What’s In A Name? A Lot.

Recently, I read of a Norwegian bus driver, whose name is a nine-word-long Nordic appellation. My name is nowhere near as complicated as that. But depending on where you live, it could sound either like a wacky tongue twister or a mellifluous Bengali name. Which, it is.

You might think that with a name like “Alakananda Mookerjee,” and being a newspaper reporter in moneyed, waspish, American small towns, I wouldn’t have got a single callback from my sources. My bylines would’ve had to be fuzzed out.

But so far, barring the occasional typo in a couple of e-mails, Americans haven’t mutilated my name. If I have signed off as “Alakananda,” then in a reply, that’s what I’ve been addressed.

But Indians—whom you’d expect to be familiar with other Indian names—have spelled my name variously. I find it hard to catch the humor in it, especially, because I always take the time to spell everyone’s name correctly. Also, I tailor the tone of my e-mail communication to suit my audience.

Recently, my friend, Sharmila Mukherjee, reached out to a professor at the University of Chicago to get a backgrounder on a story she was working on. The busy-bee academic in question, whom I can’t name, is Indian, a woman, and a Bengali, for good measure.

She signed off as “Sharmila.” Wouldn’t you expect a response that was similar in tone? This is what she received: “Dear Sharmila Mukherjee.”

The only other times she’s heard that has been from: (1) a Caucasian gentleman, based in Fargo, North Dakota, who wasn’t sure whether she was a man, woman, or anything in between; (2) telemarketers, selling her car insurance; and (3) corporate direct-mailers.

Sharmila still wrote to her saying: “I am a bit intrigued by your mode of address. If I have the privilege of crossing e-mail paths with you in the future, you could address me as Sharmila or Ms. Mukherjee. I’d feel more at home with that.”

Wouldn’t you expect her to readjust her salutation after that note? Sharmila’s correspondent wrote back: “Sure, Sharmila, then (if I may). Do please let me know once your article is out.”

“If I may?” Seriously?


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