This is a guest post by Vaidehi Mujumdar. Vaidehi is a recent graduate of Dartmouth College with an interest in the social determinants of health – focused on women’s health. She is an aspiring MD taking a couple years off to work in the non-profit health sector in New York. Besides writing in stream of consciousness, Vaidehi is a lover of puns, absolutes, and Netflix documentaries. She proudly claims the title of Indian-born American, writer, feminist, science nerd, and foodie. She can be found attempting to twitter @veemuj. Like most things in life, she’s unsure but realizing that the journey is better without all the answers.
Vaidehi. V-A-I-D-E-H-I. Pronounced Vuh-day-hee.
For as long as I can remember, my name has been pronounced in a hundred different ways. VaLdehi. Vidalia (yes, people the type of onion), Veronica, even just Va…. um, like a fill-in-the-blank. It’s surprising what new concoctions people come up with those seven, seemingly normal letters.
The idea for this piece came from my recent foray into finding an apartment in Manhattan through Craigslist. As a recent graduate, I’ve been apartment searching in NYC. More recently (re: Junior year of college I found myself writing a lot. Not full sentences or even coherent thoughts. Stream of consciousness. Just to get it all out somewhere).
A friend of mine read the draft of an email I had written to a potential apartment owner, which started off with, “Hi my name is Vaidehi (I’m a female. I know the name can be confusing).”
She asked me why I needed to justify my name – or stronger yet, apologize for it. After years of explanations, emails starting with Mr. Mujumdar (Please, Mr. Mujumdar’s my father. But no, really….) and even prescriptions listing me as a male, I’m used to working on autopilot when it comes to my name or explaining how to say it or what it means.
My standard line growing up was, “It doesn’t matter. It’s fine the way you said it” in an effort to fit in, not draw any more attention, or be labeled with the differences that were already evident in my skin, my multilingual upbringing, and “strange holidays.”
I can safely say that over the years I have become immune to my name – or at least the bastardization of it. As a biologist, immunity conjures images of protection and MHCII molecules and antibodies and I could go on…But the point is that I have always been fascinated with the immune system. It learns, grows, acquires, persists and is constantly under attack. Somehow it learns to deal. To survive and adapt. But sometimes immunity can also mean exemption – exemption for normalcy. Sometimes it can signify loss – a loss of self.
Growing up in a predominately white suburban neighborhood in Virginia, the added syllables, the hesitancy in people’s voices in school, doctor’s appointments, interviews, the “that’s a hard name to say” was not only commonplace but expected. Sure I became immune to those things. I became immune to loss – of personhood, or sense, or cultural, or feeling.
I laughed when a “friend” in middle school said that when she had told a family friend my name the response had been, “Well, don’t step in it…” I laughed with her. Because what does a 12 year-old-girl who has the latest Adidas, the Britney Spears soundtrack, the stereotype of “white-washed east coast Indian” say?
Vaidehi is the second name of the main female character (Sita) in the old Hindi epic, The Ramayan. Sita’s father had an ability to transcend the consciousness of his own body – earning him the title Videha. The title in Sanskrit, meaning “liberation without the body.” Sita was then called the feminine form – Vaidehi, meaning from the earth.
So what does a 12 year old say? There’s nothing to say. Only do. Be the best. The best runner. The best student. The best performer. Then you’ll be immune. Maybe then you can transcend the body, the name, and the shackles that it seems to hold you to. Be confident. Be immune.
At college, my non-Indian friends would continuously ask me how I actually said my name, often grappling hard to shape their mouths around foreign syllables. I appreciated their never-ending efforts, reveled in the professors who said it correctly the first time, the friends who called it “fierce.”
A name that my mother had fallen in love with when two oceans separated my parents. A name that gives me the same initials as the best man I will ever know – my daddy. A name that I once uttered in an ATL club and was asked, “Girl, is that your real name?” – cue Lil’ Wayne.
But names, like all words are dynamic. Names are language. They change in meaning, in shape, and form to match the adaptations, the transformations, the growth that we all go through willingly or not. I don’t know when it happened, but Vaidehi became more than a title in an old story.
It became a community, a group, passions. It became the name whispered softly in darkness. Loving the sound of it – the timbre and nuances almost as much as the boy next to you. Finding affirmation in the fact that he said he liked it. The synesthetic conjuring images of earth, valleys, and nature in its most primal form without boundaries.
Other times it was a harsh declaration filled with pain and anger. Sometimes it was attached to a color or a value judgment. Red and blue and sometimes a kaleidoscope of muck. Sometimes just a statistic, a name on a list, or yet another social media site where numbers are more important than actual, real human connections.
More recently, it was the way my grandmother’s voice lit up when I called her in India. The way dad told me when she passed away. The way that boy said goodbye. Self-affirmation. Asking for what is owed to you. Finding a sense of place. Embracing womanhood.
College was a journey in perhaps solidifying this idea that names are dynamic. They change in meaning, feeling, and sound. They change as you change and it’s only in hindsight that you realize that it’s more than an identifier – more than just an ID tag.
Maybe I’m reclaiming my name right now. The way it is meant to be said in this stage of my life. Vaidehi. Confusing, twenty-two, first jobs, medical school, and the bittersweet controlled chaos that is this moment in time.
Vaidehi. Vulnerable, proud, difficult, a soft whisper, feminine, strong. Maybe I’m reclaiming my name. Maybe I’ve always had it. As most things in life right now – who knows?
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