It all started innocently.
Prof Hepworth asked, with a playful smile on his face, “How should I call you?”
I had a bit of difficulty in understanding him. “You mean my name?”, I replied hesitatingly.
“Yes, it is a bit long.” And he went on to add, “In this country we usually shorten names for convenience. William becomes Bill, Andrew becomes Andy, and so on. You understand?”
I understood perfectly. Nicknames were very common for Bengalis in India, and I had a few of my own. They were not given for convenience (in fact they were not given for any particular reason at all), but faced with Prof Hepworth’s question, I figured one of my Bengali nicknames would do fine.
“Sure. You can call me Deb.”
I was Prof Hepworth’s “freshly minted” teaching assistant. We were meeting on the second day of my life on the campus. Prof Hepworth was a friendly fellow, and after going over my responsibilities, he was trying to teach me a few things about student life in America. “Don’t call me ‘sir’. Call me Malcolm, or Prof Hepworth, but no ‘sir’. I know you did that in India but ‘sir’ is too formal here,” he told me. “And don’t get up from your chair every time I come in. We are a very informal country,” he added. “Yes, sir,” I stammered. He gave a knowing smile that seemed to say, “You will learn in time.”
And I did learn in time. A lot, in fact.
Fifty long years have passed since that innocent introduction to the American practice of shortening first names for the sake of convenience -- and my equally innocent assumption that Bengali nicknames were appropriate answers to that American social requirement. Little did I know on that day that the quick Americanization of my first name would launch me on a “name game” that I would have to play for the rest of my life.
Let me first educate my non-Bengali readers about the Bengali obsession with nicknames. Bengali parents, like parents everywhere, give their newborns formal names. But unlike parents in other parts of India, educated Bengali parents shun plebeian names, and instead find rather dressy names for their offspring to show off their love of literature, music or some other form of fine arts. Then they go one step further. They don’t call their children by those carefully chosen fancy names. Instead, the parents lovingly bestow upon their poor kids a few “nicknames”, the more the merrier. These nicknames are sometimes abbreviated forms of their formal, dressy names, as in America. For example, Indrajeet may become Jeet, Susmita may morph into Mita. Far more common, however, is the practice of totally dissociating the children from their carefully chosen dramatic names and creating completely alien avatars in the form of weird – but supposedly endearing – nicknames. Pallav may thus transform into any or all of such totally unrelated nicknames (ranging from adorable to downright insulting) as Poltu, Patla, Pagol, Shorty, Handu or Guru! As the kids grow and come in contact with ever-increasing circles of family members and friends, their nicknames grow exponentially in number and in weirdness. Interestingly, most victims of this Bengali “name game” take their ever-expanding repertoire of nicknames in good stride. Bengalis are fatalistic by nature, so they probably resign themselves to their unavoidable fate. Why fight the battle that you can’t win?
In terms of nicknames, I had a deprived childhood. I only had four nicknames: Deb, Debu, Khokan and Bantu. As you can see, Deb and Debu are rather unimaginative abbreviation and alteration of my glorious name, Debajyoti (literary meaning being “halo of god”) So, I actually had two unrelated nicknames: Khokan and Bantu. Peeling one more layer of the Bengali name onion, Khokan is like the Bengali version of “kid” or “little one”. So, Khokan couldn’t be counted as a serious nickname by any self-respecting Bengali. I had, after all, only one real nickname: Bantu. True to the first rule of the Bengali name game, the relationship between my formal name, Debajyoti, and my nickname, Bantu, was totally unfathomable. (Bantu was the name lovingly given to me by one of my sisters, and although it was a really weird name, I wore it as a badge of honor because no one among my friends had such a strange nickname).
With that tutorial on Bengali formal names and nicknames behind us, you can probably see why Deb was my natural offering at the altar of my Americanization. I was happy that Prof Hepworth had gracefully accepted my offering.
Not much happened on the name front during my four-and-half years of graduate studies at Purdue University. There were about forty graduate students in my department, and all but one was a girl. And her name was Geraldine but everyone called her Gerry. I was not educated enough in the American Name Game at that time to discern the subtle (actually, not all that subtle) difference between Gerry and Jerry, nor was I knowledgeable enough to know that I had inadvertently embraced a female name for myself.
No one at the male-dominated, engineering-focused university revealed to me that in the Western world, Deb (and Debbie) was the shortened form of Deborah, a common Judeo-Christian female name. My dozen or so Bengali friends on campus were largely indifferent to my name change. To them, my “Americanized” name was a reasonably good choice. They were relieved that I had not chosen some “really American” name like Robert or Paul – or heaven forbid, Christian. Like me, they were clueless about Deb being a female name in America.
I was not made aware of my “womanhood” until I went to do post-doctoral research at the Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio. There was a tall, slim secretary in the department where I worked, and her name was Debbie. Jack Smith, my technician, was delighted to give me daily reminders. Some days he would say, “Hey Deb, you are not as pretty as the other Deb!” Some other days he would teasingly call me “Dr. Debbie”. Good hearted leg pulling it was, and we had a fun time together.
I should have been sensitive to the name confusion and re-christened myself at that time but I didn’t think that the female-ness of my name would make any difference in my personal or professional life. I let the matter pass.
The name game got a bit complicated when I joined GE’s Research & Development Center in Schenectady, NY. It was a big research lab with almost 1500 people, and I was unnoticed at first, female name notwithstanding. People were busy with their work, and so was I. Soon I found myself getting promoted to a fairly responsible position. To win that position, I had to compete against three other candidates. The list of candidates had to be vetted by our Senior Vice President, Dr. Art Bueche (a student of Peter Debye, the famous Nobel laureate in physical chemistry), before the hiring manager could interview any of them. Because of that process, Dr. Bueche was familiar with my name and resume but had not met me in person. Once I was chosen for the job, he invited me to his office to get to know me better. As I entered and introduced myself, there was a flash of confusion over his face. I guess he had expected to meet a 31-year old female, named Deb Chatterji, appointed to a management position with his own blessing! He recovered quickly and went on to chat amiably but kept calling me “Deberly” (for reasons unknown to me then and even now). In fact, for the following ten years, he always addressed me as Deberly, and neither I nor anyone else corrected him. Everybody must have thought he and I had a special relationship, and intrusion might not have been wise. And I was too awed by Dr. Bueche to risk embarrassing him.
One of the more memorable turns of the name game transpired after I had been promoted to an even higher position. The year was 1979, and I had just climbed to the rank of a General Manager (with a different title because I was in R&D, not in the operating divisions of the company). In that capacity, I was invited to attend the annual meeting of all such managers and hobnob with the members of the company’s executive committee, including the CEO/Chairman. The meeting was taking place in a fancy resort, and as per instructions, I arrived the evening before the day the meeting started. When I entered my hotel room, I found myself in a two-bedroom suite, with a large living room. A beautiful flower arrangement, an ice bucket with two bottles of champagne and two newspapers were conspicuously placed on the large cocktail table. Was I impressed! I thought that I had finally arrived at that station in corporate life where I was entitled to such royal treatment as a matter of routine.
The evening was young, so I put on my pajamas, opened a bottle of champagne, and read the newspapers. After finishing half of the bottle, I shuffled off to one of the bedrooms and fell sleep, leaving newspapers spread all over the living room and half-eaten fruit casually left on the cocktail table. I woke up the next morning with a start and realized that it was close to the meeting time. I hurriedly dressed up and ran to the meeting room.
A couple of hours later, as I sat listening to a senior executive talking about the company’s business plans for the year ahead, there was a gentle tap on my shoulder. A young woman, no more than 25 years old, was signaling me to come out of the conference room. I followed her to the reception desk in the lobby area where she politely asked me if I was Deb Chatterji. When I said yes, she very apologetically inquired if I would mind changing my room. Fresh from the heady experience of champagne and flowers, I strongly declined her offer. She pleaded a couple of more times and was then forced to reveal the reason behind her request.
The conference organizers had apparently spotted that a new female general manager, named Deb Chatterji, would be in attendance in addition to Ms. Marion Kellogg, the first and only female Vice President in GE as of that time. Marion Kellogg was a regular at these conferences because of her rank but Deb Chatterji was a newcomer. The organizers figured that it would be nice to put the two women together in a suite and let them get to know each other. Unfortunately, Marion had walked into the suite that morning and was surprised to find men’s clothing strewn all over the bed in one of the rooms, with the door ajar. She had complained at the reception desk, and after some sleuthing, the reception desk had learned that Deb Chatterji was a man, not a woman. Imagine the embarrassment of the organizers upon the discovery of this fact! They were now trying to dig themselves out of a hole, and I was not cooperating.
Once I learned what had happened I gracefully agreed to pack up my clothes and move to a “regular” room in the resort. That was a fine room by all standards but not as luxurious as the suite I had to vacate. My experience with royal treatment ended after only one night.
For most professionals in management position, frequent traveling on business is a given, and I had to do my share when I was at GE. Washington, DC, was a frequent destination for me because of government-funded research contracts that I had to negotiate and manage. One Friday afternoon I found myself at the National Airport (now Reagan National) with a member of my team. Our meeting in town had ended earlier than expected, and we had put our names on the waiting list for an earlier flight back to Albany, NY. We then started chatting, drinking coffee, reading newspapers, etc. to keep ourselves occupied. When I heard my name being called over the public address system, I got up, went to the agent at the gate and got my seat assignment. When I returned, my friend had a surprised look on his face. “They were calling for a Khatterhi. How on earth did you figure that they were calling for you?”, he asked, truly puzzled. “When you have a name like mine, you get used to every possible permutation and combination of the first as well as the last name,” I replied. (The gate agent had apparently given up on my first name – and figured that my last name was of Hispanic origin, so she pronounced Ch as K and j as h, as in Spanish. But being an experienced name game player, I could instinctively recognize my last name even though it had been utterly mangled.
After ten years in GE I was recruited by a new employer, The BOC Group. A few weeks after I had settled in my new office in Murray Hill, NJ, I found a somewhat racy catalog in my inbox. It was from Victoria’s Secret, with pictures of mostly voluptuous women in scantily clad lingerie! This was in 1983, and receiving such a catalog at your workplace was uncomfortable, to say the least. I was even more surprised to see a note attached to the catalog by my secretary. It said, “Smee may have ordered this.” (Smee or Sikha being my wife). I was baffled, and as I turned the pages of the catalog in the privacy of my office (surreptitiously checking out the over-endowed models), I discovered that the catalog was addressed to “Ms. Deb Chatterji”. I figured that somehow my name had been caught in the marketing dragnet of Victoria’s Secret as a prospective client. But why did my secretary stick the note about my wife? I walked out of my office and sheepishly asked her, “What’s this note about Smee?” She smiled and said, “Boss, I didn’t know if you had ordered this catalog for yourself or it came as junk mail. I figured I couldn’t just toss it out, in case you wanted this catalog for some reason.” She had a mischievous smile. “I wrote that Smee may have ordered this to avoid mutual embarrassment.”. How clever of her! I admired her creativity and sense of duty mixed with a good sense of humor. She turned out to be a first-rate secretary, and in time became a good family friend.
Soon after joining BOC I went to Japan to review our subsidiary’s R&D programs. Sam Waldman was the head of our Japanese operations, and we had a short introductory meeting in his office in Osaka before heading off to the laboratory site. Before leaving, Sam asked his administrative assistant to get business cards made for me right away in Japanese (with English version on the reverse side). This is a time-honored practice in Japan, and the administrative assistant took my card and promised that my business cards would be ready when we returned in the afternoon.
When we were back in Sam’s office around 5 pm, his assistant wanted to talk to him in private. Sam was a very informal and outgoing guy, and he commanded his assistant to discuss the matter in front of me – no need for privacy, he proclaimed The poor assistant hesitated quite a bit and then burst out, “I didn’t think it would be a good idea to get Dr. Chatterji’s card made in Japanese.” Sam showed his irritation right away, “Why not? He will need it tomorrow morning when I take him to see some of our clients!” The assistant didn’t know how to handle the situation but after a few seconds, said haltingly, “People may laugh when they read Dr. Chatterji’s card.” Now she had our undivided attention!
She explained in a slow and awkward manner that the Japanese would instinctively read Deb as Debu, because they always added a vowel at the end of a word if the word ended in a consonant (except for words that ended in “n” like Nissan or Nippon). For my name, that added vowel would be “u”. Unfortunately, “Debu’ in Japanese language meant “fat”. Sam’s assistant was afraid that our clients, when presented with my card, would be embarrassed to greet me as “Fat Chatterji” (It was the Japanese custom to read out the guest’s name from the card and then shake hands).
Needless to say, we openly admired the office assistant’s perspicacity and thanked her for not printing my business card. We then put our heads together to address the “crisis” (not having a business card was unimaginable in the conservative and rigid business world of Japan). We finally figured out the solution: print my name simply as “Dr. D. Chatterji”! Not a very imaginative solution, but it worked fine because people addressed visiting foreigners by their last names anyway. The assistant ran to the press somewhere nearby, and my cards were ready by the time we finished dinner at a neighborhood restaurant. When we visited clients over the next few days I was cheerfully greeted as “Dr. Chatterji’, and my first name was thankfully hidden from their attention.
With age comes experience. From experience grows wisdom. For me it took the best part of five decades to get wiser about my Americanized name. When I turned 70 a couple of years back, I suddenly discovered something that was in plain sight for all those years. Why not re-christen myself as Dave? A reasonable derivative of Deb and clearly less confusing and more gender specific. Americans would have found Dave as a perfectly acceptable way of addressing me -- and it would not have embarrassed my Japanese hosts or the GE conference organizers or confounded the gate agent at the DC airport. Even my patriotic Bengali friends at Purdue in the sixties would have accepted that name without blaming me for shamelessly selling out my Bengali heritage to become an “American”. With my newly found wisdom I now introduce myself as “Dave Chatterji” to non-Indians when I am meeting them for the first time.
I have to admit, however, that had I not innocently adopted my Bengali nickname as my “American name”, I would have been deprived of many memorable experiences. I was not a total loser in the name game, after all.
Life, after all, is a strand of memories, held together by actions and events.
(Posted June 1, 2017)
The Name Game:
Hazards of Hasty Americanization
Note: Readers interested in commenting on this article should email their remarks to firstname.lastname@example.org or
Comments received from Suvro D. on June 1, 2017: "I enjoyed reading your experiences as "Deb"".
Comments received from Manisha R. on June 2, 2017: "I really enjoyed "The Name Game: Hazards of Hasty Americanization." You managed to keep the tension and humor throughout the piece. Writing from real life experience often poses the problem of losing the tension because though reality can be stranger than fiction, it does not always lend itself to the writing conventions. People who write both fiction and non-fiction know the problem but a good writer can write a non-fiction piece that reads like fiction. Fiction has the advantage of using imagination without limit. In a non-fiction piece that's not possible. However, other writers may not agree with what I just said."
Comments received from Shekhar G. on June 4, 2017:
"I enjoyed your nice article on the problems you had with your self-assigned nickname. The episodes you recount are all quite funny.
May I throw in a few thoughts that came to mind on reading it?
A few years ago, a Bangladeshi colleague and friend, a rather strict Bangla-lover like your Purdue friends, named his newborn son Anirban. Discussing the name to a few of us at work, he said that they will use the nickname as Ani, to make it easier on Americans.
Hearing that, a white American colleague pointed out that such a name will cause much trouble for the boy in school, where he will be teased a lot for having a girl's name of Annie.
Similar issues arise with the common name Joy, popular both as bhalonaam and daaknaam for boys. Some cleverly change Joy to Jay, like the way you finally changed Deb to Dave.
The pronunciation of your last name as Khatterhi reminded me of a Car Talk episode, in which a caller with same last name as yours started, on his own, to spell it out, saying C, H, A etc.
Ray Magliozzi stopped him before he could go much further, saying, you don't have to spell Chatterjee, we know that last name well. Ray pronounced it perfectly.
NPR also had a reporter named Ritu Chatterjee for a while, but I don't hear her any more.
The last name Chakrabarty is now becoming familiar to NPR listeners because of Meghna Chakrabarty from WBUR, who occasionally hosts the show called Here and Now. I like the Americanized way she says Chakrabarty."
Comments received from Pijush C. on June 4, 2017:"A good article by you. a lot of immigrants can relate to your experiences."
Comments received from Manash R. on October 6, 2017: "I read with deep interest your whole article in your web magazine. It was very well written with references to Bengali nicknames and your adopting Deb as a nickname. The story about getting a suite at a meeting was hilarious. Really funny. Glad you had half a bottle of the champagne.
I loved how you wrote the whole piece. It was engrossing really.
I have a nephew who is a renowned orthopedic surgeon. His good name is Rodraprasad Baidyaroy. Related to Suprasad of course. His nick name is BUBAI. I also have a class mate who is now retiring as the head of the Exim Bank. Prior to that he was head of IDBI Bank in India. His nickname is Pocha. Go figure."