What’s in a name? If you are a child of immigrants growing up in the America, apparently everything.
I remember spending a lot of time obsessing about what I would name my first child. Indeed, all first-time parents obsess over finding the perfect name for their child. But we faced a particular challenge being Indian. After all, hadn’t we had enough of our names being mispronounced? Weren’t we tired of spelling out our long last names only to hear the other guy say “am sorry, could you repeat that”?
Maybe we should do our kid a favor and just stick to two syllables so the name would be easy to pronounce. There were certain letters we would have to avoid…those soft d’s and soft t’s that native English speakers never seemed to be able to pronounce….those were always going to be a problem. And we would have to be careful to avoid giving the child a name that would mean something totally gross in another language or which kids would make fun of.
Wouldn’t you know it? We ended up falling in love with a name that broke almost all our rules.
Sitting on a hospital bed holding our daughter for the first time, we chose the name Aditi(uh-thi(as in this), thi (like in thing)), a fairly common name in India, but one of those evergreen names that has persisted through the generations. Aditi literally means boundless or limitless. Aditi also happens to be the name of an ancient Vedic Goddess, mother of the Sun and all other celestial beings, once worshiped as the female creator of the cosmos. A boundless, limitless, Cosmic Goddess. Yup, that’s what we thought of when we held our daughter and so that’s what we named her.
This story is lost on my now 6-year old, of course. Tired of being called A-dee-tee, she has resorted lately to deliberately mispronouncing her name to make it easier for others. And all my grand lectures on her name being an important part of her identity and full of meaning has only been followed by “Yes, but I wish you had called me something else.”
So I was really happy to come across this new book from Bharat Babies, Always Anjali, by Sheetal Sheth.
In this wonderfully illustrated picture book, Anjali is a typical seven-year old growing up in America, excited about getting a new bike for a birthday present and waiting to ride it with her friends Mary and Courtney at the school carnival. But when the girls decide to get personalized license plates at a bike booth, Anjali is suddenly reminded that she is different from her friends, as she finds that there isn’t a license plate bearing her name.
“They are not going to have a plate for someone like you, ANN- JELLY”, an older boy, Zachary, taunts. “Can I get a peanut butter an-jelly sandwich with a dot on top?” he teases and other kids start joining in.
Anjali goes home in tears and tells her parents at dinner that she wishes to change her name to Angie. Her mother explains to her later that night that her name has a special meaning – divine gift – in Sanskrit and is part of her Indian identity. “Be proud of who you are, Anjali. To be different is to be marvelous.”
Anjali doesn’t seem quite convinced at first, but then something wonderful happens. She decides to do something about her situation. She makes her own license plate with her name on it and then totally owns up to her Indian identity, personalizing it with bindis that made the license plate sparkle. When she shows it off at school the next day, everyone wants a license plate with bindis, just like hers! And Anjali discovers for herself that it is wonderful to be different from the crowd.
Later, when she runs into Zachary the bully, she brushes off his taunts and rides away on her bike. “She had places to go and didn’t have time for foolishness.”
My daughter has read this story over and over again since she got it and I can see why. It resonates with her in every way. A character that looks like her and deals with the same challenges that she does and most of all, shows her the way forward. I love that Sheth empowered Anjali to take action instead of feeling sorry for herself. I also loved that she ended up ignoring the bully and didn’t let him stop her from enjoying her ride. Don’t let the haters define who you are, kids.
Jessica Blank does a wonderful job with the illustrations. I loved that Anjali’s room was filled with all the toys of a typical American kid, with just a hint of Indian flavor with the Tablas. It is a perfect reminder that immigrant kids do not have to choose between cultures, they can embrace both.
Do not miss the wonderful quotes in the front and the back of the book from famous Indian-American celebrities talking about their own struggles with their names and how they learned to embrace their identities. Clearly, this was a book that many of them could have used when they were growing up.