What’s in a name?

Can your personality be shaped by what your name means? Or what it sounds like?

I’ve heard of parents-to-be having a bank of names at hand. So when the baby is born they can choose a name that fits. But how do they know which is the right one? Do the baby’s features decide the name? Or are the parents unconsciously deciding their child’s fate?

I can only talk of my experience. The name on my birth certificate means ‘dear divine’. I don’t know whether I am dear or divine. The people who love me show me that I’m dear. And at one of the retreats I attended, I was told I seem the spiritual type. But this is likely because I have brown skin and a nose ring.

My parents were going to name me Reshma. A name starting with the letter ‘r’ like my dad’s. This was the fashion back then. But by a twist of fate, that wasn’t what I was named.

When I was still inside her, my mother was reading a fiction book written in Hindi. She named me after the protagonist, a Bollywood film star. (Incidentally, Reshma means ‘silk’. Maybe I’d have had silky skin? I would’ve liked that.)

Thirteen years later, there was another twist of fate – a life-changing moment, where, along with it, I experienced the mangling of my phonetically spelled name.

I got Lalesh-ee-ni, Leshlaani, Leeshini… “No, ‘La-lesh-ni’”, I would say to all who made up a new name for me. Until I got jack of it and simply succumbed to whatever came out of people’s mouths.

Finally, three years after migrating to the land down under did a schoolmate offer to shorten my name.

“Laleshni is too long. Let’s call you ‘Lee’ instead,” she said. It punched me in the gut, and I unconsciously stiffened so that ‘Lee’ bounced off me. “No”, I found myself blurting out, “I do not want to be called Lee. Let me think about it.”

And so I did. Why hadn’t I thought of shortening my name before? I was embarrassed that no one could pronounce my eight-lettered, foreign-sounding name. Teachers would stop midway through roll call and develop a stuttering disorder. I’d sink into my chair and meekly call out “here”. An old lady I was serving in my first job as a ‘checkout chick’ took one look at my name badge and asked how to pronounce it. She wanted to name her toy poodle puppy something ‘exotic’.

Here, my classmate was offering me an opportunity of a lifetime. So I grabbed it with both hands. I had tried chewing on Lee a couple of times, but I spat it out each time. May be ‘Lal’, the first syllable of my name? (Incidentally, Lal means ‘dear’). No. I did not like that either. I soon thought of something that lit up my nervous system like a night sky exploding with fireworks.

I loved the sound of my new, self-refashioned name – short, bold and to the point. (Funny. That’s how some people would describe me, too.) It was a part of my full name, and therefore still a part of me. ‘Laleshni’, on the other hand, sounds feminine, pretty – facets that felt foreign, at that time.

With this reformed name, I went to university and lived on campus. Gained the freedom, choice and independence that come with having an education, and the ability to earn an income to stand on my own feet. Opportunities that were not afforded to the women in my family who came before me.

In my early 20s, I got my first corporate gig. After almost two years in that job, I had the opportunity to head across to Europe and present our new safety database. My Belgian contact, with whom I had corresponded via email – professional language is very masculine, no? – did a double take when he met me. “You’re a woman,” he couldn’t stop himself from saying. By changing my name, had I unwittingly chopped off my femininity?

I don’t know what type of person Laleshni would be. Maybe a divine goddess who is loved by everyone. I don’t believe I sold out, though. Shortening my name was a natural, evolutionary response to my changed environment, like how a sea creature evolves to live on land, morphing to survive – and thrive. (Incidentally, my shortened name still holds the syllable that means ‘divine’.)

Speak your mind, but please be kind

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