Sometime last week, in the effort to teach my niece a new name, I asked her to repeat after me the name of one of my Northeastern friends. And she did it with ease. (To those of us from ‘mainland’ India, the names of those from Northeast India generally tend to be harder to pronounce).
Not only did my niece do so with utmost ease but her facial expression did not suggest any peculiarity or oddity at the mention of the name. This, unsurprisingly, left my sister-in-law and I in a state of wonder.
As I later began to reflect on this briefly profound moment, I realised how we adults react to the sound of unfamiliar names in a way that ends up reflecting our perceptions and prejudices, not only to the name, or the person, but to an entire community.
It is true that all of us find certain names harder to pronounce than some others. This is okay. It is completely normal.
The problem is when people, at the mention of certain names, snicker without an iota of discomfort at having done so.
The problem is when we attach desirability and morality to the person/community based on how the names sound to our ears.
The problem is when we refrain from learning the right pronunciation because any attempt in doing so exposes our vulnerability; our inability to ‘master’ a word, a name.
The problem is when we associate the commonality of names to solemnity and grace.
And yet, to the child I was in conversation with, it was just another name. Just another name she willingly repeated, willingly learnt, willingly accepted, without any discomfort or reservation that often comes to define adults like us.
My little niece taught me that learning to pronounce a new name not only shows how open we are to others and other cultures, but importantly underlines the verity that we are—despite our beliefs, cultures, traditions, and appearances—never more important than we think we are.
My three-year old niece taught me that we can approach each name and each person with dignified respect and joy when we approach them with a mind free of biased and conditioned thinking.
That we can learn new names with a delight that cannot be hidden is surely a possibility. All we need to do is to make the effort to learn; learn without wearing a condescending sneer.
By Arvind Theodore
Arvind Theodore is a PhD student at Union Theological Seminary, NYC in the field of Social Ethics. His interests lie in the areas of liberation ethics, Dalit studies, protest and resistance, gender and sexuality studies, and cinema and caste. Arvind is also the author of Church and Human Sexuality and blogs at Reflections.