Sunday, May 10, 2009


A couple of days back, I along with my friend LM, went to a sports bar in San Jose, which I must say on a side note, has urinals designed to either torment claustrophobic men or to discourage horizontally larger men from using it. But lest our minds linger in the toilet for too long, let me move on to the actual story.

There was a live band playing and people were dancing. Just in case you are wondering why the live band was playing in the toilet, it was not. I am done with the toilet. We are outside now, in the bar. As LM and I were sipping our drinks, he pointed out to me a woman dancing in white shorts (henceforth referred to as White Shorts). To put it quite mildly, he expressed to me an interest in her. I think White Shorts may have also had a similar interest in him, because very soon I found her next to where we were standing. But of course with clearly bad timing, LM somehow disappeared when she came by. So as a good friend, I had to stall her there somehow until LM came back. So I started talking to White Shorts and in the middle of the conversation, which actually should more aptly be described as shouting into each others ears due to the loud music, I realised that I had not introduced myself. So I told her, "By the way, I am Jai." Her response was a baffling "That's ok." Her tone was a consolatory tone. After a few moments of staring at her with a puzzled expression, my brain deciphered her response. She had heard, "By the way, I am gay." The next few minutes I went into great lengths clarifying her misunderstanding of my name and my sexual orientation.

I used to think that Jai was a simpler version of my name, especially for people who were unfamiliar with Indian names. Many Indians have also addressed me by Jai because it is shorter, easier and does the job just as well. I am also partial to the name because my wife addresses me as Jai too. I was slightly relieved when the music composer for Slumdog Millionaire, A.R. Rehman got an Oscar and the song 'Jai ho' became somewhat popular (or so I thought). I had hoped this song would make 'Jai' be easily recognized around the world. But alas, not in the bar. Jai, which actually means victory was converted to homosexuality. I have nothing against gay people, but like most of us, I don't want to be known as something I am not.

Since we are on the subject of names, my last name has also been mispronounced by almost every non-Indian. My last name is as common in India as Smith is in the English world. My last name is actually more of a community name rather than a last name. It is so common that it even has a long wikipedia entry. The correct pronunciation of my last name rhymes with 'buyer'. The 'a' is like the 'a' in 'car' and 'ir' is pronounced like 'ear'. I have no idea why the original word was never spelt clear enough in English for proper pronunciation. And then fate dealt a cruel blow to my last name when some bright chap in the beauty business came up with the word 'Nair' for their hair-removal product. 'No Hair = Nair' and it rhymes with hair. And that is how many people pronounce my last name. The souls of my Nair ancestors must be writhing in agony every time our supposedly warrior community is reduced to a hair-remover.

I must say though that the same logic goes for most names. Every name can be mistreated and every name has an equal opportunity to be funny or offensive in some other language. You can rest assured that the chances of your name meaning something you don't want it to mean is quite high. I know of a fairly common Swedish name which is the word for male gentalia in Hindi.

But the good thing about the US is that it is a melting pot. Here we have the largest variety of names. No matter how different your name, people get used to it. There is no bigger testimony to this than the name of the US President. Barrack Obama - a first and last name, very very few people in this country can claim to have ever heard of before but now sounds so natural. Never will there be another Barrack or another Obama whose name will be considered wierd. Since I have the utmost confidence that I will never be famous, I am waiting for a Jai or Jaideep or Nair to take the world by storm so that the likes of me can reap the small benefits of sharing his name anywhere we live.