It’s All in a Name
I wonder what made Shakespeare write, “What’s in a name?”
“I like what your name means. I wonder if there is a Hebrew name with the same meaning. I would call my child that,” said one of our friends when my husband explained the gist of his name, Anudit, which means the first ray of sunlight that disperses darkness.
The way handbags are to New York women, cars to Los Angelenos, wine to the French, and pasta to the Italians, the relevance of a name is to an Indian. Depending on the part of India you are from, the religious faith you are born into, and the caste you belong to, the ritual of the naming convention might differ. But the core never changes—your name is your statement you make to the world. The religious authority, planetary alignments, astrologically auspicious alphabet, and precocious family members all brew their genius together and conjure up the magical word.
When I learned that my name, Sweta, was an ordinary name for thousands of girls in just one state in India, I was heartbroken. Every tenth girl in my class was named Sweta or Shweta. Lo and behold, I had a second cousin named Shweta. Apart from our common love for food, I don’t think we were similar at all. My misery was exacerbated when I heard variations to my already banal name, like Mahashweta and Lakshmisweta.
I set forth to find out how and why I was deprived of the talented naming team and given an appellation of half the women in North India. I found out that my maternal aunt had named me. “But why didn’t you name me, Ma?” I badgered my mother.
“Beta, we’d already named your brother.” In my parents’ generation, it was acceptable for relatives to name the babies, and sometimes, the name was picked without the parents’ consent. My mother was named by a nurse in the hospital where she was born. Apparently, she liked my mother’s eyelashes and gave her a name that was symbolic of her beautiful feature—Nimmi.
Years passed by and life went on along with my disenchantmentt with the ordinariness of my name, until my husband and I moved to New York City. In the land of Laura, Jessica, Katie, and Cathy, Sweta became an exotic icebreaker. Unlike few of my friends, whose names were mutilated by improper pronunciations—Nidhi was called Needy, Vivek was morphed into a two-syllable sleeping disorder, Why-wake, and Ruksana got baptized as Roxana—people spent time grasping and spelling Sweta. Few looked mesmerized.
“How do you say it? Sweet-ah?”
I got, “What a beautiful name!” from bank tellers to colleagues to classmates to neighbors.
“Sweta, like you, sweet. It is also Russian name. Means light. You Russian?”
However, over a period of time, my euphoria began to diminish every time I had to explain the meaning of Sweta to the sensitive and politically correct New York City populace. “Shwet” means white. Literally, the color white. “Sweta” is an extension of shwet.
Growing up in a non-global world, I didn’t see anything offensive with the color connotation attached to my name. I didn’t know better. Ironically, in India, though unimaginative, my name exuded my skin color, which in turn, made me desired bride material; in New York City, my name, which people found alluring, had a negative implication attached to it and portrayed me as a xenophobe.
I eventually mastered the American diplomacy with words and said: “My name means white but not in a racist way; white as in purity and peace.” Secretly, I was determined to find out an alternate angle to the meaning of my name. I found that the goddess of dance in Hinduism was called Shweta/Sweta. Though I wasn’t ecstatic about the option available, the Goddess route meant at least I wasn’t so self-conscious of the meaning any longer.
My insignificant battle with my name aside, I was suddenly forced to think of the value of a name after the numerous tragedies of the last decade, starting with the World Trade Center attacks in New York, the distressing bomb blasts in London, the heinous attacks on Mumbai in November 2008, and the shootings in schools in America.
A close Muslim friend, a born-and-raised New Yorker, confessed, “I am treated differently at airports because of my name.”
I realized that I might not be thrilled with my mundane name, but my ongoing journey with it is inconsequential compared to what some others have to deal with. I am learning to accept that at least the name Sweta intrigues an international crowd, evokes pleasant curiosity and humorous memories, and is not judged gratuitously. The emotional freedom I’ve found in embracing it is priceless.