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Letters About Literature National Winners 2009

Honorable Mentions, Level 3: Nilesh Raval

Dear Jhumpa Lahiri,

Roll calls make me apprehensive. Every time an announcer scrolls down to my name, I can predict that there will be an uncomfortable pause and a startled expression as they attempt to pronounce it. When I intervene to help, their anxious faces metamorphose into relieved smiles as I save them from, as they tell me, “butchering [my] name.” My name has withstood a plethora of pronunciations I never imagined a six letter word could possess. After reading your culturally enlightening novel, The Namesake, I have realized the importance of my name in Indian culture and that I am not alone when it comes to possessing an unusual one.

Growing up in a small Midwest town, I vividly remember that it was from an early age when I became conscious of my foreign-sounding name. The pediatrician’s file with my name was ruthlessly overlaid with a nurse’s phonetic version, using body parts; it became “knee-lash”. Candid as elementary school kids are, my classmates claimed I had a “weird name.” My teachers also had a difficult time deciphering it. My baseball coach, cheering me on as I hit a home run, shouted out a version of my name that rhymed with the condiment “relish.” This rendition echoed across the stadium; I was mortified. My youthful ears became antennas trained to listen for any contrived form into which my name could be conjured.

I questioned my parents as to why they gave me such a tongue twister of a name that stumped most people. They calmly consoled me by explaining how my name was based on the traditional Indian system, where the positions of the planets at the time of my birth are interpreted by astrologers. I could not even attempt to comprehend this abstract form of name-bestowal; much less appreciate it. I was so engrossed in my frustration that I bluntly ignored all their cultural explanations. There were times when I wished my parents had tweaked my name to fit in with American sounding names. What difference would it make if my name was Americanized? This chagrin remained because being an avid speller and stickler for proper pronunciation; it was very difficult for me to blandly nod at people’s feeble attempts. Once I delved into your novel, however, these vexations seemed to melt away. The Namesake revealed to me the essence of name-giving in our culture in a way that no amount of explanation from my parents would have accomplished.

I immediately identified with Gogol; the feelings of embarrassment and ambivalence he had with his name were identical to mine. I saw myself in him when he struggled with his name and identity, and I pondered over the impact my name has had on my life, just as it had on Gogol’s life. Reflecting on how the magnitude of respect Gogol held for his culture and his name escalated tremendously after his father’s death, I realized that my name is a part of who I am, and that there is a minute fragment of respect for my name that is imprisoned in my mind, waiting to be freed. It has. Like Gogol, I have been reborn. I have now begun to accept my name as an integral part of my cultural identity. Looking back, I now scoff with resentment at Gogol when he goes through the process of changing his name. Did he not contemplate what effect it would have on his family? By changing his name, he was negating any respect he held for his birth name. I couldn’t have that in my life, and so I learned from Gogol’s mistakes. Now, not only do I accept my name: I cherish it, knowing that without it, I would lose my sense of self.

The Namesake has compelled me to understand that a name has an inherently profound power to shape its bearer. It has bestowed upon me a newfound respect for names in our culture. I have realized that Indian names are not just picked because of their euphony or popularity, but that name-giving is a time honored tradition, a duty not taken lightly. To fit into American culture does not necessarily mean one has to sacrifice an essential part of Indian culture. My name commands no alterations; I am proud of my name. From now on, I will make an extra effort to ensure that people pronounce my name correctly. In fact, I’m looking forward to the next roll call.


Nilesh Raval