A name to weave my identities

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Penang rojak - Photograph: Wikipedia

My Malay-sounding Urdu name makes me as Malaysian as rojak is and as rojak as Malaysia is, says Yasmin Bathamanathan.

I was named after the fruit of Kashmir – Cherry. My parents met in Srinagar, the summer capital of Jammu and Kashmir. There they fell in love as students, got married and conceived me.

“I bore you for five months in Kashmir, and ate nothing but cherries,” my mother would weave my tale. “It was no surprise when you were born that you came out so red and round. Just like a cherry.”

In kindergarten, I used to get into trouble with the teachers for I insisted on writing my name as “Cherry”. Only back then I would spell it “Cheery”, perhaps a subconscious attempt at injecting some exuberance into my extremely shy and anti-social three-year-old self. (Yes, my overachieving parents sent me to kindergarten at the age of three, not nursery. Poor parents, they had big plans for me.)

“That is not your name!” exclaimed one teacher after seeing two pages filled with repetitions of C-H-E-E-R-Y. Instead, she wrote down a word that seemed more preposterous than spelling “Cherry” with a single-E and double-R.

Mortified, I remember vehemently arguing with her that my name was “Cherry” and that she should check with my parents. What I do not remember is bringing up the name confusion with my parents. And so I lived the next few years blissfully as “Cherry”.

It was only in Standard One that I came to the full realisation that my real name was “Yasmin”. It did not click when I received my passport the year before nor when we took the family trip to India. Surely the name “Yasmin” must have popped up a few times.

But I remained oblivious, though in retrospect I think it was my stubbornness and rebellious streak that was fighting this name that I did not pick or even like, but forced to take on.

The convent school I went to for 11 years of my life was where I first made Malay friends and learnt the Malay language. It was also where I learnt to hate my name with renewed vigour.

School was where I found out that to be named “Yasmin” meant being at the end of the class come roll call or exam time for “Y” is almost at the very end of the alphabet. That “Yasmin” is decidedly a Malay name, and what am I, a non-Malay, doing with that name.

My name marked me as different from all my other Indian friends, more so than the way I looked. I was always a question-mark, a “What are you?” no matter where I went or whom I talked to.

“Are you dan lain-lain?” some would ask, and on most days I wished I could answer yes – for I did feel very much dan lain-lain.

Yet it was in those first years of primary school that I learned to distinguish between “pet name” and “real name”. I was beginning to have different social circles – family, school friends and family friends, and soon enough, I had two different identities – “Cherry” to family and “Yasmin” to the world, for as I grew older, I would discover the many ways the name “Yasmin” defined who I am.

My parents, it would seem, were well ahead of the whole ethnically ambiguous, Asian fusion game.

My Indian Punjabi Christian mother and my Malaysian Tamil Hindu father named me in Urdu, a language my mother was fluent in and I suppose my father understood nominally. “Yasmin” was a name that was as familiar on my mother’s tongue as it was foreign on my father’s, yet it was the name that resonated with the land that we as a family would call home.

My name traces its history back to the days when India was ruled by the Moghul Empire, where Urdu thrived as the language of the ruling and educated class. My Urdu name is reminiscent of the days before the Partition when Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs and Christians lived and worked together, when Punjab was still whole and the home of my maternal ancestors was considered to be in India, not Pakistan.

In as much as my name reflects the heritage of my motherland, it also ties me to my homeland. My decidedly Malay-sounding Urdu name connects me to this land I call home, a name that I share with thousands of my Malay and Muslim sisters, a name that I share with Malaysia’s cinematic legend, the late Yasmin Ahmad.

My Malay-sounding Urdu name makes me as Malaysian as rojak is and as rojak as Malaysia is.

My name, just like me, is a sum of all my identities, and though I might always have to play the “what are you?” game, I am proud of “Yasmin”. For “Yasmin” is a name that embodies what it means to be “dan lain-lain” while being Malaysian.

Source: The Malaysian Insider

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