courage can't see around corners but goes around them anyway. ~Mignon McLaughlin

What's in a name?

As a shy chubby teenager, there were two features about myself that I always liked: my hazel eyes and my name. Victoria Kirk is a strong name (thanks, Mom). I also have synesthesia, which means that when I hear words and numbers, I see colours and shapes in my minds eye. To me, the name “Victoria” is a mixture of deep ruby reds and violets; “Kirk” is slightly more vivid pinky red. These happen to be my favorite colours, so I really like my name and I’ve never wanted to change it.

After my Mom and Dad divorced, Mom changed her surname to Edwards-Kirk to remain publicly connected to me. Then, a few years later, she dropped the Kirk. I said I didn’t mind but I did. I love my Mom. She was jazzed about her new name and who could blame her? She was single. She was a knock out. Why would she want to cart around the last name of her deadbeat ex?

Naturally, the question arose: did I want to change my name to Edwards, too? In my weird little world, “Edwards” is kind of yellow and orange, flat and rectangular, and generally kind of…eh? Not even the grand ruby and violet “Victoria” could jazz up that puppy. So, no, I didn’t change my name. The decision had nothing to do with any allegiance to my father. I just liked my name.

Fast forward twenty years. I’m married and I still haven’t changed my name. It’s 2009 – plenty of modern women don’t take their husbands’ names for a thousand perfectly benign reasons. (Legal name changes also happen to be a royal pain in the ass.)

But there’s another large factor weighing on my mind. The meaning of my Indian husband’s surname.

Names signify a persons social status and value in Indian society at a level that we Westerners can hardly fathom anymore. Sure, we might distinguish where someones ancestors hail from by their last name, unless they descend from American immigrants whose names were butchered or altogether changed by the officials at Ellis Island (remember how Vito Corleone got his last name in The Godfather?) Even earlier, in the Middle Ages, a tradesman’s surname was the very title of his trade (John Builder, the architect. Joe Mason, the stone mason). Our surnames used to place us squarely in the social heirarchy of the land. It doesn’t so much in western society anymore but it sure does in India. This fascinates me and bugs the hell out of me at the same time.

Kiran has taught me that a Patel or a Mehta is Gujarati, a Ramachandran probably from South India, Anand most likely Sindhi, Sharma from Kashmir. It’s a little game to me, but it has far more meaning for Indians because your surname doesn’t just denote your ancestor’s region, it indicates your caste. The caste system is supposedly abolished and obsolete.Kiran flies this flag high and proud in every conversation. But it’s not dead. I cannot deny the odd feeling I get whenever an Indian asks me Kiran’s name. Owal, not Owhal or any other recognisable name that sounds similar. Nobody can place the name because it’s uncommon and in India that means it comes without social pedigree.

I had no idea the kind of social prejudice I was walking into when I fell in love with Kiran. I just fell in love with who he was: his intelligence and ambition, his goofy sense of humour and, of course, his undeniable talent. The man’s got guts. When he finally told me he loved me on St Patrick’s Day 2006, he said “I don’t know how this is going to work or how I’m going to convince my parents, but I am never going to leave you.” And I knew that he meant it just as sure as I know my name. I fell for a man whose first name, Kiran, means ray of light, who loves me and whom I deeply respect.

Now, we’ve never met with any trouble because of his surname or anything. We’ve run into trouble trying to get a hotel room together in Bombay. That’s another entry entirely. But I do notice Indians will say “Owal. Aha…” and there’s an odd pregnant pause, like I just belched and they’re trying to ignore it.

One dear friend of mine from Delhi explained what lived in that pause a few years ago. She said she was concerned because she could tell a lot about his family from his name. There was a social and intellectual gap that would be too difficult to live with and she felt I would be the one to suffer the most. Her remarks were quite explicit but I choose not to share them in detail because it really *really* hurt to hear it the first time and writing it over hear gives it a life it doesn’t deserve. I appreciate why she shared her concerns: she was explaining aspects of this foreign culture I was marrying and warning me about potential pain points. Fine. Sometimes the truth hurts. Her words hurt because these were fears I, myself, already had.

My family in America have not yet met Kiran. They only know what I share about him and what they hear from other Indians or people who are familiar with Indian culture. Out of understandable curiosity, they want to know his last name. Maybe they know it has some sort of meaning. Maybe they don’t. Maybe I think to damn much. Why the hell do I care? Why am I playing my husband’s PR agent, for chrissake? After a long steady conquest, Kiran and I finally live together in London, the most multicultural city in the entire world, full of interracial “zebra” couples just like us. We’re accepted. Nobody here pauses to ponder the name Owal. That’s half the beauty of being here! (The other half is being able to smooch in public and book hotel rooms without having to prove that we’re married!) But because we began our life together in India I’m a little more sensitive to tacit prejudice. Old hurts die hard sometimes. And if you hurt him, you hurt me.

So, back to the name.
A few years ago, Kiran suggested we both hyphenate our last names and become the Kirk-Owals. Sweet thought, especially coming from a man. But I think his name is fabulous on its own and it’s his professional trademark. It rings in my mind and makes a bold red, black and blue pattern. I used to think I’d change it after we have a kid because want to have the same last name as my children. But it bothers me when I get letters from the bank addressed to Mrs Kirk, instead of Mrs Owal because I ticked the ‘married’ box. But Victoria Owal? The vowel transition from the “a” in Victoria to the “O” in Owal is a but muddy, though. Victoria Owal is sort of a mouthful. For now, I’m still ruby red, violet and pink Victoria Kirk.


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