As soon as President Biden announced Kamala D. Harris as his VP pick, the news was met in the South Asian community with a strong sense of pride — and a tinge of anxiety. The topic of misarticulation has struck a nerve among my people ever since we began immigrating to the United States en masse in 1965 — and even before that. How much do we bring with us from the Indian subcontinent? How vehemently do we cling to our names, which for Americans are, how shall we say, an acquired taste, much like turmeric or cardamom? And now, how do we reconcile the fact that so many of us are accustomed to KUM-La when she’s droppin’ videos that instruct us to say Comma-La?
Who gets to decide how to say your name? Is it up to you? Your parents? Society? I asked a lot of folks, and individuals of all ethnicities resoundingly answered: You.
Your name is your identity, your beginning, your origin story. It’s why the first bit I ever did onstage was: “People ask me if it was tough growing up with the name ‘Rajiv Kumar Satyal in Southwest Ohio. What do you think? Mine was the only name not called during roll call. The teacher would go alphabetically: ‘David Sanders.’ ‘Here.’ ‘Casey Sargeant.’ ‘Here.’ And when she’d stop and furrow her brow, that was my queue to jump in with, ‘Yeah, that’s me.’ I didn’t even have a name. I had a symbol: a pause and a frown. I felt like Prince.”
But whose name is it, anyway? To some extent, it’s our parents’ name. They gave it to us, but then again, they gave it to us. See how much difference emphasis makes? Your last name may be shared but your first name truly is yours.
To this day, an Indian last name is all my Dad needs to ID you: “Her last name is ‘Godbole’? Okay, she’s from Mumbai, on Linking Road, behind the third roti stand.” You’ve never seen anyone so efficiently make the leap from etymology to geography. And in the days of old, we were defined by our fathers. “I am Rajiv, son of Vinay, of Naushera!” It rings a bit better than, “I am Rajiv, son of Vinay, of… Fairfield, Ohio.”
So, what responsibility do we have to our ancestors? Inheritance is like a suitcase on our doorstep. We can decide to throw it out, unpack and keep what we want, or start wearing all of what’s in it. Which leads to the question: Does it feel worse when a fellow South Asian screws up our names, like, "Dude, you should know better"?
Whom better to ask than Mindy Kaling? Okay, so I didn’t ask her, but I turned to her Netflix show, “Never Have I Ever.” My friend, Richa Moorjani, plays a character called Kamala — and says it as KUM-A-La. She replied, “At first, I would probably get irritated if a South Asian person said my name wrong. … But everyone’s had such a different experience. ... What matters is that people are trying. It’s worse that they don’t try at all.” Her husband’s name is Bharat, and she told me some have blurted out, “I don’t know — Borat?!”
South Asians find this so vexing not only because we’re not characters from a fictitious movie about Kazakhstan but also because of the vitality ascribed to many of our names. That’s why an acquaintance in India pointed out: “Here, others decide. You don’t have control.” After all, Western society is more individualistic; Eastern society is more collective. In the motherland, we’re often paying homage to a religious text like the Gita or the Koran. The prevailing wisdom was summed up by a professor: “If the name is based on a Sanskrit word with deep meaning and long history, as an Indian I believe tradition dictates proper pronunciation. With a name like Rama Krishna — the names of Gods — it pains me to hear them being butchered. So I just go by Ray.”
To layer on even more confusion, India is not a monolith. It’s a collection of cultures. The Tamil way of expressing a name is different from how they may do it in Punjab. It truly may be KUM-A-La down there — how it is on Mindy’s show. And in the West Indies, it can be Ka-MA-La. So, sometimes, there is no right Indian way.
That said, there is a wrong way: we know not to use Ka-MA-La since Harris’s video eliminates that option. South Asians around the world facepalmed on Inauguration Day when Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, ironically herself no stranger to mispronunciation, employed Ka-MA-La when swearing in the new VP. An honest mistake by a fellow liberal probably didn’t sting as much as the intentional mocking of a conservative. (Remember former Georgia Sen. David Perdue’s “Ka-ma-la, Ka-ma-la, Kamala-mala-mala”?) Naturally, though, our moment was marred.
Personally, it took me back to when our local paper, the Journal-News, kindly did a huge feature on the teaching career of my mother, Lalita Satyal. Mom selflessly went to great lengths to ensure the paper nailed the spelling of her family’s names, but when we received the physical paper, in huge font, it read: Lolita. I’ll never forget our entire family’s standing around the kitchen table, my mom trying desperately to conceal her disappointment. My very young brother innocently looked up and offered a solution, “It’s okay, Mom. We can just draw a tail on the o and make it an a.” It was so sweet that he didn’t realize we couldn’t fix all those erroneous papers out there. It still hurts me to think about this, but maybe a little less today since I can have The Washington Post carry the line: “Lalita: An American Education.”
Ultimately, while many of us would love to see Harris project her Indian heritage more, we know in our hearts that her mother is from Tamil Nadu — and perhaps that’s enough. It’s just that it would do so much for us brown folk. I haven’t seen her lean into her Indian as much as her Black heritage — her father is from Jamaica — and some of that is of course politics. Pure numbers — tens of millions of Black folks here vs. not even 2 million of us. I asked a Black actress, Candy Washington, if perhaps South Asians were ruining this moment by trying to claim her, to which she laughed and replied, “No… everybody’s invited to the cookout.”
Harris could at least head-nod to us that she “gets it,” like when she mentioned “chitti” in her vice-presidential acceptance speech. South Asians are not as well-known here and this is a massive opportunity to get to know us. Another option? She could pull a Hillary Rodham Clinton and embellish it with her middle name: Kamala Devi Harris. Now, that reps India hard. Devi is the Sanskrit word for Goddess and is known by South Asians the world over. It’s a small modification, but hey, the Devi is in the details.
Of course, it’s up to Harris to decide how she identifies. But I found it empowering when I realized that it’s up to me to decide how I identify with her. I’m gonna respect her wishes and call her “Comma-La.” It’s a compromise and this is America — a blend. But to my fellow South Asians, if you can’t bring yourself to do that, then you should call her Kum-La or KUM-A-La. Just don’t call her Ka-MA-La. She doesn’t. We don’t. And that’s not her name. While I think a great next step would be for Kamala to unpack why she picked the pronunciation she did, the undisputedly correct one is: Vice President Harris.