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Kamala, Not Cam-La: Desis Want Americans to Stop Butchering Names

Getting a name right is about reclaiming one’s identity and stop ‘othering’, say Indian-Americans.

Updated

Video Editor: Deepthi Ramdas
Video Producer: Riniki Sanyal

Jayant Mandyam, a stand-up comedian, has permanently changed his name to Jay. Embarrassed by his teacher’s inability to get his name right, he says the only way out was to get his name to sound more White.

Uthara Vengrai, an environmental scientist at Yale, had it worse when her Maths teacher asked, “Is there a Urethra in the room?”

For years now, South Asian names have been butchered in the West for lack of familiarity with the syllables. Even US Vice President Kamala Devi Harris wasn’t spared the mispronunciation – either wilfully to indicate she has immigrant parentage or for the sheer inability and lack of effort to get it right.

But Harris has time and again corrected those who mispronounced her name, including at her swearing-in on 20 January, when Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor couldn’t get her name right.

“I think during the Georgia senate runoffs, one of the Republican senators said something at the Trump rally like ‘Kamala, Bamala...whatever her name is’. I think that sort of language is meant to reinforce the idea that this person is not American.”
Uthara Vengrai
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Is It A Big Deal?

Music composer Ramya Shankar laughs it off. Used to hearing her name get botched up often, she says, “It doesn’t really matter anymore. One of my closest friends gets it wrong every week.”

But not everyone can shake it off so easily.

“I don’t agree (that Indian names can be difficult to pronounce). They’ve learnt to say Chekovsky or a Jean Pierre and they are very different pronunciations from the typical English American names, so it’s really not that much of an ask,” says Karishma Rahman, a lifestyle blogger.

Another desi American, travel blogger Samia Rahman says, “I think for a really long time, immigrants put their head down and said ‘I’m fine with whatever way you pronounce it’. And I think it shows the power that you feel when you say ‘you know what, that’s not how my name is pronounced and this is the correct way to say it’. And doing that makes us feel like we’re finding our footing in this country and finding our power back.”

Many Indian-Americans echo the thought that correcting someone who gets their name wrong is a way to reclaim one’s identity, and in the process stop being an ‘other’. “I like that this movement is happening in the States, especially where it’s about identifying oneself. It’s about time,” says Kirandeep Dhillon, a marketing professional.

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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