sing an indian name
michael chacko daniels
“You don’t look like a David Abraham. It’s not an Indian name,” says the woman, sun-dried in the California interior.
Back in her sun-blurred orbs, I observe a telltale glint from what I suspect is the sudden dawning in her mind that she possesses an intelligence with a measure of omniscience on the subject of immigrants and their names.
“I don’t?” I manage, looking uncertainly at this product of the European migration to America, who seems chock-full with knowledge of which name should be attached to which face and body.
Each time I have encountered variations of this singular aptitude in pinning names to physiology—in Illinois, Michigan, Washington, D. C., San Francisco, and Oakland—I have wrestled to hold back the stream of invective at the tip of my attack-trained tongue.
Caught in this contrary battle, I remain tongue-tied.
I have never understood why these suddenly important, one-minute experts should expect that I would deny my ancestors, refuse ownership of their names in mine.
If nothing else, she is audacious to strip off a man’s name from his body.
I want to cry out to her: Take not from me that which has been in the family from time immemorial—my good name. It was an old name in India, when the American revolution severed Briton’s hold, and old it was when conquering the subcontinent was but a dream of Europe’s decadent ruling houses, and likewise when the Mongol rough riders swept across Central Asia.
I wonder how I can simplify and concretize for this woman the family lines in which my name has permanent anchor.
“No, you don’t look like a ‘David Abraham,’” she reasserts, shaking her head, absolute certainty blazing out of her eyes.
I watch her transformation, recognize resistance is futile; nevertheless, some genetic predisposition to stubbornness comes to my aid.
“Which name do I look like?” I inquire softly, masking the fire in my reptilian brain, and taking the battle to her.
She shakes her head ever so slightly, as if fending off an attempt to quiz her. And then, while a smile finally lights up her sun-primed features, she says, triumphantly, “You must have changed it!”
Ouch! I left myself wide-open for that punch, I think. She must have been waiting me out. I should have given her no chance, should have come out punching.
I barely restrain an ancient fury rearing at the back of my head.
“Why would I change my name?” I inquire, my voice stripped of its softness. “Never! I am proud of my name. It has been in the family for untold centuries.”
Her extra-thin body tightens. The smile hardens.
I know I will be addressing an impenetrable wall; but I persist.
“Which name do I look like?” I inquire, again. “What should I look like to be a ‘David Abraham’?”
This time, she doesn’t seem to mind the quiz, but she ignores both questions, arches one eyebrow that has been plucked down to a fine line, and says just one word, “Sing.”
Is singing the price I have to pay for her to tell me which name I match, or what looks would make me a ‘David Abraham’? I wonder.
“I’m not the singing type,” I confess. “The only singing my father permitted was that of hymns in a doleful voice.”
“No, I don’t want you to sing. I was talking about ‘Sing the Indian name,’ unlike ‘David Abraham.’”
“I can’t sing names, either.” I say. “Though I know some people who do that very well and sound like Johnny Cash.”
She looks at me as if I am either stupid, or trying to be difficult.
“Sing! I said.”
“And I said, that’s not my strong point.”
“S, I, N, G, H. Did you get that? Sing! Sing! Sing! The Indian name.” I think she wanted to add ‘Stupid!’ at the end of her last utterance.
“Oh, ‘Singh’!” I say. “I love that name. I understand, now. You think a name like ‘Singh’ is Indian, but ‘David Abraham’ isn’t.”
“That’s right. And has anybody told you that you have two Christian names?”
I nod. I want to say: Yes, people who abandon their manners when they talk to immigrants.
“One is enough. Don’t you have a real last name? One is enough, you know,” she repeats, helpfully. “You don’t need to have two Christian names. That’s overkill. That’s confusing. You put a ‘David’ or a ‘Jim’ in front of your Indian name and most Americans will be comfortable that something familiar is attached to the unfamiliar. You can then glide in and glide out of all encounters. You will be considered authentic.
“Say your name was ‘Dave Sing.’ No one will wonder whether you have abandoned your family name; the presence of ‘Sing’ will prove that you haven’t. At the same time they will have a familiar American first name to call you by. The whole purpose of names is to fit, to glide in and glide out without any rough passages.”
I see she means well, but correct her I must, though experience foretells it will be painful for her and me.
I say, “Ma’am, if two Christian names for one man bothers you, the truth will unsettle you even more, for I have three Christian names, not just two. My middle name is Jacob. I go around with a full load of what I call Biblical Semitic names.”
She looks at me disbelief writ large on her sunburned face.
“And, all three have been in my family for a very long time. You may not know this, but there have been Christians in India’s ‘Gods Own Country’—Kerala—from the first Christian century. My mother’s father was a ‘David,’ my father’s father, a ‘Jacob,’ and my sainted dad, an ‘Abraham.’ All my three names from them are in the order Kerala’s Christian culture prescribes.”
Her look says, Another tall tale told by an idiot.
“I haven’t visited India,” she says, shaking her face and right hand, a super negation almost Indian in its pace and composition.
“But I was married to an Indian,” she continues, her breath catching in her throat for a moment. “And his name while I knew him was Sing, that is, S, I, N, G, H.”
She walks away muttering, “Three Christian names! He expects me to believe that! How unauthentic! If he thinks he can fool me, he is a total idiot! A total idiot!”