The first time I remember my name being mispronounced was when I was 5-years-old, and sitting on the floor of my tiny classroom. It was roll call, and I’d never thought about the fact that my name might be different from everyone else’s.
Up until then, my entire life had been hearing people say my name, and say it right, in many different manners: usually angrily from my father, annoyed from my older brother, or exhausted from my mother.
But it was my name, Geetanjali, and they said it.
I still remember sitting on the scratchy old carpet of my primary school classroom, with my legs crossed, and my curly hair bushy from being brushed over, and twisted into excruciating braids by my mother.
“Gee-“ The teacher stopped at the name, and immediately, I felt my cheeks go pink. Could that be my name she was stumbling over? She hadn’t stumbled over Kathryn, Nicholas, Rafael, or Naomi.
“Geeta-“ She paused again, and all the other kids around me started stifling giggles, and turning to look at me. How did they all know? I felt my shoulders shrink back, my spine curl in on itself. No, no, no.
“Geeta-na-gooly?” She finally said, with a nervous laugh after saying it.
Immediately, the laughter was raucous. It was so loud, and all engulfing. Tears sprang to my eyes, and I didn’t know exactly when I started crying, but suddenly it was a hot downpour on my face as I discreetly shuffled myself to sit at the very back of the small classroom, so nobody could see me, and the laughter wasn’t as loud.
The teacher got everyone to quiet down, and moved on to the next few names, but I simply sat there, chin wobbling, until I felt a tap on my shoulder. I looked up to see one of the teacher aides standing over me, with a warm smile on her face.
“You wanna know something?” She said to me, kindly, like a secret being shared between friends. “I like your name.”
After that first time, I never thought of it again. The teacher didn’t call me by my name, nor did she attempt to pronounce it – and for that I was glad. Instead, she’d do the roll call, and when she got to my name, she’d simply look up and see me siting there, with my hair braided, and tick me off the list.
I didn’t think that much about my name for a while, and it’s now funny to me that all my fellow classmates happily learned how to say my name, but no adult did. Then, one day, we had a relief teacher. He was old, and squinted at a lot of the names on the roll call. He stumbled slightly over any name that was more than two syllables. His voice was gruff.
When he got to my name, he did a double take, then a triple take. And again, slowly, all of my classmates turned to look at me, putting hands over their mouths to keep from laughing and getting in trouble.
Finally, the man simply said “I’m not even going to try with this name. Sharma?” He called out my last name instead, and I put up my hand, shyly. The man stared at me for a long time, “How do you say your name?” He barked out. He reminded me of my father when he got particularly angry.
My voice trembled as I replied.
The man raised his eyebrows, scoffed, and shook his head in disbelief. There were a few more giggles. He ticked my name off the list.
So, Geeta I became: half the size of my original name, and much easier to pronounce. Teachers looked relieved at the name change, crossing out the other half of my name on their list and smiling at me as they said it back with confidence: Geeta.
But somehow that still didn’t change everything as easily as I hoped. As the years went on, sometimes my parents would forget to put ‘Geeta’ as a nickname, and the first day of classes would become a panicking nightmare for me. I’d even go to classes early, to tell the teacher how to say my name. But still, there’d be a few mess-ups. There’d be days throughout the school year, when a new teacher would appear, and they’d visibly double take at my name, or let out a flustered laugh as they saw it on their roll call.
And each time, without fail, everyone in the class would turn to me, with knowing smirks – because who else in the class had a name like mine, that was mispronounced as often as mine was?
“— Geeta! Geeta Sharma!” I’d begin calling out, bolting my arm up, so the teacher could see me, and sparing them the embarrassment of butchering my name. This was always particularly funny to my classmates to, and after a while, I’d go along with the joke – even though it wasn’t very humorous to me.
Everyone in my classes always grinned at me. I was cool, and calm. A name was just a name. “Sorry-,” the teacher would go to apologise sometimes, after mispronouncing, or asking me to repeat my own name again for them.
“Don’t worry about it.” I’d reply, breezily. “It doesn’t matter.”
So, even the nickname ‘Geeta’ started to become difficult as well. Some teachers would have the roll call in front of them and still say ‘Jeeta?’ or ‘Greeta’? It was an ongoing joke for my classmates, and I tried to play along. But each time, it was more disheartening: how many times could adults get my name wrong?
As the years went by, I became Geeta. To the point where friends and coworkers would sometimes see my full name ‘Geetanjali Sharma’, and they’d be surprised.
“Wait what- is that your name?” They’d ask in surprise. When I’d nod, they’d look at me as if waiting for this cool party trick: “Say it for me. Oh, please, please! Say it for me! Wow, what a beautiful name!”
I began to hate my name – shame and humiliation burning within me. When my older brother would say ‘Geetanjali’ in front of my friends, I’d immediately pinch him. I didn’t want anybody to know, or hear.
But things changed.
When Uzoamaka Aduba, or ‘Crazy Eyes’ from Orange is The New Black did an interview for Improper Bostonian, it was the first time I read about a Hollywood celebrity mentioning their name, and how different it was.
“… In grade school, because my last name started with an A, I was the first in roll call, and nobody ever knew how to pronounce it. So I went home and asked my mother if I could be called Zoe. I remember she was cooking, and in her Nigerian accent she said, “Why?” I said, “Nobody can pronounce it.” Without missing a beat, she said, “If they can learn to say Tchaikovsky and Michelangelo and Dostoyevsky, they can learn to say Uzoamaka.”
When the leading actress for Disney’s film Moana, Auli’I Cravahlo, stood on the red carpet, correcting every reporter and paparazzi that dared say her name wrong. Her strength was inspiring. How many times had I let people say my name wrong, just because I didn’t want to come across as rude?
When stand up comedian Hasan Minhaj, discussed his own name in an interview with Vogue Magazine. I remember feeling a deep pang within me when he described about an audition process where he slated for the camera- only for the producers and camera crew to continuously mispronounce his name still. ‘It doesn’t matter’, he told them, and it felt like he was repeating exactly what a 13-year-old Geetanjali had said numerous times before: It doesn’t matter.
My brother read a piece of my published work recently, and I remember he was surprised that I’d signed it off with merely ‘G’. He sent me a text message. I stared at it for a long time, and it shifted something within me. It’s my favourite message I’ve ever received in my life:
“You shouldn’t use ‘G’ as your own name. You are Geetanjali Sharma. And one day another little girl will see your name next to your writing, and it will mean something to her that an Indian girl with a 10-letter first name is writing and using her full name.”
He was right. I am Geetanjali Sharma.
I don’t know where the courage came from, but at work, when customers look at my name badge and say ‘Jeeta’ or ‘Greeta’, suddenly; I’ve started chiming in, to interrupt them.
“Actually, it’s Geeta.”
“Oh!” they’ll blink in surprise, then nod, and take it in their stride. “Of course. Geeta.”
Each time I correct them, I feel like I take a piece of myself back, finally. Maybe one day I’ll have enough pieces to say, “Actually, it’s Geetanjali.”
Geetanjali Sharma is a freelance writer.