There’s a type of inborn initiative that comes from having never been obligated to answer questions about the meaning of one’s name that I was always envious of. Now, at 28, I’m slowly becoming myself.
Durgan. Jerga. Durva. Derika. Durgid. These are just some of the names people have misheard when I introduce myself. I rarely correct them, having long been convinced it’s easier this way. Easier in the totally yielding sense of the word, as if being impartial about and casually erasing my most essential self — my name — complies with an imaginary code I’ve lived by: that establishing room for everyone else is the quickest route to assimilation. My mispronounced name was, I’d fooled myself into believing, how things would always be. Like that one button on my winter coat that I’m constantly sewing back on. Or how I’ll never be someone who knows any jokes. And so, at 28, I’m still skittish with my own name, fumbling during first meetings as if “Durga” were a bar of wet soap.
At Starbucks, I’ll place my order and tell the barista in an apologizing tone, “Just D.” After all there’s a line behind me, and New Yorkers are their most impatient selves when doing routine things. Yet still, nobody has time for that back-and-forth lingual dance of me repeating my name only to inevitably have to spell it out: “D as in Dog.” But “Just D,” that’s my escape: the speediest way out of everyone else’s way. “Just.” The word connotes impartiality but also scarcity, and in those moments, another acknowledgement of how things would always be. “Just,” as in “Hardly D,” or “Not quite D.” Hi it’s me, “Barely there D.”
The same goes for when I make a reservation or greet the hostess at a restaurant. “D’s fine,” is what I’ll say in a slack warble as if unencumbering her. Most times though I’ll give my friend’s name without the slightest hesitation because mechanically disallowing my name in favor of what I assume is more commonplace has over the years, become reflex. “Table for two under Fiona,” I’ll say spryly. No sweat. Sometimes I feel miserable doing that, like the pangs I pocketed as a kid any time I couldn’t reconcile my parents’ Indian heritage with my own Canadian childhood, but mostly, I rarely notice my impulse because it’s just that, chronic.
Mindlessly self-deleting, it turns out, is addictive. And while these little accommodations have simplified some experiences, there is the gamble that my willingness to write myself out of my daily encounters will curb the potential for A Tremendous Me: big goals, big wants, and dreams I’ve left in the cold or, you know, crystallized into just that, the unattainable. I’ve often wondered if my friends whose identities have meshed more seamlessly with the world, who’ve never had to repeat their names in line for a coffee, say, are more readily encouraged to occupy ineffable spaces too. Like their future or the incommunicable load and levity, both, of ambition.
There’s a type of inborn initiative that comes from having never been obligated to answer questions about the meaning of one’s name, or one’s country of so-called origin, or to explain that the way you look is generationally and geographically worlds apart from where you were born. For some of us, there has been an assumption since childhood that we must reply to a stranger’s inquiry on matters we ourselves struggle to have words for, let alone understand. When it comes to our identity, the ways in which it confuses or interests others has consistently taken precedent as if we are expected to remedy their curiosity before mediating our own. In this way, I’ve caught myself disengaging from myself, compromising instead of building aspirational stamina. While uncertainty about my future is of course not unique to me, I do marvel at the bounty of hesitation I have acquired over the years because I surreptitiously presumed potential was a dormant thing; that it only functions as a trait others see in me.
So, one response has been to blend in. When I was very young, I used to have a running tab of Indian names that were, I perceived, not so Indian. That could pass as what, I wasn’t sure. All I knew was that they seemed more accessible. Anita was one of those names. Kiran too. Looking back, this kind of quiet yearning was not something that preoccupied or pained me so much as it was an element of some deeper and unmined sense of disorientation: that I am first generation and in turn, proficient at splintering who I am in order to accommodate everyone else’s environment. I’m always in awe of people who appear immediately comfortable on a stranger’s couch, who take off their shoes and curl up as though they were modeling by the fireplace in a West Elm holiday catalog. I’m the friend who’s always encouraged to take off my coat, to “make myself at home.”
To be first generation means acquiescing to a lasting state of restlessness. It’s as if you’ve inherited not just your family’s knotted DNA, but also the DNA acquired from their move, from veritable mileage, from the energy it took your parents to reestablish their lives. I grasped early — perhaps one February morning as I warmed my feet inside the car while my mother scraped snow off her windshield, her rosy cheeks emerging through icy diagonals on the glass — that my parents were not from here but from there: Kolkata. There she was, removing snow with great purpose and rhythm as I spasmed with chills until I was toasty and warm. There she was, my Anglo-Indian mother, Dolores. She from there but now living here, wearing winter boots and a puffy coat. And me, her daughter who is from here, but also in some conveyed manner, from there too.
That distinction is one that accompanies me every day but one that I have been careful to never overly indulge. There’s only so much difference I can sustain without gutting all of my confidence. Without feeling lost. What tethers me to my parents is the unspoken dialogue we share about how plenty of my character is built on the connection I feel to the world they were raised in but that I’ve only experienced through photos, visits, food. It’s not mine and yet, I get it. First generation kids, I’ve always thought, are the personification of dÃ©jÃ vu.
While in some ways my name is one of the smallest kernels of who I am, I now know that something far more furtive is at play when one’s name is misheard, that the act of mishearing is not benign but ultimately silencing. A quash so subtle that — and here’s what I’m still working out — it develops into a feeling of invalidation I’ve inhabited ever since I was a kid. Nothing will make you fit in less than trying, constantly, to fit in: portioning your name, straightening your hair, developing a wary love-hate fascination to white moms whose pantries were stocked differently than yours.
And swapping between the varied pronunciations of your name: When I was growing up in Montreal, my French teachers would sputter the D with a tsk and at home, my father’s Bengali accent would round the Dh-oor sound. In my mind I always imagined his articulation written in felt marker, in bubble letters too. But the North American way of saying my name is the one I’ve come to know and use. Durrrr-gah. Like the hum of a machine capped by the gleeful sound a baby makes after knocking over her bowl of Cheerios.
The first-person essay is not one that comes naturally to me. Who is this “I”? Am I entitled to her? Is she my voice or is she the voice that is expected of me? One editor has urged me to claim the “I” instead of exhausting my rhetorical crutch: “One might say…” When I have a point to make, I’m tempted to sideline it or deceive myself of its ownership. To delight in anonymity. The way I see it, while all of these admissions sound grim they are everyday to anyone who was born accommodating — who’s read enough “I’s” in enough essays, but has never seen “me.”
To want and to write in the first person are two actions that demand of you: you. But this long and lanky “I” has never arrived at me freely. How can an “I” contain all of my many fragments and contradictions and more so, all of me that is undiscovered? Is this “I” actually mine to own? If you’ve ever been someone whose first self is what intrigues others, writing in the first person necessitates that you grow fascinated with yourself, which is exceedingly uncomfortable and wobbly territory for me.
More so, the very desire to write it all down, to trust that my experience and what I might share of it has merit, is a certainty that is a foreign prerogative. Often, I’ll be thinking aloud with friends or deliberating on ideas that have been simmering or on luckier occasions, ideas that have been connecting, and a friend will excitedly chime in, “You should write about that.” But the impulse to write it all down is at most secondary or tertiary, and generally, not even on my radar. “Everything is copy,” Nora Ephron famously said. Those three words toll and do inspire, but in my case, being held accountable for a voice that is perhaps not my own but is inferred because of my name or the color of my skin can be stifling. Not everything is copy — that’s what my parents would likely say. My first inclination is to let ideas sit and to overthink and wrestle with them. And then maybe, just maybe, draft an email to a friend where I blunder the original purpose of my note: to seek out a single person audience.
And so at 28, here I am working hard to unlearn. A couple years ago, my friend Sarah and I followed a group of friends to a bar after attending a panel organized by a magazine we’ve both contributed to. At some point a guy approached us and asked our names. “Sarah,” she said. I followed, only to be asked what I’ve now deemed the token follow-up question: “Where are you from?” Before I could answer, Sarah snapped back at him, “Why would you ask her that?” Sarah’s barbed inflection when she delivered her you and her that entirely delegitimized him. She not only rebuffed his question but the entitlement he’d likely subsisted on his whole life, unchecked. I was mortified at the time. It’s possible I recoiled into the collar of my coat. Sarah! Really?! We were new friends and her sharp takedown of this stranger seemed unjust to me. Briefly I thought, Poor guy. That is, until the next morning when I woke up feeling light and unburdened.
Those few seconds in the bar were a revelation. Ever since I can remember, it’s been customary that I arrive somewhere, anywhere — a party, a new school, an interview — with a tagline or tributary anecdote, like a note that I’ve tied around my neck with yarn. “Where are you from? What does your name mean?” Those two questions have been asked of me so many times that I respond with a singsong cadence, as if sharing my phone number or rattling off my address when I order Thai. My preparedness with new encounters has always been in the service of others, so much so that I wouldn’t even call it preparedness and instead, how things would always be. But after that night when Sarah spoke up, everything changed. I recognize the dramatic nature of pinpointing change to a single seemingly insignificant event, but I’ve also come to realize that some shifts should never be backtracked because the only person you’ll end up devaluing is yourself. And so, ever since that evening, a newfound and speedy confidence sprung up in me like a cartoon flower in bloom. “Yeah!” I thought. “Why should I answer that dumb question? Why have I been?” For so long I assumed it was a fair question, but now I’m awake to its undermining agency and the chain reaction of everyday reticence it imposed on me. Thanks, Sarah. Love you.
More so, I now recognize the absurdity of people who can’t be bothered to pronounce my name properly but are willing to straightaway request I tell them where I’m from. Their othering of me depends, it seems, on their capacity to other. It’s usually those same people who roll their eyes when I say I was born in Canada, who reiterate “Where?” as in “Where where?” like I haven’t heard them the first time. A life of this farce is sure to sand down anyone’s sense of self. And maybe that’s the point, to bolster one’s power and belittle someone else’s: mine.
After years of my pleading, my mother finally gave me her yellow gold “D” ring that was passed down to her from her mother. Daisy, Dulcie, Dolores, and now Durga. The ring’s band is thinning so I don’t wear it often but when I do, I feel the clout of family. Few things yield such command. I’m from somewhere! And these women had something to do with it! The weight of those two facts is, as I grow older, increasingly humbling. With that lineage comes the consideration that if I have a kid, I should perhaps give him or her a D name. But what? Should it be Indian? How many Indian D names do I know? These are the sorts of thoughts that slide through my mind in the morning when I’ve been in a long-term relationship, when I’ve considered, dare I say, my future. These are also the sorts of thoughts that cross my mind when I’m out at a bar and a stranger asks my name and where I’m from. And as I impatiently play with the ring on my finger, I wonder, Do I really want this kind of dim encounter for my kid? But then I feel the embossed gold lettering, the most capital D I’ve ever seen. D as in Durga, Dolores, Dulcie, and Daisy. I’m from somewhere! I’ll be reminded. And these women had so much to do with it. I am an accumulation of them and myself, and a newfound vitality born from no longer accepting that I am an accumulation of my misheard name, no longer inured to self-evasion, to ceding my totality.