It’s funny the little things that stick in your mind. I was in the back of a cab with my friend Denise, decades ago, when we were both young TV researchers. The driver was having a bit of a flirt, and asked us our names. “Sheela and Denise,” I replied with my London twang. He checked us out again in his mirror, as we sat there: two young Asian women, brown skin, black hair. My parents are Indian and my friend’s father was Sri Lankan. The driver thought we were having him on. How could we both be called such ridiculously English names?
His incredulity stuck with me. I can see our younger, twentysomething selves now: confident in who we were, no longer ashamed of our colour and of our background. We had left behind the racism of our childhood (or so we thought) and were proud of being Asian, in quite a political way. The names we had been given spoke of another era, of our parents’ more nervous experience of trying to fit in as new immigrants in Britain.
It’s made me think that our names, as second generation Asians, are full of significance. They tell a multitude of stories and embody not just our experiences in this country, but those of our parents and our ancestors. They contain ghosts of meanings travelling across centuries and continents.
The story of my own name begins on a cool autumnal day in London. I imagine my parents in the hospital ward where I was born in October 1967. As my father tries to think of a name for his newborn daughter, he looks outside through the windows, the leaves a vibrant mix of orange and yellow – he is still getting used to the colours of autumn in Britain. My parents are young and in love. Although they had an arranged marriage, they knew each other from living on the same narrow road, surrounded by ponds and jungle, in small town West Bengal. In an old black-and-white photo my father is looking into the camera, smiling, a bit like a 1950s Indian film star. But now, here they are in the hospital, at the start of a new life together in London. It’s a few months before Enoch Powell’s Rivers of Blood speech. My father has been here for eight years already, on his own – living in freezing lodgings, assiduously learning English, able even to make jokes in this foreign tongue.
But being Indian is hard. No English friends, racism on the streets, and he knows that in his office, many of his colleagues don’t want an Indian working alongside them. So my parents think about how their daughter can have a better life than them, fit in, and not be singled out because of her Indian name. So they call her Sheela, a safe, hybrid name, conveniently English, but also Indian – one that straddles both cultures.
As a child I hated my name. My mum and dad say they partly chose Sheela because the English version, Sheila, was common in Britain in the late 60s. They just changed the spelling, adding an “e” to make it a bit Indian. I associated the name with older English women: dinner ladies in my 70s primary school, patrolling the playground in nylon overalls; school friends’ mothers, with set and curled hair, faded lipstick, and wearing skirts and high heels (my own mother never wore a skirt). These were English women who seemed a world apart from me. I never went inside their houses. But their white skin also evoked feelings of inferiority in me, a seven-year-old Bengali girl, just back from India.
While I didn’t like the English aspect of my name, I was embarrassed by what that double “e” in Sheela symbolised – my own Indian-ness. I was embarrassed by my parents, our food, our language, cringing at the sound of them speaking Bengali to me in public. But as I grew up I began to shed the layers of stigma. I started hanging out with my Bengali friends in west London pubs. I went to college and studied African and Asian studies in the radicalised environment of Sussex University. I started looking back at the world in which I had grown up through a different lens.
I asked my mum about the meaning of Sheela, hoping that it was a proper Indian name. She told me she chose it because of the associations with the Hindu god Shiva and the Bengali word sheel – the long black stone that’s used to pray to him. I remember seeing these black stones everywhere in India when I was a child – in temples, in my grandparents’ prayer room, smeared with sandalwood and garlanded with flowers. In my mid-30s I went back to college to find out more about Hindu philosophy. I discovered how Shiva embodies the mysteriousness of existence and appears in multiple and contradictory guises: he’s formless, limitless and exists within each of us, yet he’s also a householder, a husband with two children, living in heaven with his wife, the goddess Parvati. This was something I could reclaim.
And then there’s my surname, Banerjee, a tiny daily subconscious reminder of 200 years of Empire. It’s not even my original name. In an act of imperial administration, the British changed it from Bandyopadhyay to Banerjee, as they couldn’t be bothered to pronounce it. My altered name is a telling reminder of the power the British wielded over my ancestors and of the ambiguities of the colonial relationship. Banerjees – upper-middle-class Bengalis – often became quite close to the British. They did business with them, were educated in their schooling system, and taught to speak English (like my father and my grandfather before him). My grandfather was the manager of a company which supplied porters and teashops to the British-owned railways. He remained a devout Hindu all his life, but the influence of the British filtered down to his son, my father, who grew up dreaming of coming to England.
The most significant aspect of my surname, however, is that in India it identifies where I belong in the Hindu caste system. My grandparents were devout Brahmins – the name Banerjee, along with others such as Mukherjee, Chatterjee and Bhattacharjee, signified that they belonged to the priestly class, the highest tier of the Bengali caste system. Their name and their whole way of life was an embodiment of this.
When I entered my grandparents’ crumbling old house as a child, I stepped into a timeless world of praying, washing, ritual and arcane Brahminical rules around eating and the preparation of food. My grandmother prayed for hours at a time. Each day she would create a shrine on her marble floor, carefully arranging pictures of gods and goddesses, placing flower petals in front of each one, filling the room with incense smoke and the sounds of her Sanskrit prayers.
My grandparents were proud of their Banerjee name, but I feel extremely conflicted about it. I loved many aspects of their Hindu belief system but, unsurprisingly, I hate the caste system. They couldn’t help but live within its moral and philosophical universe, but for me it’s one of the most cruel and extreme systems of social segregation. I have been brought up in this country, I don’t feel privileged – I’m Asian, I went to a state school. I’m always railing against the white Oxbridge public school types who dominate the media and academia in which I work. But my Brahmin family would have been part of an oppressive ruling class, and my name is intrinsically connected to that.
I sometimes wonder if we are our names to some extent; like all words, they contain residues of power. Do I contain traces of the unearned social entitlement conferred by my name? Even further back in time, being a Banerjee, a Brahmin, means that we must have been Aryan invaders who crossed mountains and rivers in central Asia, fought and pillaged our way through harsh terrain and subjugated the original inhabitants of India – the Dravidians.
As I walk around 21st-century London, a British Asian, feeling the sun on my face, does my name bring to this moment characteristics and behaviours from that long distant past? Do I contain, through my name, traces of people I have never met, values transmitted through centuries?
Sheel: a dark black stone to call forth Shiva; Sheila, Latin meaning Caelia; “I’ve got an Auntie Sheila”; “Is it like the Irish Shelagh?”; Banerjee, Bandyopadhyay, priest, invader – meanings cascading endlessly through time. My name tells stories of metaphysics, power, exploitation and subjugation. Sometimes this was inflicted on us, sometimes we inflicted it on others, and the twists and turns of these histories are still visible, like a palimpsest, within my name.