Immigrant Bengalis

An Immigrant's Dilemma - What's in a name?
Gautam Bandyopadhyay

I arrived in Berkeley, CA from Kolkata on Sep 21, 1969 to start my graduate studies in engineering.  The next day, I went to my department in the University of California, Berkeley campus and met Prof. Fulrath; I had communicated with him from India during my application process.  He was a tall handsome gentleman in his late 40s.  He extended his welcoming arm to shake hands and started to say, “good to finally meet you Mr. Bandy…….”  But he stumbled with my 13-letter last name Bandyopadhyay.  I smiled and politely tried to help him walk through the pronunciation in my usual well-practiced response from many similar previous situations, “it is not as difficult as it looks…. the ‘y’s are silent… etc. etc.”  He listened carefully and then asked me with a grin on his face, “Can I call you Gus?”

I did not know what he meant by his question.  I nervously looked at him.  The next thing I heard from him was, “So Gus, now that you are here…” and he continued his instructions for me for what I needed to do to get started in the department.  In the next ten minutes of this conversation, he called me a few times with my new ‘name’, and he introduced me to his secretary as ‘Gus’.  The secretary smiled and said, “welcome”.

Prof. Fulrath then instructed me to take a 15-minute ride in a shuttle bus to go up the Berkeley Hills to Lawrence Radiation Laboratory (now known as Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory) to do the necessary paperwork related to my research. The financial assistantship that I received from the university was awarded from this lab.  Before I left for this new location, he had called a number at the Lawrence Lab and, once again, referred to me as Gus and requested them to help me when I got there.

As I was walking out of the building, I was a little confused.  Did it mean that suddenly I had a new name for myself?This is not what I expected during my first visit to the campus.  Not surprisingly, when I got to the office of the Lawrence Lab, the young lady welcomed me with my newly acquired name.   

The name given to me by my Ph. D. Professor in Berkeley within the first five minutes of our meeting stuck with me throughout my professional career for the next 50 years!!  As much as I disliked using a ‘cooked-up’ name with my western colleagues, I realized over time that this solved an unanticipated problem for me in my working life in USA – it was an easy way out from explaining every time what to do with the floating ‘y’s in my last name.

Actually, most westerners would agree that my first name ‘Gautam’ is not too difficult to say, but just looking at the 13-letter y-infested last name, most people are intimidated, and they would not even try my simple first name.  But switching to ‘Gus’ took that uneasy feeling out from the conversation and made me less of a ‘foreigner’ to them.   So, I made peace with my professor-given name for my entire professional career for the last 50+ years.

This was not the only time that I was surprised with a name change in my life.  It happened once before in 1962.  Prior to my Higher Secondary (high school) final examination, I submitted all necessary forms with ‘Goutam Banerjee’ as my official name that had existed in my school admission record ever since I joined school in third grade.  Surprisingly, the official certificate came back as ‘Gautam Bandyopadhyay’; the spelling of the first name was changed and the last name was changed as well to the longer original Indian version of the name Banerjee. The Board of Secondary Education, West Bengal took it upon themselves to make these changes without my knowledge and consent!!

The change in the spelling of my first name was not a problem. Bengalis use many variations of English spelling for even common and popular names. Some standardization was not necessarily bad for the naming system.  However, I was annoyed and upset with the change in my last name, although to me or to my family, Banerjee and Bandyopadhyay were the same surnames.  In my mind, all Bengalis knew that too.  Bandyopadhyay is the original Sanskrit version and a common last name of Brahmins from the Bengal region of India. This was a mouthful for the Britishers during the colonial period just like the way it appeared to my professor when he first saw the spelling.  Thus, the anglicized and simpler version of the same last name evolved as Banerjee.  The two names coexisted peacefully in Bengali society without any conflict.  The default identity was almost always the shorter, simpler version used for all normal communications and records such as the official school records.  The longer Indian version was commonly used for Bengali social occasions such as weddings.  It was never a confusion to those familiar with this peculiar nuance.  

Incidentally, Banerjees were not the only victims of such name changes by the West Bengal Board of Secondary Education; other common anglicized Bengali names such as Mukherjee, Chatterjee, Ganguly were also changed to the original Sanskrit forms of Mukhopadhyay, Chattopadhyay, and Gangopadhyay, respectively. Furthermore, many other common Bengali last names that were often spelled in many different ways were changed to a standardized version as dictated by the bureaucrats.  

I was never sure why the West Bengal Board of Secondary Education took it upon themselves to make this major change officially without consent.  It was possible that after Indian independence, the country was in the mood of Indianizing everything including names impacted by the British colonization.  Even new names for cities such as Kolkata for Calcutta, or Mumbai for Bombay, were a few of those well-known changes back to the original Indian versions. My anglicized last name appeared to become a victim to this Indianizing hype of the moment!

Unfortunately, my earlier belief that everybody knew that Banerjee and Bandyopadhyay were variations of the same name was grossly unfounded. Most people, including many Bengalis outside of Bengal, did not know this simple fact. I learned this when I took my first job in Bombay.  My instinct was to introduce myself to my new colleagues and friends as Banerjee (by habit and my identity in my youth), but most of them would have a bewildered look - they thought I had a different name!   Then I went through this monologue of how both names were the same etc. etc., but no matter how many times I explained and wanted to go back to Banerjee, my effort failed.  I realized then that, thanks to the whim of the West Bengal Board of Education, my identity from my youth was changed forever.  Suddenly, I developed a strong empathy for women who had to give up their maiden names after marriage and had to get used to their new identities. Thankfully this policy was abandoned after a few years; the newer generations do not have to go through this unwanted trauma!

After several failed attempts to teach my new colleagues and friends of the origin of my name, I gave up and started to use Bandyopadhyay in my conversations and communications. I reluctantly accepted the change.  

When I arrived in America, I already knew the challenge that I had to face with my last name, but I was well prepared. Thankfully, my Professor made my life easy with a simple solution that saved me from explaining every time that the surname should be pronounced without the ‘y’s and the pronunciation was like BAN-DO-PAD-HI, and the silent ‘y’s were there because the spelling mimicked the Bengali spelling!!

Often, I thought about switching my last name back to Banerjee primarily for the convenience of my children.  But my daughters were not in favor of such a change. They told me as adults that they loved having the crazy, long last name when they were in school and college – found the name to be a good discussion topic and a great ice breaker!!  They remained attached to the exotic version and kept it through their college lives and marriages, when they both decided to shift Bandyopadhyay to their middle name.  I was happy to see that they wanted to keep their roots alive for their future generations.

Today I almost forgot my Banerjee identity from my youth.  Despite being reluctant in the beginning, I am a happy Bandyopadhyay now for more than 50 years.  In America, I have become used to the fact that my name would be mauled or would become the subject of funny comments every time it needed to be announced at the airport or any other location.  I have learnt to wait and focus on the announcer to see that curious and uncomfortable look as they try to decipher the spelling, and before they could say anything, I would jump in and identify myself. Like the colonial times, westerners are still struggling to figure out the role of the 3 ‘y’s in pronouncing my surname!!

Despite all these practical difficulties, I was surprised when my wife Jayanti took my last name upon our marriage on her own wish, jettisoning her previous 3-letter last name. Her argument was similar to my daughters' – it is a ‘crazy-long beautiful sounding Bengali name’.  She also liked the fact that it generated a lot of interesting discussions in her academic community with both students and teachers.  Jokingly, she would say, this was one way she could become a ‘Boston Brahmin’, a phrase used to describe the Boston elites in the early colonial days!!

I have to admit that it took me a while to feel comfortable with the name change – I hated to lose my identity from my youth.  Nowadays, whenever I hear a complaint about my difficult name, I would tell them that most school friends of our daughters learnt to pronounce Bandyopadhyay in their grade school and middle school without any difficulty.  If they could do it, everybody should be able to do it.  The question is how willing are you to try?

(Posted April 1, 2024)

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