My Wish for This Birthday.

My name is a portmanteau from my parents’ names – Ravi & Vasanthi. For a brief period after my birth, my parents contemplated between two names, eventually settling for the one that I am known by. My birth certificate thus carries my mother’s name, preceded by the word baby. Rathi is not a common first name, even in the Tamil community, but it exists. I know that I share my name with a goddess in the Hindu mythology and two actresses that I know of. Of course, in the North Indian community, Rathi is a very common family name, which is why I have spent most of my life either nervously correcting people’s pronunciation of my name, enduring nervous tics in places where people didn’t know me, and for a brief period, even responding to the alternate pronunciation.

I thanked my lucky stars, when during middle school, the roll call system was changed from calling out students’ names to calling out their roll numbers. I was roll number 36. In another year, I was roll number 27, and so on. My classmates and teachers knew how to pronounce my name, because I was a person living among them, but when they had to read out my name, cognitive dissonance struck them. There would occasionally be a minute stop, a brief interrupted hold on the first syllable, before they realized how to read the name. I would be eternally grateful to these teachers and classmates. Some teachers, however, never learned, and I realized only after a long period, it was so because they never knew me. To them, I did not exist as a person, worth recalling.

Melvin B. Tolson, played by the eminent Denzel Washington, in the film The Great Debaters, recites Gwendolyn Bennett, to his class at Wiley College,

“Hating you shall be a game
Played with cool hands.
Memory will lay its hands
Upon your breast,
And you will understand my hatred.”

He goes on to say that the poet was born in the year 1902, “unofficially. You see, in most states, Negroes were denied birth certificates, which means I can lie about my age for the rest of my life.” The students laugh at their professor’s suave humor but they are silenced immediately. Tolson retorts, “You think that’s funny? To be born…without record.”

The scene is quick in transition, Tolson asks a student to handout some readings but not without leaving the viewers of the film in a stupor. I speak for myself, at least, when I say that that scene altered the state of my political consciousness, encouraging me to see the undeniable silence I have held about my own name.

In the spiritual dimension, the name loses its meaning to reveal the One beneath it. And, I believe in our commonness as a manifestation of the Universe. In the political reality, however, the first name and the last name of an individual bears a predictive element, the foretelling the future of the name-bearer. I am restricting myself to the first name, in this case, to talk about the difficulties one undergoes when their first name is either uncommon or difficult to pronounce. This piece will also skip the additional element on an individual who cannot relate or identify with his/her name, although I struggled with that myself, as a child and as a teenager.

As a child born to a couple of Tamil descent raised in a North-Indian community and with a name as mine, I was a deviant. My name deviates from the North-Indian reality and hence, I as an individual suffered enforcement of an interpretation that I chose not to accept. Of course, I do not blame any individual or community, but insensitivity and intolerance remain as a systemic flaw in the society that we belong to.

Once, a gentleman walked up to me and introduced himself by his first name. In return, he asked for mine, to which I replied, “My name is Rathi”. I am usually asked, after I have clarified how my name is pronounced, as to what it means, so I am ready, prepared to answer this gentleman. I said, “My name means love.” I am given the reply, “Are you sure? Isn’t it a name of a Goddess?” For once, in my life, I said firmly, “Yeah. I am sure.”

If you do a search for my name on Google, you would have to type Rati instead of Rathi. You would be led to these “meanings”: Consort of Cupid, Wife of Kamadeva, Female Counterpart of Kama, and a Hindu Goddess of love, carnal pleasure, lust, passion, and sexual pleasure. In Sanskrit, it also means rest and pleasure.

You would understand my mortification, when I discovered that my two-syllable name, is nothing but a consort of or a female counterpart of – in this case, an illogical and misinterpretation of the word meaning itself. It is as if, the Goddess was incapable of existence on her own, with her own name. When I was younger, I would look at my pictures and call out my name slowly, and then emphasizing each alphabet – r-a-t-h-i. I think I was preparing myself for my future, trying to glue my name to my face, my body, and my identity.

An esteemed professor once suggested that we should each be assigned a number to ease the process of roll calling of seventy-odd students. We were in our second year in a Masters program. I remember the surge of anger, nascent but livid, and even before I realized, I said, “We are not prisoners to bear a number.” My then-boyfriend, seated next to me, diplomatically changed the statement to say, “Sir, we are fine being called by our names.”

It is not too far along if we need to find references in history, where human beings were reduced to numbers and symbols. The Holocaust is a number in our mind – Six million. No one knows the names of the witcheswho were murdered and later “forgiven”. I believe, had it not been for mainstream actors and actresses playing roles where they were shown as incarcerated, we would not have imagined that prisoners could be people – with a name, a history, and a future. Then, there are the men and women, sacrificed for the preservation of nations.

At the Imphal War Cemetery, many a grave tell us A Soldier of the 1939-1945 war; Known Unto God. I cannot help but think of Walt Whitman, who wrote Drum Taps, suffering in witness of the wastefulness and tragedy of the war between brothers. I quote him,

’’Unnamed, unknown, remain and still remain the bravest soldiers. Our manliest, our boys, our hardy darlings: no picture gives them. Likely, the typical one of them (standing, no doubt, for hundreds, thousands) crawls aside to some bush-clump or ferny tuft on receiving his death-shot; there, sheltering a little while, soaking roots, grass, and soil with red blood; the battle advances, retreats, flits from the scene, sweeps by; and there, haply with pain and suffering…the last lethargy winds like a serpent round him; the eyes glaze in death;…and there, at last the Bravest Soldier, crumbles in Mother Earth, unburied and unknown.’’

To be born without a record or to die without a record, in a small humanly way, matters. Malcolm X famously wrote,

“The real names of our people were destroyed during slavery. The last name of my forefathers was taken from them when they were brought to America and made slaves, and then the name of the slave master was given, which we refuse, we reject that name today and refuse it. I never acknowledge it whatsoever.”

Malcolm Little had become Malcolm X and later El-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz, by his choice. It matters – especially for women and groups which have been repressed for ages – to stand in their name, to know what they should be called by, and what they would like to be called as.

Over the years, I have come to glue my name to my face and body, have learned to stand up and correct my mispronounced name (sometimes even with pride), and explain that my name is a portmanteau, and that it means beauty and love. I have recently learned that in Assamese, my name also means the night, so I occasionally add it. The previously held anger is subsumed today, but it rises, every now and then, when the basal urge to exist as a respected human being comes up. I am glad, we have movements that proclaim power from the hegemony, to rest it back on the shoulders of young men and women, as we move forward.

I enter my 29th year today. It has been a long journey with its decent share of joys and struggles. I am as common as the next person with a commonly accepted/recognised name. For this birthday, this is my wish – I want freedom. And, I want this freedom not just for myself, I want it for my parents, my relatives, my sisters, my friends, my exes, my teachers, my students, my peers, my employers, and people around the world. This is what I want and I see the irrationality of it – the idealist demand – but when I blow the candle on my birthday cake, this is what I will wish for.

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