I believe the choice of a name is every man’s birthright. Yet a label is foisted on us even before we have learned to agree or dissent. When I tried to trace the root of the English word “name,” I discovered that the word shared common ancestry in several ancient tongues: nama in Old English; namo in Old High German; nomen in Latin; onoma in Greek; naman in Sanskrit; and namam in Tamil.
What I found more intriguing than the origin of the word itself was the punch packed into the “name” that we’re each assigned at birth. The sound of my name is one of the first sounds I heard as my ears tuned to the world, as my eyes focused on life. Little do we ponder this, but unless one is James Bond, our name is also the word we will spell the most of any word through the course our lives. It’s the invisible unique RFID (radio frequency identification) tag that will cause us to swell with pride, sometimes, and dwell in discomfort at other times.
Even today, the sound of my name called out in public recalls trepid moments from my distant and recent past: an unmentionable grade announced by my physics teacher and my solemn recognition that while all free-falling objects had a gravity of 9.8 m/s², my grade, given its nonexistent mass, accelerated faster towards the earth; the dour look of the clerk at the Department of Motor Vehicles when I had failed my driving test a second time and kept insisting to the clerk-even as she and I knew deep inside that I may not have pressed the clutch-that my rotten Mazda stick shift always groaned when I shifted gears; the chirpy call and greeting from a nurse at my yearly physical as she handed me the urine cup and I realized that my bladder didn’t have even a drop to drown an ant.
Thus, the uttering of my name can be a knell sometimes and, naturally, during a recent return from Germany, I started when an Airline agent called out my name into the PA system. I had already checked in. When I walked up to talk to the agent at the counter, she told me it was about the identification tag on my bag, a minor matter. I was relieved.
Like that baggage tag, a person’s name is much more than an identification label. It hints at arrivals. It speaks of transits and transformations, of paths taken and not completed. Stamped on it is also an idea of home, a place of belonging.
The consequences of inheriting a name were obvious on my walking tour through the old Jewish neighborhood of Berlin. During the Third Reich, everyone was required to prove four generations of German ancestry to qualify as a native German. The Hitler regime sifted, tossed, and trashed Jewish names and possessions, thus ensuring that the past could not be stripped away through the name.
Poet Gertrude Stein wrote that “a rose is a rose is a rose.” In her mind, a label had so many feelings associated with it that merely invoking the name excavated all manner of feeling surrounding it. In Hitler’s Germany, Jews bearing first names of “non-Jewish” origin were required to adopt an additional name: “Israel” for men and “Sara” for women. In the autumn of 1938, all Jewish passports were also stamped with an identifying red letter “J” and by 1941, Jews were forced to wear a yellow six-pointed Star of David on the left side of the coat “as large as the palm of a hand” whenever they alighted in public.
In my mind, the narrative on the many meanings of “name” assumed several forms at Berlin’s Jewish museum where architect Daniel Libeskind has designed a memorial conceived on three axes.
On one axis, that of the holocaust, the names of those murdered is presented with photographs, documents, keepsakes and stories. A second path, the axis of the exile, listed the names of cities where people were reduced to mere names: Lublin, Warsaw, Treblinka, Sachsenhausen, Auswich, Ravensbrück, Dachau. But on a third axis, that of continuity, rose other names, like flight destinations at an airport terminal: Amsterdam, Copenhagen, New York, London, Bombay, Shanghai, Haifa, Rio de Janeiro. These were the names of places to which an oppressed migrant community fled to locate a nest.
Just as I was about to board my flight back to the United States, the agent greeted me with “Hello, Ms. Mohan” even before I handed her my boarding card. I smiled, surprised that a woman who stared all day at rosters of names had actually recalled my face and my name.
Kalpana Mohan writes from California’s Silicon Valley. To read more about her, go to http://kalpanamohan.com.