Meera naam nikita hai
(मेरा नाम निकिता है)
It’s a simple enough start to any conversation, a polite way of introducing yourself. Had the above quote been said by an Indian woman, there would probably be little surprise, with Nikita being a relatively common name in India.
For that reason, when I say the aforementioned words, the reactions are more mixed. Is this blue-eyed, golden haired foreigner joking? Has she adopted an “Indian” name, because her own European name is too difficult for Indian people to pronounce? My friend at the hostel, Kyra, has found this issue particularly tiring, as her name is normally said like the name “Keira” or “Kira”, but here people always default to “Kie-rah”. The only way she has been able to get round this is by explaining that the correct pronunciation of her name is very similar to the Hindi word for cucumber – “kheera”. Cue a lot of laughter, as she not only attends Hospitality college here, but her surname, “Fikke”, bears resemblance to the Hindi word for “tasteless”, not a fantastic combination.
In that sense then I have been far luckier, more people here can spell my name correctly than in Britain (where extra hs, and es, or even the occasional additional k are added) and everyone can pronounce it. Kyra and I often laugh when we introduce ourselves to Indian people, as we pre-empt their reaction to each of our names.
The reaction of most Indian people to my name is the incredulous outburst “but that’s a Hindi name?”. They then usually insist on finding out how I got my name (especially important I guess because in traditional Indian culture, all names have literal meanings, and even the first letter of a child’s name might be deduced from the astrological calculations of a priest). My appearance normally rules out the idea of Indian heritage or ancestry, and people are quite disappointed by the reply “my parents just liked the name”. Names are virtually sacred here, so the idea that I might have just been given a name with a “nice sound” (or, in reality, from the 1993 French Film of the Year La Femme Nikita) seems unbelievable to a lot of people here. However, it does get people talking to me!
Our names inevitably change our travelling experience. Whether our name means something ridiculous in another culture, or is unheard of, or actually belongs to a culture that you are immediately judged to not be a part of. I haven’t bothered mentioning to people here that actually, Nikita is also a Russian boys’ name, and my name is also well known in eastern Europe – though as a masculine name.
Names are a crucial part of unlocking meaning in another culture. They represent not just changing tastes and fashions, but a lot about the more ancient heritage of a country. For example, when I tell people that my father’s name is “Paul”, those that have been given an education by Christian schools here respond “St. Paul!”. People then link the name with the Bible, and presume that my family must be quite religious, and that people in the UK are deliberately named for Biblical characters. Likewise, learning the meaning behind the Hindi names of my students has taught me a lot about Hinduism – “Manav”, named for the creator of the world, “Parvati” – one of the trinity of Hindu goddesses, alongside Lakshmi and Saraswati. Of course names can also be adopted for each gender, so “Lakshay” is a male derivative of Lakshmi.
For my own part, I like the fact that my name excites discussion wherever I am, in the UK it is seen as unusual, in eastern Europe it seems misplaced (as a female name) and in India it is a mystery – how did a European with seemingly no links to India end up with this name? Is it a sign of India’s increasing cultural capital in the world? Is it a colonial hang-over, another one of the things that the British stole from India? Regardless, it helps my own introduction to do exactly what any introduction should do – start a whole new conversation with a stranger.