Monday, April 04, 2005

The Rose by any other Name

If only I had known her when I was battling everyone to name J her big and beautiful name, I thought when I first met Mandira Nigam (not her real name of course). A graceful, intelligent and accomplished woman , she looked much younger than her sixty seven years. The difference in our age did not undermine the quality of our friendship.

I was curious to know about her struggles as an immigrant over forty years ago, how she became the most successful Asian doctor in town, what mistakes she had made raising her children. She had accepted with equanimity that they were both failures by conventional wisdom. Mandira was not the one to flinch from the truth.

She was curious about the state of youth, technology and politics in India. Her India was that of the forties and fifties - a country that bore no resemblance to what I knew and could tell her about - the eighties and nineties. We both shared the feeling of incredulity as we traded stories from our experiences.

Discrimination was one of the things we naturally talked about. She being a Indian woman doctor at that time she must have found it hard to make her niche in America. Her anecdotes stayed with me long after we parted ways. Sometimes a trigger will bring them back and I can see Mandira's tranquil, smiling face as she related it to me. No bitterness, no negativity just a tinge of amusement maybe.

Soon after she started out at the local hospital one of her co-workers David said "Would you mind it if I called you Man ? I can't pronounce your name." She shot back "Why not. How about I call you Tom ?" He apologized and mastered the sound of the word Mandira. Years later she had a intern named Venkatachalam work for her. No one in the practice even wanted to take a stab at the name.

One day Mandira told an RN who was calling him Vee "Surprising isn't it that you can pronounce Schwarznegger and that's hardly English but there's no way you can say Ventakachalam. You need to keep trying until you can say this gentleman's name correctly" This in full view of everyone. The man got back his name thanks to Mandira.

Every time someone tries to abbreviate J's name, I remember Mandira fighting for her and her community's dignity so many years ago and tell them politely. "I would really appreciate it if you called her by her full formal name. That name has a beautiful meaning that is lost when hacked arbitrarily. It means a lot to me for people to call her the name I gave her" Most often people comply. I think I have to go through these hoops to this day because there were not enough Mandiras in her time and there still are not.

This one is for you Mandira. Congratulations on becoming grandma. May she have your fire.

No comments: