My wife has just given birth to a son. Tomorrow, the 12th day after he was born, our family will perform an ancient but simple Hindu ritual. We will sing a prayer and make a small offering to the gods, after which I will put my lips to his little ear and say to him three times: "Your name is 'Satya.'" Thirty-seven years ago, in Delhi, my father observed the same rite, intoning my name thrice into my right ear.
Satya [SUT-ya] is the Sanskrit word for "truth." For me, and for my wife, it has two clear virtues as a name: its meaning is a handsome one, and its brevity sits snugly with my protracted surname.
We arrived at Satya after a process that was as arduous, and almost as lengthy, as the boy's gestation. Parents will always quarrel over their child's name--with each other, with friends, with relatives. There is no privacy in the process, and a number of names, which I cherished fleetingly, fell by the wayside as soon as someone said, "You can't call him that!" These battles over a baby's name are magnified when a parent is, like I am, not from a Judeo-Christian background.
Although my American wife has her roots in North Carolina, she was rather keen that her son should have an Indian name. My initial protestations that he should, perhaps, be called "something American" were given the shortest shrift. Walter was simply out of the question, as was Lancelot.
Naming a child is not easy for parents in America who come from non-European backgrounds, from cultures where Ashutosh, Chae-Hyun and Naeem are common names. We have to ask ourselves a number of important questions. How will the child's foreign name sound to American ears? (That test ruled out Shiva, my family deity; a Jewish friend put her foot down.)
Will it provoke bullies to beat him up on the school playground? (That was the end of Karan, the name of a warrior from the Mahabharata, the Hindu epic. A boy called 'Karen' wouldn't stand a chance.)
Will it be as euphonic in New York as it is in New Delhi? (That was how Sameer failed to get off the ground. 'Like a bagel with a schmear!' said one ruthless well-wisher.)
There were other questions: Does it make a jarring sound, especially when mispronounced--as it surely will be--by other people? Does it mean something rude in English? Will he have to spend the rest of his life spelling it out over the telephone, letter by wretched letter?
We've also noted names that sound American when shortened to nicknames, like Samar (Sam), Ishaan (Sean) and Sidhartha (Sid). Our problem with these Indian names--I call them "Ameronyms"--is that they limited us to a meager short list. Besides, they are growing to be rather common among Indians in this country.
But one evening, about a month ago, my wife called excitedly from the next room. She'd found a name for our son at last. Leafing through a book of Indian baby names--published in Bombay and purchased by us in Jackson Heights, Queens--she had come across Satya. Here was an Indian name that didn't sound American. It couldn't even be snipped or tweaked to sound American. But we loved it so much that we forgot America. We were naming him for ourselves, after all, and not for America. We can hardly wait, now, to whisper the words: "Your name is Satya."