By Any Other Name

by Madhurima Chakraborty


My son Kunal is biracial. Multiethnic might be more accurate — he is part white American from my husband Kris, part Indian from me. When he was born the first thing I said was, through the grin that had spread across my face, Wow, he’s really white. I was being funny, but no one in the operating room laughed. Maybe there was something in my voice that said to them that I wasn’t joking, at least not entirely.

Throughout my pregnancy, I had been worried about Kunal not looking like me. I would look at white teenagers hanging out in the ice-cream shops where I live, and think — what if he ends up looking like that, or liking a girl (or a boy) who looks like that? Would I see myself in him? Would he see himself in me? Out loud, to friends, I’d say, “I hope the baby gets all of Kris’ genes!” And that wasn’t a complete lie; Kris has good genes. But I worried that people wouldn’t know immediately, without a doubt, that my son was mine, that they would scan the crowd to find the parent of the crazy kid running in the park and look right past me. Sometimes that fear crawled into my throat and closed it up.

Some of this seems normal — obviously, we want to be known as our children’s parents, and look forward to strangers being charmed by our child and then look up and say, “Oh, I totally see you in him.” But there was something else. Ever since my father-in-law had gotten sick with cancer two years before Kunal was born and I shuttled him to and from his doctor’s appointments, I was reminded that I didn’t look like my family — Kris’ family, my in-laws — here in the States. My father-in-law could see what I could see; the nurses and the doctors noticed me carrying his medical files and binders, and assumed I was some sort of hired help, maybe a secretary or a private nurse. So Dad would introduce me as his daughter, and the staff would do a double take, which gave him a kick, and then I would shake my head and say, with a half-apologetic smile, “he means daughter-in-law.

When I told a friend of mine, before Kunal was born, that I was worried people would think I was my son’s nanny and not his mother, she thought it was so absurd that she laughed. But the anesthesiologist in the surgical room during my c-section understood. He was the only doctor on the side of the blue curtain with my head and not over there with my womb, who talked to Kris and me throughout the procedure, who had offered to check with the doctors when I worried about how long it was taking, who was Indian-American. When he heard me say “Wow, he’s really white,” he nodded his head, appreciating my concern. And then, later, when they took Kunal away to look at him some more (it turns out, he was really small as well as being light-skinned, and was neither by the time he was two months old), the anesthesiologist confessed, “He’ll get darker, but not by that much.” His sister was “married to a white guy” as well, and he showed me a picture of his three year-old niece on his phone. I don’t remember very much about that picture except she was in pink, and she was lighter than me but darker than Kris.

* * *

I have a great life. I have Kunal and Kris. I am a permanent resident of the United States. I have a tenure-track position at a time when they are harder and harder to come by. I am not poor, have never been really hungry, not even during the summer I was selling plasma during the week and working the graveyard shift for a racist motel on the weekends. I have never had anyone yell at me to go back to where I came from like my brother has.

Yet there is a constant hum in the pit of my stomach that reminds me I can be evicted from this country at the drop of a hat, or at least banished to the margins with a reminder that, no, I don’t belong. These reminders come often.

Sometimes they look like a heated political debate with someone I’ve known for a long time and though he doesn’t speak the words, he’s so close to saying “Why are you even here, if you think there’s so much wrong with us?” that I can feel the heat from words not formed on my face.

Sometimes it looks like the realization that people who have known me for fifteen years still don’t know what my first language is.

Sometimes it comes from young children who say, to the embarrassment of their parents, “You sound weird,” and I must laugh it off and say “I do, don’t I?” and transform the sting I feel behind my eyes into a smile that shows how cool I am and how little I let things matter.

Most days, though, the reminder is in the form of my name, my first name, which is more me than anything can be. It is the site where I feel my distance, my not-being-at-home, most often and most acutely.

In White Teeth, Zadie Smith says that the “fear of the nationalist is nothing compared to the fear of the immigrant.” The nationalist — I imagine she means the xenophobe, the racist — fears miscegenation, while the immigrant fears that after a couple of generations of intermixing, she and her entire culture will have disappeared completely, that there will be little left of her genetic material for anyone to point to. Her child will be white; in other words, when she is not, her child will turn away from her, from her name.

I’ll grant you this: it’s a hard name, even for Indians. When I interviewed the Bengali writer Mahasweta Devi a few years ago, and introduced myself, she laughed and said, “God. I thought my parents had it in for me. Your parents are even worse!” There are four syllables just in my first name, and at least one consonant combination that doesn’t exist in English. (DH in MaDHurima). So, it shouldn’t be a big deal that many people that I know in the U.S and some school friends from India call me Maddy. And there was a time when that name fit me well. It feels tight on me now: seams that irritate my skin and a neckline that’s too constricting.

Really, it’s my fault. As in: I decided on this name, I made it popular. Throughout my undergraduate years, I wrote it on every assignment I turned in. When professors would go through the roster on the first day and pause, panic flooding their faces, I would raise my hand and say, “Just call me Maddy” and shake my head at them with the same half-apology, half-smile I used with my father-in-law’s doctors years later. And they would smile with relief in turn, scratch out Madhurima and write Maddy on their lists, and we would exchange a look that said “That was close.”

I hated that pause instructors gave before my name. I already looked different and sounded different; I couldn’t bear that my long, winding name would take up a lot of class time to get through, with my classmates either looking right at me or pretending to be busy. I worried that the pause would spill over to the friends I so badly wanted to make in this new place and would keep people from calling me, from saying hi to me, from introducing me to other people.

Recently, the president of our college said he felt bad that international students went with an English name, Robin, say, or Jeff, when they got here. “Growing up in this country, I’ve never done that,” said Dr. Kwang-Wu Kim. “I held on to the name that I was given.” His tone was sympathetic and encouraging. He seemed to be saying that the United States was a place that was based on immigrants and continuously added to by the enormous diversity it housed, and no one should be trying to deracinate him or herself. It’s a compelling point, but I wanted to say to him, maybe eighteen and nineteen-year-olds from China are like eighteen and nineteen-year-olds anywhere. Maybe they’re just hoping easy names will mean one less barrier for them in a new country.

It worked great for me, for a while. I was making friends in college, Indian and American, and my name wasn’t getting in my way; people were inviting me to meet their families over Thanksgiving because they didn’t trip over my name. Then, once, my parents were visiting for my older brother’s graduation from the same college, and we got into a fight. They were so angry, so hurt, by the name they heard on everyone’s lips — Maddy, they said, was crude and unbecoming. It was an attempt to break ties with home. I laughed. Maddy, I said, comes from home — it’s the name my friend Neerja gave me in the ninth standard.

They were right in a way, though, and that thought sat in my brain like grit in my shoe. The name was starting to sound wrong and, really, to look wrong. I was a big person, tall and broad, and the name was too short, with the –DY at the end sitting too close to the MAD- in the beginning. A small name for a not-small person. A name meant for fitting into spaces that I couldn’t.

I relished the going back to Delhi and giving my name — at the tailor’s, say, or a travel agent — and seeing the person writing out a receipt getting it right without a moment’s hesitation. M-a-d-h-u-r-i-m-a, they wrote out, like it was the simplest thing in the world.

“Turns out,” I said to Kris, “Home is where you don’t have to spell your name. Or repeat it a bunch of times.”

So over the years, I tried out Madhurima. It stuck and worked sometimes (University of Florida, 2001–2003), it would not take other times (University of Minnesota, 2003–2010). It would come down to specific moments.

Madhurima worked in Florida because my roommates Kris and Tabitha helped the others out, practicing at parties over shots of whatever we were drinking.

Madhurima failed in Minnesota because, early on, a classmate said to me, “I’ve heard Kris call you Maddy, so that’s what I’m going to call you,” and because I was still afraid of what that would mean for my accessibility, and because my friend hadn’t really asked me a question, I let him. And it caught like wildfire, and I stoked it, not wanting to draw distinctions between who could call me Maddy and who couldn’t.

That pause my professors gave before my name on the roster? It’s still around. I squirm when I order take-out and there is silence on the other end of the phone after I’ve said Madhurima, or when people scribble “M” and a straight line like the rest of it doesn’t matter. And I feel sick saying Maddy, worried that a colleague or a friend will overhear and that’ll be that. I’ve started giving them Kris’s name, though I always insist they spell it right. “With a K-R.”

Not that insisting on Madhurima is always better. A lot of people say “Mederma,” like my name is the scar treatment ointment, as though they’re trying to fade away the annoyance of my name. But I like that they try. My first day at my current job, a colleague asked me what my other name was, because she had a lot of Indian friends and she knew that we all had other names. (This “other name” business is also the central plot point of Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake.) I didn’t budge, though I came so close when I saw the disappointment flood her face, like I was telling her we couldn’t really be friends, that I didn’t trust her with my secret name.

I also almost caved when I was asked by the parents of Kunal’s best friend, Liam, what I would like their son to call me. In the second it took me to answer, my brain must have screamed “Just say Maddy” a dozen times. Liam was just starting to talk, with beautifully enunciated single and double syllables, and Maddy would have guaranteed an early spot in his vocabulary, maybe even beating Kris. He was already saying “mama” and “dada” — how close Maddy was to both of them. But I said, with more than a little sadness, “Madhurima,” and knew that I would just have to be “Kunal’s mother” for many more years.

Several months later, I thought about testing Kunal out, but he refused to say much simpler words. When I asked him, “Can you say giraffe?” he squinted and said a definite “no.” I didn’t have the heart to try out my name. I knew I was not prepared for what would happen when his face scrunched up at my name. How would I keep myself from crying in front of him?

Here’s the thing. A couple of days ago, Liam’s parents said to me “he’s been practicing on the way over.” And, after some cajoling, Liam said, in his two-and a half-year old voice and with a shy smile, “Mad-hu-ri-ma?” I might have squealed. I know I at least said that I wanted to take him with me to department meetings. It was perfect.

So, the next day I tried with Kunal, who is a few weeks younger and has never been quite as articulate. He couldn’t do it, but instead of scrunching his face up like I had feared he would, he smiled when I told him my name was Madhurima, like that was silly, because of course my name is Mummy. But also maybe, just maybe, because my name sounds nice to my son and he’ll want to say it, we’ll practice, me breaking down the syllables, him picking up the pieces and eventually saying it in one go, and it will be something we do together.

Dr. Madhurima Chakraborty is Assistant Professor of Postcolonial Literature in the English department at Columbia College Chicago. She lives in Oak Park, IL with her husband and son, and believes the only work-life balance you achieve is when you’re equally dissatisfied with all of it. She has published literary criticism in journals such as Film/Literature Quarterly and Journal of Postcolonial Writing (among others), and fiction in Kitaab.