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When ‘Nikhil’ becomes ‘Nik,’ and ‘Piyush’ becomes ‘Bobby Jindal’

Indian Americans aren't ashamed of our heritage. We just want to go easy on the barista.

The author’s name spelled incorrectly on her coffee order, as per usual. (Courtesy Noopur Bakshi)

At age 4, Piyush Jindal no longer wanted to be Piyush. Enamored by the famous character on the “Brady Bunch,” Piyush decided it would be way cooler to be Bobby. The thing with Indian names, though, is they must have a meaning. An erudite one, if possible. Imagine walking into a gathering of Indian aunties. (We generically call all elders in the household auntie and uncle.) One of the first questions will be, “Beta (child), what is your name?” If you said, “My name is Bobby,” the immediate response would be, “But what is your good name?” indicating that Bobby can, at best, be a nickname.

Piyush “Bobby” Jindal, however, was determined to distance himself from his official name. He earned a degree in political science from Oxford University, served as the president of the University of Louisiana System and became the first Indian American governor of Louisiana, all as Bobby. In both 2008 and 2012, when Piyush Jindal took the oath of office, he began, “I, Bobby Jindal,” though his legal name has never changed.

A lot of us Indian Americans have what is known as our “Starbucks name.” I’m not ashamed of my heritage or upbringing, but it’s much easier for the poor, overwhelmed barista to scream out “Eggnog Latte for Natalie” rather than “for Noopur” — pronounced “nuu-poo-r,” though often mispronounced as New-poor, No-pour or Nu-pour. Your barista is probably not a PhD in orthoepy. If coffee is your choice of poison, you get tired of hearing your name being mutilated every single morning. You don’t mean to alienate your family over a cup of joe, but it’s simply more pleasant to shorten your name to Nik from Nikhil (almost always mispronounced “Ni-kill”) and save everyone the proverbial name-slaughtering.

The issue with Indian names goes beyond the pronounceability factor. It’s one thing to have your name mispronounced; it’s another thing when the mispronunciation makes a perfectly normal, even noble Indian name sound dirty. Take, for example, Hardik. Due to the inability of the American accent to pronounce the soft “d” like it would be pronounced in Indian culture, this unfortunate individual will always be associated with images of porn movies when his name actually means “from the bottom of my heart.” Another name, Harshit, meaning joyful, sounds like something more akin to stallion poop when delivered in an American accent. As you can see, this can get mighty embarrassing, and Hardik and Harshit often choose to become “Harry.”

There is an exception, though. Take Russell Peters. Russell actually is his official first name. Russell, a Canadian, is part of the Anglo-Indian community, which is typically of the Christian faith, so their given names are more Westernized. And in spite of growing up in an Indian household, Peters is not your traditional Spelling Bee winning doctor/engineer. He often makes light of his non-Indian name along with the grief his parents gave him for going off the reservation, so to speak, by becoming a stand-up comedian.

Unfortunately, most ABCD (that’s American-Born Confused Desikids) are not as clear about where they come from as Russell Peters is. While immigrant Indians go down this path to smooth their transition into American culture and adjust to their new life, for second-generation Indians, born and brought up in America, dealing with one’s name is part of a larger identity crisis. They often hear the phrase “White from the inside, brown on the outside.” Their parents try hard to educate them on a culture they will never experience aside from a handful of summer vacations every few years, while they’re dealing with the everyday experience of being an American teenager.

For many children of immigrants, it’s not about adapting. They genuinely feel more like a Harry than they would ever feel like a Hardik. At the end of the day, though, it’s a personal choice. If you “feel white,” as Namrata “Nikki” Haley apparently does (so much so that she identified as white in a 2011 voter registration form, though she was born into an Indian Sikh family), then maybe you’re glad for the opportunity to use an alias, even if your name is a simple one.

Bobby Jindal is another perfect example of this internal dilemma of an American Born Confused Desi. His parents, by all accounts, sound like your typical first-generation immigrant Indians trying to raise their kids with the same cultural values they grew up with in Punjab, India. Only difference is Piyush aka Bobby grew up in a mostly white neighborhood in Baton Rouge, where he probably stood out like Fruit Loops in a bowl of Cheerios.

While it will probably take at least another generation before Indian kids will sport names like Alex and Abby (unless they are a product of an interracial marriage), Indian parents are more cognizant of picking accent-agnostic names. For now, 8-year-old Karishma “Katniss” Patel (you know she’s out there) is nurturing her dream of becoming president in 2052.