Every South Asian immigrant has two stories. One is a green card saga and the other is a story about how his or her name was maimed, mauled or mutilated. I too have my very own green-card novelette; but that is for another day. This one is all about naming the rose.
Would the rose still smell sweet if it was called “gross?”
I don’t know about you, but I gave very little thought to my name when I was a kid, except that I hated that it started with “s.” In a class of 50, my roll number used to be an unsightly 46. Our school library was a tad bigger than a closet and for the library period that occurred once every two weeks we were let in according to our roll number. What can I say, except that I got to read the same “Hardy Boys” fifty seven times! Tamil Selvi, if you are out there, yes, I shall not forget to mention your century with the Nancy Drew book “Mystery Of the Fire Dragon.”
My name and I chugged along through college. When I got married, all five foot-four of me was brimming with feminism.
“There is absolutely no reason to change my name,” I told my newly minted husband categorically.
“Absolutely,” he smiled and nodded.
Somewhere along the line he said, “You know what, if you win the Nobel Prize, it would be so cool if my name too was part of that history.”
How I fell for that, I can never recall but I started carrying his name and became “Sujatha Ramprasad.” For the record, neither of us have won any prize, let alone the Swedish kind.
Acquaintances fail to understand why steam gushes through my ears whenever my husband politely smiles at me, nods, and says “absolutely.”
Marriage brought me to America and there were so many things to learn about the new country. Some things, I learnt by rote. Whenever I wanted to turn on the light I stood before the switch and repeated the mantra “Indian switch-off-position is U.S. switch-on.”
Other things, I learnt the hard way; in a doctor’s office, over 103 degrees of body heat.
I pulled myself one afternoon into Camino Medical Center, with high fever, sore throat and bronchial infection of some sort. I approached the reception, wrote my name on the waiting-list sheet and then fell into a chair, half dazed. After about an hour and a half of waiting, I dragged myself to the reception to ask when the doctor was going to see me.
“Which one of this is you,” asked the friendly, slightly over-weight receptionist handing me the waiting-list sheet.
I pointed to the fourth name on the list. I noticed that every other name on that page had been crossed out.
“I called out several times an hour ago,” she said, pointing to my last name, “Since no one responded, I marked you as a no-show.”
“But, that is my husband’s name,” I wailed.
“So, Ramprasad is not your name?”
“Well, it is my husband’s first name, but my last name.”
Now, she was totally confused.
“In Tamil Nadu; the part of India that I come from, people used to have their caste names as their last names. My grandfather, for instance was Srinivasan Iyengar. Iyengar refers to the caste. When the British left India, a secular society emerged and it was no longer cool to have the caste be included in any part of the name. So, it was dropped. But then we had to do something for our last names, didn’t we? So, the children took their fathers’ first names as their last names and wives took their husbands first names as their surnames.”
My history lesson alarmed the poor woman. She was sure I was delirious. She called out to a medical assistant and pleaded with her to squeeze me in before the next appointment.
After I recovered, I wrote a note to myself
You can be addressed by your last name.
Ramprasad is a guy’s name, but it is also your name.
If someone is talking about Ramprasad, it could be about you.
Life in America particularly in California was otherwise charming. The majestic mountains, the roaring oceans and everything in between make a lasting impression on all its denizens.
California has a rich Hispanic heritage. I took quite a liking to Mexican food and tried my hand at salsa dancing. I have many, many pleasant memories of life in California.
Unfortunately, how my name evolved is not one of them. In Spanish “J” is pronounced as “H;” Hence San Jose for instance is pronounced San Hose. The “j” in my name got mutilated and I became Suhatha. Confused, I shortened my name to one syllable: “Sue.”
Everything was fine and dandy until me and my one syllable name decided to take a trip to San Simeon, a quaint Californian coastal town along with extended family and friends. The entire assemblage settled down in the atrium of a restaurant. A gentleman who was performing live on stage walked up, smiled at me and asked me for a song choice. Very proud, that I was the chosen one, I gleefully gave him a musical number and he started walking back. Voldemort must have waved his wand. The musician stopped and turned back.
“And, what is your name ma’am?”
“Sue,” I said.
“Hmm?” He strained his ears.
“Sue.. Sue” I repeated.
He got back on stage and sang the first stanza of my favorite song. Then the spot- light shone brightly on me.
“This song is for the lovely Susu …” The public address system blared and the cool evening breeze carried the sound for every human and elephant seal on the coast to hear. I squirmed uneasily in my seat, looking anything but lovely.
For those of you who know what “susu” means, please hold that smirk till you turn this page of the magazine over, and start to read some other worthy writer’s column. Others forget what I just said and please don’t discuss this with any one else. I do have one piece of advice, though. If you are going to call out to someone in front of a huge crowd, through a public address system, make sure to double-check the pronunciation, especially, if the person is from a different culture. No, actually triple-check it.
Well, I tried to pick up what was left of my self-esteem.
“A rose by any other name will smell as sweet,” I said.
My dear ones yelled in unison.
“Susu by any other name will smell as bad.”
Sujatha Ramprasad loves to read poetry and philosophy. She is an ardent fan of Harry Potter.