Breaking tongues: carrying names across borders

by Sinthujan Varatharajah 

I was named Sinthujan, a holy river for Hindus that in today’s Pakistan kills hundreds during the floods. However, neither that river, its Sanskrit origin or the subcontinent’s partition really mattered to my parents. Sinthuja is a common Tamil name given to girls. It’s a name that has survived decolonisation and nationalism’s drive for linguistic purification. It also survived war and flight. My parents used it to communicate as forbidden penpals while racial conflicts were unfolding around them. Sinthuja is the name my father used to hide his male and ‘untouchable’ origin. It connected riversides, divided societies but also caste apartheid. Upon my birth in exile, they altered the name to suit my gender ascription and added an extra ‘n’. Besides also unbordering genders, my name also connected me to a lost homeland where it could have identified me as a future ‘terrorist’.

At home I quickly became Sinthu, an endearing (female) name used by relatives and later also white friends who struggled to pronounce my full name. My community, on the other hand, struggled to get over its gender bending. It caused confusions and giggles. Patriarchy was challenged by my name in ways they weren’t used to yet. Outside of it, it was easier to provide white friends with my pet name than to teach them my actual name and watch their tongues struggle with its unfamiliarity. Rather than expecting them to pronounce my name with the same softness and delicacy in which it was given to me, I wanted to simplify it for them. My name stood out as it was. I didn’t want them to also know about its gender ambiguity, or its cultural cosmologies. When I moved to London, I tried to return to my birth name as the opportunity arose in my early adult life to create a new name-based identity in a new landscape. I still sometimes opted to allow certain friends to call me Sinthu as it provided a sense of intimacy and familiarity in London’s then unfamiliar boroughs.

At some point in my life, without me even realising it, some white people, including university lecturers, started calling me ‘Sinth’. They pronounced the ‘th’ not as a soft ’d’ as Tamil would require it, but as an English ‘th’. It was an alteration that I had never encountered or even imagined as possible. I felt colonized. My initial shock and anger were quickly replaced by resignation as to how our bodies and cultures, including our names can be subjugated. Born into a Western dominated world, my name after all was always at risk, something that was not necessarily mine. In similar ways to my body, it was up for negotiation. When you grow up with phrases like ‘Do you go by any other name?’ on meeting new people, you acclimatise to appreciating even small, albeit problematic or clumsy attempts, to call you by your birth name. Thank you for trying, thank you for seeing me, thank you for leaving me with five of my name’s original nine letters.

Later on, some white people thought that my already butchered name was still too long and complicated. They reduced me to nothing more than ‘Sin’. ‘Sin’. In their attempts to make my name sound familiar, they cut it to what was not just remotely relatable, but a term quite literally taken from their vocabulary. And an unfortunate word at that. Known territory also provided a translation they could work with – but I couldn’t. My foreign name was no more foreign. At the end of it, it was no longer my name anymore. I wasn’t sure how to react to it, how to express my frustration and resistance without being called ‘angry’ or ‘dramatic’, without being that man of colour who sees racism and power everywhere. When you are born with nine letters and watch how you, over a short time span, are reduced to no more than three, you wonder what you’ll be left with upon death – if anything will remain of you.

The name that I was given came with sounds, senses and feelings, many of which are positioned outside of western semiotics. The name was a cache for memories, lost histories and songs. Its tenderness has been slowly hollowed out, its context rendered irrelevant, its written form erased. Its sensual and acoustic properties were given no space or form in which to survive in western landscapes as they were. They weren’t representable, neither in discourse or practice, but required modification in order to become pronounceable, representable – and real. The meaning my parents ascribed to my name, its racial and caste histories and gender tensions, the meaning derived from cultures that surpass western civilisation, how my name felt and sounded in their mouths were by the end of it no more. Just as the river I was named after is not known by its local name in the West, I was destined not to be known by my actual name.

The act of naming has always been deeply political. The way our names are spoken and treated says something about how our racialised and othered bodies, as well as our cultural cosmologies, are positioned and treated in the everyday. The way our names are grinded between the teeth of others, its letters torn apart by their tongues and reassembled in their throats, is political. This process of gradual erasure or modification falls within a larger history of how we are perceived, constructed and positioned, and how the onus of labour is put on us to acquiesce and to become accustomed to how power can flatten our differences and colonise our bodies and identities, against our own self-determination and aspirations. These are the power dynamics that render so many of us to shorten our names, to westernise them or to replace them with Western ones to build bridges to the hemisphere that prevents us to exist as we are.  The alterations of our names are an erasure, a theft of culture and negation of complexities. They are colonialism. To have a name is a privilege, just as it is to be given the dignity to be addressed the way we choose to be.

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Sinthujan Varatharajah is a doctoral student in Political Geography, where he researches resistance and agency within spaces of asylum. He tweets under @varathas

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MORE BY SINTHUJAN VARATHARAJAH

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2 replies

  1. Naming is always an act of power.
    From the colonialist practice of calling something “Lake Victoria” to parents lovingly bestowing a given name and a million pet names on their baby. You cam make up a thousand nicknames for your boss, but you’ll never let them hear them because you do not have the power.
    It is an act that expresses power relationships and that also reinforces them, be it relationships of gender or race.
    When I teach children they are often from diverse backgrounds. I have often been told “not to bother”. Showing interest in a child’s name and trying to pronounce it correctly is seen as an admittance of weakness. Because sure they will laugh if you get it wrong again and happily correct you. But only if you allow them dominion over their names. Many of my colleagues will sadly just cobble together their own version of an unfamiliar name and then force the child to adapt because “you know I’m talking to you, so stop bothering with voiced and unvoiced “sh” sounds”

    Like

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