Michigan in Color: Satyameva Jayate

Photo courtesy of Joseph Xu
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By Hema Karunakaram, Michigan in Color Contributor
Published November 5, 2014

My last name, Karunakaram, has a beautiful history that dates back about four generations. Karunakaram, meaning “kind hands” in Sanskrit, was a title bestowed upon my great-great-grandfather for his generosity and service to the local government of the time, in the coastal region of Andhra Pradesh, India. Although the family had a different surname, this ancestor decided to pass on his new title of Karunakaram to his children, preserving the legacy that he had created.

But four-year-old me didn’t know this story. Four-year-old me cared less about history and meaning, and more about finding a way to quickly say my Indian name in the middle of an English sentence during school. Somehow, this meant corrupting the pronunciation of my last name: in shortening the “na,” stressing the second syllable instead of the third, and replacing the soft, malleable r’s with hard, definite ones, four-year-old me devised a new — and incorrect — way to say my own name.

The modification was easy enough to navigate. At Indian gatherings (such as parties or cultural and religious activities), I’d say my name correctly, but in non-Indian crowds (like in school) I’d use the modified pronunciation. Conveniently, because I spent most of my childhood in a very white school district, these two sets of people rarely overlapped, and switching back and forth felt so natural that I soon forgot I was even doing it.

It wasn’t until my freshman year of college that these circles began to intersect and my cover was blown. One of my best friends pointed out during a 2 a.m. heart-to-heart the hypocrisy of claiming to be a proud Indian-American but compromising my own name, saying that “if they can’t say your name right, it’s their problem, not yours.” She urged me to, at the very least, “just pick a pronunciation and stick to it.”

So I did. After 14 years, I chose to use the correct pronunciation of my name with everyone, for good.

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Indian languages (among many others) do not lend themselves easily to English adaptation. A single Indian name could be spelled eight different ways in English because 26 letters are not nearly enough to capture the nuances of its pronunciation and meaning. I’d like to think it’s at least worth the effort to try and say things properly, but sometimes it’s tiring to have to repeat my name two, three, five times before you get it right.

People with non-Western cultural roots frequently find themselves in this constant balancing act — retaining their traditions while trying to assimilate smoothly into Western expectations. Stories of modified or abbreviated names like mine are so common that they’ve come to be expected. All too often, this is a country where Krishna becomes Kris and Sandhya becomes Sandy and Rajeev becomes Raj. Even everyone's beloved comedienne Mindy Kaling abbreviated her last name from the authentic, brimming-with-meaning Chokalingam. The impossible goal seems to be to appear different and yet not different all at the same time. But is it okay to make a name easier to say at the cost of its meaning and history?

A prime example of this compromise on campus is the Indian American Student Association’s annual cultural show. Although I was an active member of IASA for three years and still support its commitment to “preserve and cherish our culture,” I have long disagreed with some of its repeated choices. Year after year, we see names like “Samasti,” “Zastana,” and “Silesha” plastered across campus in October and November. And year after year, performers and audiences alike assume that since IASA — the oldest and largest Indian organization on campus — came up with these names, they must be authentic.

Unfortunately, a quick Google search will tell you they usually aren’t.

In most recent years, the title of the IASA show has generally been a three-syllable word that might be loosely based on a Hindi or Sanskrit word, but has been modified and embellished to supposedly cater to a Western audience — a process by which the title itself ends up with no real meaning of its own. “Kalyara,” the title of this year’s upcoming show, is no exception: it’s corrupted and perhaps whitewashed enough to be easily chanted and repeated by most students, but just foreign-sounding enough to fool audience members into believing it’s authentic and meaningful.

It’s a far cry from the IASA shows of the 1990s, one of which was authentically named “Satya” — “truth” in Sanskrit. (The irony is suffocating.)

Most students across campus — including Indian-American students — have no idea that these shows aren’t titled meaningfully. And that isn’t really their fault. But I believe that self-identified Indian organizations have a responsibility to remain faithful to certain aspects of Indian culture. I believe that anyone claiming to represent their culture should make every effort to portray it to the best of their abilities. So why is it so compelling to rinse Indian words of their meaning? What does it mean when Indian names are kneaded or chopped up to be made more palatable to an English-speaking audience? Who should be held accountable for the mainstream corruption of Indian language and pronunciation in Western settings?

And perhaps, most poignantly: is it still called appropriation if it’s of your own culture?

A community cannot simultaneously strive to preserve its culture while consciously erasing it. Indian-Americans cannot claim to portray something authentically while replacing traditional Indian names with disingenuous but sort-of-Indian-sounding ones. We might present the most traditional dancing or the most traditional food or the most traditional clothing, but our names — the most visible, ubiquitous parts of our identities — will betray us.

Throughout my childhood, my parents always stressed the importance of saying Indian words correctly, of staying faithful to where we came from no matter how engulfed we became within mainstream American culture. To this day they have stayed true to their convictions, never ever compromising a name or pronunciation for the sake of ease or simplicity. They, like many of my friends, have pushed back against the forced assimilation that is still all too prevalent in this proclaimed melting pot of America, retaining the fullness and richness of the Indian names and words that flow through their veins.

Because here’s the thing about a melting pot: although it initially consists of many different ingredients, the effect of the heat makes the differences ultimately indistinguishable. Since reclaiming the true pronunciation of my own name, I have sought to stay whole, a solid chunk floating among the melted ones.

I may wear your clothes every day and I may speak your language every day. But when I am asked to represent where I come from, where my parents and their parents and our traditions come from — I will be myself. I will say the names of my family, the names of my culture, names that taste like sweet laddoos in my mouth, names that color the air with the bright orange of saffron and sound like the music of the veena, names and titles that overflow with history and meaning and are unapologetically Indian.

My names. Our names. Honest, unabridged, and authentic.

Michigan in Color is the Daily’s opinion section designated as a space for and by students of color at the University of Michigan. To contribute your voice or find out more about MiC, e-mail michiganincolor@umich.edu.