The Names We Call Each Other

When bedridden with COVID during a recent trip to Bangladesh, I found myself scouring my childhood bookshelf for something to read. I’d recently finished rereading An Unaccustomed Earth, possibly my favorite short story collection of all time, so I was mildly intrigued when I noticed a dusty copy of Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel The Namesake. Though the cover was nearly falling apart and the pages had browned over time, I was compelled to bring the book back to bed and read it from the beginning because, like Lahiri’s protagonist Gogol Ganguli, I had been thinking about my name a lot lately.

Gogol is named after the Russian author of the same name because his father Ashok had been saved during a train accident while clutching the pages of “The Overcoat.” However, partly due to the rigidness of American society toward accepting “unusual” names, and partly because kids can be assholes, Gogol starts to resent his name. My own name had never felt normal, even in Bangladesh. Padya Paramita (পদ্য পারমিতা) means poetry of ultimate knowledge in Bangla. If it didn’t sound extremely obnoxious, I would use this as a fun fact during icebreakers more often. The name was the brainchild of a young writer, before he achieved any kind of success with his novels and columns and journalistic reporting, who knew he could never become a poet. So by naming his child Padya Paramita, he became the father of the poetry of ultimate knowledge. Unlike most people in Bangladesh, who have Arabic names due to the majority Muslim population, my name is fully in Bangla. This led to many people asking me while I was growing up if I came from a Hindu or Buddhist family, which now amuses me. Young Padya hated this assumption.

I already felt like an outsider with a Bangla name, but then, when my parents had to spell the name in English to fill out forms for school admissions and such, they decided the transliterated version of my first name would be “Padya.” In The Namesake, Lahiri writes: “Though substitute teachers at school always pause, looking apologetic when they arrive at his name on the roster, forcing Gogol to call out, before even being summoned, ‘That’s me,’ teachers in the school system know not to give it a second thought.” This was an all too familiar routine for me with new teachers. And alongside just how phonetically confusing it is, especially to non-Bangla speakers who can never guess the correct way it’s pronounced, kids when growing up in Dhaka also teased me because “pad” (pronounced “paad” or পাদ) in very colloquial terms, means fart. It wasn’t unusual for elementary school boys or family friends who thought my taste in music was uncool to often call me “pad” and absolutely mean it in a derogatory way.

This never bothered my parents, and they always asked me to shrug it off because being teased was apparently a typical experience of being a kid. They had never faced this discrimination — they had normal Arabic names. In fact, all three of us had different last names. But they’d always tell me I had the best one. “Not everyone lucky enough to have parents who put so much effort into coming up with such a beautiful alliterative and meaningful name,” random friends of my parents would tell me when my parents made me parrot my name — and not just my first name but my full name — to guests and strangers at various gatherings.

When I’d read The Namesake in high school, I probably felt some of these sentiments, but reading it now heightened my feelings due to the fact that my name became even more bastardized after moving to the US. I introduce myself to new South Asian friends in the US as পদ্য, knowing they can get all the emphases right. But I show up to classes and weekly work meetings on Zoom, where they have always known me as “Poe-doe.”

I used to be more wide-eyed and hopeful in teaching people how to pronounce my first name when I first came to the US, glad no one would confuse it with the Bangla word for lotus or see the first three letters and think “পাদ means fart.” In college, even if I couldn’t teach them পদ্য fully, with all the correct emphases (I suppose if we’re really getting into it, it’s poathe-though), I would at least say poe-though, without one soft ‘d’ instead of the double soft ‘d’ so at least the দ sound would come through even if the য ফলা didn’t. But then June 1, 2018 happened. It was raining heavily in Wellesley, Massachusetts, and I was sitting in a red and green sari, covered in stoles, inside a giant tent that had been patched for the commencement ceremony for the Class of 2018.

As part of the pre-graduation rituals, we had the option to record our names for the Deans announcing the graduates. Which, of course, I did, because I have so much anxiety about this. Then, during rehearsal, when they only did the first 20 people and I didn’t hear them practice mine, I went and wrote it down too in the list that the speaker for names between M and R had prepared. Poe-though. So, compared to how much anxiety I feel around the mispronunciation of my name on first days of classes, I felt very relaxed. They had multiple points of reference. As we arrived closer to the middle letters, our whole row stood up to form a line by the stage. I was holding the edge of my sari up with my hands, praying I had enough skill to walk in heels and not trip all over the stairs. The person next to me was announced, and I was ready. My parents had flown in from Bangladesh. Everyone I’d made so many great memories with were present. Here I went — that little first grader from Dhaka, Bangladesh — about to have a bachelor’s degree from an esteemed liberal arts college 8,000 miles away.

“Pad-ya Paramita,” the dean said into the mic.

I could feel my ears fuming and my eyes watering. Somehow, I managed a smile for the camera and scurried back to my chair to sob into my hands, pretending I had something in my eye. I spent the rest of the event on my phone.

My parents didn’t really mind the mispronunciation, because they didn’t know I had gone through the whole ordeal of telling them how to do it via multiple platforms. They hadn’t gone through four years at a predominantly white institution fighting to write an honors thesis about being a queer Bangladeshi, experiencing microaggressions from their own “friends” and departments. They were just happy they got to come see me walk that stage, while I honestly can’t even remember what happened the rest of that day.

I couldn’t shake the anxiety and frustration of the day off my chest — even when I visited campus six months later. We were showing a couple friends around campus, and everywhere I went I kept being bogged down by memories of how, after four years of really affirming and wonderful times here, all it took was one mispronunciation to make me feel suffocated — despite being surrounded by a beautiful lake and all-around greenery. As we progressed from the dorms and cafeterias toward the field where the ceremony had been held, I felt my ears redden at how disrespected I’d felt on that day and told my friends there wasn’t much going on on a Saturday anyway, everyone we knew had graduated, and we should get going.

Now, I don’t correct strangers, and for people I will have to interact with regularly, I introduce myself as Poe-doe and Poe-though and “It’s whatever, it really doesn’t matter, thank you for trying” depending on my mood, because I don’t want that gross feeling of graduation day ever again. It’s my name, and it means poetry, and sometimes I wish I didn’t have to change how I say my name to different people, but sadly, due to how anglicized the world around me is, I feel like I have to change my personality based on which language I’m speaking and who I’m speaking to.

I tried to repress this memory, but holding The Namesake and reading the ways Lahiri uses English as a tool to examine Bengali and American cultures made me feel seen and held despite the cringe that came with reliving it. There are so many things about the book I noticed this time that made me nostalgic for my childhood and appreciative of my culture.

For example, Lahiri points out how in West Bengal’s version of Bangla, too, there are names for each relative the same way in Bangladesh we have a specific name for every kind of relative. “There are endless names Gogol and Sonia must remember to say, not aunt this and uncle that but terms far more specific: mashi and pishi, mama and maima, kaku and jethu, to signify whether they are related on their mother’s or their father’s side, by marriage or by blood.”

Even on this recent trip, before I’d tested positive I’d attended a dawat (দাওয়াত), at my aunt’s house, which literally translates to “invitation” but is so much more. It’s a gathering of family and/or friends where I can have so many of my favorite foods. Usually thrown on a weekend, dawat days are those where so many people fill up a house that groups of people sit down to eat while others wait for them to finish so they can have their turn at the table full of rice and meat and fish and vegetables. My aunts fill my plate with khichuri (a blend of rice and daal) and beef and chicken roast and egg curry. My cousins and I laugh our asses off at jokes my uncles and aunts make, and we, the “kids,” bond in one of our cousins’ rooms over gossip about what everyone is up to.

Lahiri’s observation of the fact that there is a word for every type of grandmother and aunt and uncle and cousin, and how they’re related to you, in Bangla blows my mind. Your paternal grandmother is your dadi/দাদি, her husband is your dada/দাদা, your maternal grandmother is your nani/নানী and her husband is your nana/নানা. Then you have your aunts on your father’s side, your fupu/ফুপু, her husband is the fupa/ফুপা. Your father’s brothers are your chacha/চাচা and their wives are the chachi/চাচী. Your mother’s brother is your mama/মামা, his wife your mami/মামী. Your mother’s sisters are your khala/খালা and you’d call their husbands khaluখালু. And this isn’t even getting to the specific word for your younger sister in law (nonod/ননদ) and older brother in law through your sister’s marriage (dulabhai/দুলাভাই) — you get the picture. It’s all extremely specific.

As I read on, another passage caught my eye: “Pet names are a persistent remnant of childhood, a reminder that life is not always so serious, so formal, so complicated. They are a reminder, too, that one is not all things to all people.” Here, Lahiri refers to how Bengalis give their child a nickname/pet name they’re only called at home. In Bangladesh, the nickname is usually in Bangla, and the full name is in English. This tugged at my heartstrings. My name is queer in the sense that different people perceive it differently, but it is also queer because my parents never gave an official pet name. My Bangla name is part of what appears on my passport and official documents, but it is also what my family calls me. Yet, whether in the pronunciation, or in seeing what they want to see in me, I was also “not all things to all people.”

Being at home, surrounded by my family, was always warm but had its complications based on the fact that there were certain life paths my extended family expected me to follow — most notably, marriage to a man, kids. As heteronormative as can be. When I still lived in Bangladesh, I was Bangla Padya: that responsible daughter who wanted to make her parents proud. I’d talk to my parents about topics that were safe, change the subject when questions about romantic interests came up. While in the US, Padya who expressed themself in English, was able to be openly queer, but I’d still hesitate when talking about my family, because it’s hard to explain to people who don’t really get it how I can still want a relationship with my family despite a lot of them being homophobic.

The ever-moving nature of the way I present myself depending on where I am and who I am with — and the crowds who say my name differently — is reflected by another moment in The Namesake. Gogol’s mother Ashima describes her reaction to being in a foreign country: “It is an ongoing responsibility, a parenthesis in what had once been ordinary life, only to discover that that previous life has vanished, replaced by something more complicated and demanding.”

Having parts of me spread out across oceans, in two continents, in multiple buildings and people feels like perpetually being in layover. I’m a little sleepy, I’m excited for whatever comes ahead, I can’t wait to board and then get off the plane, I’m very jet lagged, I’m constantly looking at my phone, and I’m switching between Bangla and English depending on who I’m speaking to. I put on the Bangla Padya hat to talk to my grandma over Facebook Messenger. I transform to English Padya in order to participate in class.

Lahiri also acknowledges the very specific way in which Bangla speakers say “আমি আসি,” or I’m coming, instead of I’m going: “‘Dida, I’m coming,” Ashima had said. For this was the phrase Bengalis always used in place of good-bye.’” This is a testament to the way we lean on our community and family and acknowledge the tie we have to them — saying we will always return instead of saying that we are going away. As I continue to explore new ways of including Bangla in my writing and understanding of language, I grow more and more appreciative of Lahiri studying Bangla using English as a tool and vice versa.

Re-reading The Namesake reminded me of how much Bangla places a strong emphasis on familial relationships in its specificities, because we are a people who love our community. “It takes a village,” as they say, and every one of those villagers has a specific word you call them based on how they are related to you. And those relatives do know and appreciate what your name means, just like Gogol’s family had lovingly given him this name that held a lot of meaning to his father.

I hadn’t noticed I nearly finished the book in one sitting (one lying would be more accurate) until my mother came into my room. “Padya,” she said, in the softest, most accurate way you can say my name. “It’s time for lunch. There’s khichuri and beef.” I glanced down at the book, thankful to have rediscovered it. Plus, there was khichuri awaiting me at the table. My stomach rumbled in excitement.

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P is a Bangladesh-born, New Haven-based writer, editor, and pop culture enthusiast. Their work has appeared in Teen Vogue, them., Color Blog, VRV Blog, and Dogwood Journal, where she was a finalist for the Dogwood Literary Award in Nonfiction in 2020. They are the co-founder and co-editor-in-chief of Dream Glow Magazine, a literary journal inspired by the artistic project of BTS.

P has written 4 articles for us.


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