicize the spelling of his surname when he started at medical school in Calcutta, from Chakravorty to Chakrabarti, which is easier on the British tongue.

A couple of decades after India’s 1947 independence, Nirmal’s baby brother, my dad, had to do the same. He took his new western identity and flew over to 1960s England. For the first time, my dad tried beef and alcohol and driving red sports cars, and he liked it all.

Suchandrika is my bhaalo naam (imagine the “bh” is a “v” and the “a” sounds are more like “ah”), meaning “good” or “proper” name. In Bengali naming traditions, it’s the one we use outside of the house, at school and at work. It’s part of the mask of adulthood. My name means “beautiful moon” in Sanskrit. My mother carried it around with her for decades, through other times she named baby girls, in the hope that she would give it to her own daughter one day. She did eventually, on a spring night in London, illuminated by a full moon.

There are those who want to wrestle with ‘Suchandrika’, curl the tongue around the vowels, show this exotic, disobedient collection of letters who’s boss.

Finally, Tia is my choto (little) or daak naam (nickname). All Bengali children get a baby name like this, which their family and close friends will continue to call them for life. They’re unofficial and often embarrassing, usually kept hidden from non-Indians. However, mine’s on my birth certificate as my middle name, because my father insisted. His contribution to my identity would be official, and proof of his humor as well as his love. Tia is a shortening of tiya pakhi, a chatty green parrot found flying through Calcutta’s skies. Every time my dad said my little name he couldn’t suppress the smile that lit up his face and returned him, briefly, to boyhood.

The real stories are just so much better than the assumed ones, aren’t they? Take a moment to try out my name, get tongue-tied; it’s an ice-breaker, really, and we can laugh about it together. I’ll always appreciate the effort you made. When we get to know each other, you can ask about the tales behind my name. I’ll do the same for you and your stories too.

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